Thursday, March 5, 2009


I like complicated characters and complicated stories. Real life, I've often suspected, is complicated as well. This got me thinking about my antagonists (sorry main characters, you're up against more than one).

How bad is TOO bad? How evil is TOO evil? Can everything be forgiven? Can anything? Murder? Dishonesty Cruelty? Swearing? Stealing?

This was, in part, the subject of Ian McEwan's excellent Atonement. What is forgivable and what is not. And -- to my mind this is more interesting -- the wracked mental gymnastics people go through as they struggle to either defend what they have done, or to overcome it.

Don't get me wrong: it's useful to my story to have pure and black-hearted bad guys who do evil things because they are evil, and they are evil because they do evil things, and they love evil because they are evil.

But why? And what happens if they change?

Complexity; second thoughts; regret; atonement; revenge; forgiveness. These are the colors that add depth to the story.


Peter S said...

Alan Moore, writer of some of the best graphic novels ever, had some interesting things to say about evil in Salon here:

I was intrigued by his comments about some evil-doers that are really tortured souls that are more deserving of pity than hatred. His multi-layered characters are never pure good or evil, which makes his stories so much more dynamic.

Babs said...

I think there are characters/people who struggle with their "evilness" but there is usually a driving force that makes them continue being evil; i.e. greed, revenge, anger, and they do not seem to have the inner drive or motivation to change that. Then, I believe, there really are people who are so pathological that there really is no redemption or desire for change. Unfortunately, I need to believe that those people suffer from some untreatable mental illness. I do know, however, as a reader, I need to be reassured that the good guys win in the end and the bad guys "get their due" even if in the real world that doesn't always happen, as we all know.

S R Wood said...

Peter -- That is interesting; I had never encountered Alan Moore. Yes, complexity is interesting and more real. Sorry, Gargamel!

"Babs" - The scary thing is when we consider that the driving force, so convenient to blame on an external cause, comes from within and has as its origin not some nasty pathology but the very human impulses we all carry. Seeds of darkness, in a sense. Naturally that an unpopular viewpoint since readers then see themselves in the villains. But then wouldn't they also be buoyed by redemption?

Babs said...

Good point and thought provoking. The difficulty with pathology is--since we all have similar internal impulses and drives, why aren't all of us moved to do horrific things? How do we explain what "triggers" some and not others? That's what makes character development so interesting. My question is--do significantly evil people/characters ever really change or simply put on a pretense of change?