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To evil, or not to evil...

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Yora, Jan 16, 2020.

  1. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    I approach storytelling, even in fantasy, from an existentialist perspective. Which crucially centers around the idea that there are no objective or universally correct judgements. Even if there is a creator god, what gives that god the authority to force his opinion of right and wrong on everyone else?

    Which leads to the problem of Evil.

    If there is no universally correct, objective measure of good and evil, and this is part of the believe system of the people of Fantasyland, would they be using the word Evil?

    You can of course still have people believe that there are things that only cause harm to everyone and are completely unnecessary, which never makes them justifiable. But that is still a personal judgement, even when 90% of all people agree on it. It's not objectively wrong.

    A more practical reason why I don't like the term Evil is that it's a very easy simplification that can effortlessly free characters of any need to consider the reasoning of their enemies. If they do something that is evil, then they are evil. And if they are evil, they are 100% wrong. Which means we can just kill them all and be right in doing so.

    Is there any way to have characters talk about actions which are almost universally regarded as revolting and needlessly cruel without using the term evil?
     
  2. MrNybble

    MrNybble Troubadour

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    Point of view is a determining factor here. What one person will see as an action to do the most good will be seen by others as wrong. If somebody sees something as wrong it's dangerous. Dangerous things are a threat and given a simple term to deal with. Evil is the most common label to give something in that case.

    If you have a famine problem do you let people starve to death and let the strongest survive, kill off the weak so there are fewer mouths to feed, or steal food from a neighboring area? Most people are simple and will give any choice the label of evil because people will get hurt or die no matter what. You can give Evil flamboyant descriptors that reduce the simpleness.

    I have an assassin that doesn't see themselves as evil. Just a hired tool that does the bidding of others. Sees themselves like a sword or gun that doesn't do things unless others want it done. They do jobs that kill mafia members and ones that harm children. An unbiased equal opportunity contracted killer.
     
  3. pmmg

    pmmg Auror

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    People use words all the time that allude to things they do not personally believe. Why would this be any different? If there is a concept, and common word, and it gets used a lot, it will get used by people of all makes just because its the common, most accessible term. When you add to that that words only mean what we all universally agree that they mean, a word like evil can be shaped to right word in the circumstance above.
     
  4. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Here's the really weird thing: from my experience, fantasy novels almost never have characters talking about evil. I don't remember the last time I encountered that word in a fantasy novel. I'm sure it's happened. But the thing is, most of the time the evil goes without saying, heh. It's left in the minds of the readers, for the readers to decide. To me, Voldemort never seemed evil—he's more like a force of nature, like a snake that can't be other than its nature—but Dolores Umbridge and Bellatrix Lestrange seemed evil. Especially Umbridge. This is despite the fact that intellectually Umbridge seemed more like an opportunist I hated rather than the embodiment of evil—never mind, she was an evil to be hated, lol. (I still think she is one of the best villains of any book I've ever read.)

    Generally, in-world the characters have reasons to oppose this or that person or force. "He must be stopped!" Etc. But they don't label the person as evil, from my experience. Maybe I just don't read those books...
     
  5. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    Whatever you do, don’t touch the concentrated Evil. It ain’t pretty.

    Even if there’s a creator god by what authority? That’s just humorous. It would be only through the authority of said creative power that you are given free will to question that being’s authority.

    There is evil, and Evil, and lesser evils... which show up a lot at the ballot box. But then again I have no problem reading about blacks and whites and grays and lots of pretty and not so pretty colors. I like evil. Voldemort is a wussy. Then again, so is Harry.

    Another weird notion is that evil doesn’t see itself as evil... really? Why the hell not? If I ever followed through with the evil thoughts in my head I would OWN it. If I pushed the shiny, red, candy-like button knowing it would destroy the universe, and it turned out there was a devil prodding my posterior with a pitchfork... I’d be like, yeah, shit, I deserve it. Bring on the brimstone.
     
    pmmg likes this.
  6. pmmg

    pmmg Auror

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  7. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Inkling

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    If 'good and evil' is too loaded for your taste, or doesn't work for your characters, then something a bit more neutral like 'right and wrong' might. A folk who don't believe in evil (or morality?) might still see things as ethical or unethical, or something along those lines---the rules of life, so to speak. I've had no problem with bringing up the concept of evil in my stuff but then it's my stuff and it is a subject that interests me.
     
  8. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    I got this idea of characters saying villains have a black heart orna red heart. Black when they act without concern for the harm it will do to others, and red when they deliberately cause harm out of anger or fun.

    I feel it's a bit clunky to use in speech, but I am still considering if that might actually benefit the story. It doesn't come as easily off the tongue as "evil wizard", "evil monster", or "evil sword". But then, the whole idea is that characters don't make such statements reflexively without thinking.

    Greedy, cruel, murderous, or tyrannical are adjectives that get similar impressions across, but refer to specific failings and are not sweeping statements. (In my world, greed is harmful and destructive.)
     
  9. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    You might consider going with less common color words. Pitch, ebony, coal; scarlet, crimson. Or with an associated stone, such as obsidian or ruby.

    Adding "heart" works well, imo. That was a blackhearted deed. That man is redhearted through and through. Something like that. When the characters start using the phrase, the reader will fall in with it.
     
  10. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    I know it's en vogue right now to avoid "good and evil" in fiction because of nuance or perspective or whatever but every culture, philosophy and worldview that has ever been has some concept of evil (save for crazy nonsense like nihilism but those are the exceptions not the rules).
    I also have trouble believing that everyone will think it's an all or nothing deal. Like a person or thing is either all good or all bad. I can't imagine reasonable people thinking that. I think it's pretty obvious that everyone has a mix of good and evil in them but for them to have that mix, good and evil need to exist conceptually.

    And really "evil" has always just been a simplified umbrella term for other things: sinister, harmful, corrupting, chaotic, ignorant, the list goes on. Surely the Fantasylandians must have some notion that there are unsavory elements of people's behavior.
     
  11. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    That's my thinking, also.

    But most of the characters I encounter don't philosophize on the nature of all that, heh. They aren't having the same discussion we are having. Much of the time, long debates about this (around the campfire or in court) aren't going to solving anything; they just act.
     
  12. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    I think the idea of how the characters within the story views the concept of evil in contrast to how the writer or audience views evil is worth noting. In my WIP, I have a character who is acknowledged as being "pure evil". And that's made interesting in that the other characters aren't exactly saints so they don't really dwell on these high minded philosophical ideas. And that creates an intrigue in how these characters define "evil" and how does this one character personifies that concept.
    There's an urgency to my characters (and I suppose yours) when they acknowledge a character or whatever that strikes them as "evil". And that kind of urgency is useful to writers, I suppose.
     
  13. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Maybe this depends on the types of story we are most likely to read and/or write.

    The villains and their henchmen and even the random baddies in the stories I read are typically threatening someone, multiple someones, some place, or a status quo—or have already destroyed or stolen someone/something valuable, perhaps a combination—and the heroes or protagonist fights against them because of this, not because "evil, and evil must be destroyed." If Villain X is threatening the destruction of home and hearth and beloved, then Villain X must be stopped. It's not a question of calling Villain X evil first or even seeing evil so much as seeing a significant threat.

    This is why I somewhat agreed with your earlier statement about the umbrella nature of "evil." It may be I as a reader would experience a particular character as being evil, whether I thought in terms of that word or just had the general feeling about that character. But would the in-world characters approach or think of the concept during the course of the story?

    I guess I'm saying "evil, and evil must be destroyed" doesn't feel like a great motivator for characters, at least for me.

    That said, there is potential in exploring this idea via irony, hypocrisy, etc., if an author wants to do so by having characters contemplate the nature of evil or outright label someone else as evil. There could be either, comedy or tragedy, via that route. It's just I don't see much of that in the tales I tend to read.

     
    Yora likes this.
  14. Alex Reiden

    Alex Reiden Minstrel

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    But if your enemy isn't evil, how can you live with yourself after you kill him? Therefore, he must be evil... err, was evil.
     
  15. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    "Kill them all" is absolutely a thing. Genocides are not exactly something particularly rare.

    Since I noticed that most war scenes in movies seem completely suicidial, I've had an interest in learning to understand how weapons actually work and are actually used by soldiers. Trying to learn something about guns is always extremely cringy because you constantly run into posts and articles by American gun nuts or arms manufacturers praising the qualities of their latest toys. And in that pew pew community, the universal standard term for people you would shot at is "Bad Guys".
    It's such a playful sounding term, that at the same time strips them of any distinguishing traits and completely ignores any kind of context or motivation. There is nothing to know about them, no questions to ask. They are bad, that's enough justification to shot them or blow them up in whatever creative way you fancy.

    Absolutely an option. But this is also part of the reason this subject matters to me so much. Irony and hypocrisy have been dominating fiction in general and fantasy specifically for the last decades. Good and evil are almost entirely approached either ironically or cynically, which kind of dismisses the question. I barely ever see anyone really making a commited stand to be good and entirely reject some things as never acceptable under any circumstances. We have so many stories about protagonists doing bad things because they think it's necessary, or cooperating with people doing bad things because they need something from them.

    And yes, there is a contradiction that has been at the center of existentialist philosophy for the last hundred years: If you reject objective, "god-given" morals of good and evil, how do you decide right or wrong, and justify why others should follow your example?

    Great internal conflict for protagonists. Perhaps the only one that really matters.
     
    James Wilson likes this.
  16. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Troubadour

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    I think you can actually use our own world as a perfect example. There is no objective, universal judgement in our world, and yet, we have the concepts of good and evil. All the values of the different religions worldwide existed before those religions came into existence. Those religions simply codified those rules.

    Humans are tribal by nature. We've evolved to live in a group and to associate attributes with that group. There's an us vs them mentality ingrained in our DNA because that's helped us survive. And the idea of good and evil comes from that. Us is good and them is evil.

    Also, how many truly evil things exist in our own world? I can't think of enough real examples to justify making up a term. And yet, we have. Like Alex ReidenAlex Reiden said, it's an easy justification for lots of things when the other side is evil.
     
  17. pmmg

    pmmg Auror

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    Somehow, I suspect there are more than a few who will argue differently. But I would say is a difficulty of a world with no objective, universal judgment to come up with justification for any sort of morality, or moral classification on human endeavors. Since the OP is attempting to display such a world, concepts like good/evil begin to encounter the difficulty.

    I would argue, that regardless of the true state of the universe (is there an ultimate judge or not), people are diverse and will come to believe in Gods and creators whether they are there or not. And so, the morality, and thus the concept would still form organically from the evolution of peoples. So, I would see nothing unusual about calling something evil in a world where characters don't believe in evil. I would find something unusual about a world that did not though. I could not imagine universal acceptance of that understanding. The post above arrives at the same destination, I don't think it would be out of place for a character with a non-objective truth outlook to use the term. He may still feel something's are just wrong, even if he does not know why. This would be along the same lines of a atheist crying 'God!" when hitting their thumb with a hammer. Does not mean they believe in God, only that its was the best word that came to mind.
     
  18. pmmg

    pmmg Auror

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    Don't you think those who market and enjoy guns are not really talking about there war uses? Their scenario is one where the morality of shooting would not be in question, such as a home invasion, or robbery in progress. In war, things appear kind of suicidal to me. That whole period between Napoleon and WW1, which includes the American Revolution and the American Civil war, seems crazy to me. Stand in an line and let them shoot at you? That seems suicidal. And if you ever saw the field at Gettysburg, you would have to think what was Gen. Lee thinking, thinking he could cross that field.

    I think in war, you are just trying to kill the other guys cause they are trying to kill you. Moral ambiguity is not in question. They don't have to be evil, they just have to be the other team. Reasons leading up to war may have one thinking they are evil though.

    Painting ones opponents as evil certainly helps with creating a justification for war. Them actually being evil helps with that.
     
  19. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    I strongly disagree but pmmg already covered my disagreement so I’ll instead point-out that different religious systems seem to identify different things as “the great big evil thing”.

    In Taoism, “evil” is taken to evolve from discord and disharmony between opposing/opposite forces. Hence, “balance” is the great Good in the universe. And hence, why yin yang is such a major concept in the belief system.

    In Christianity, “evil” is tied deeply to the idea of corruption. That’s why sin is such a big deal: because it’s a corrupting influence on people. That’s why the devil is always seen as a fallen angel. He was supposed to be the second biggest good guy but then he went bad.
    There’s an idea that “purity” is the great Good while corruption is the big evil. Then there’s also a big emphasis on personal redemption and salvation but that all ties into the pure vs. corruption thing.

    Then Buddhism has its beef with “illusions” and egotism and Gnosticism has its thing with materialism and so on and so forth.

    So, I don’t believe that the notion of “evil” really evolved from a need for an us-them dynamic. It seems more like ancient people recognized that there’s a better way for life to work (purity, balance, selflessness, enlightenment, etc) and then there’s a worse way life could work (corrupted, chaotic, selfish, ignorant, etc).
     
  20. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    But does Buddhism and Taoism talk about evil? It's been some time since I've read academic texts about buddhist philosophy and I've never looked deeply into Taoism, but I don't think their concepts of what is wrong are very similar to our concept of evil.
     
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