Good and Evil

Good and Evil

A Lesson by Matthew Smith

In fantasy, the line between "good" and "evil" is commonly seen. But what if it isn't so easily noticeable?


So.  Good and evil.  In fantasy, this is one of the biggest things you'll have to deal with.  It is, quite possibly, the thing.  I mean, what would Lord of the Rings be without Sauron and his minions?  I can tell you exactly what:  a bunch of hobbits that enjoy taking very long hikes--hobbits with an eye for bling, at that.  That doesn't sound very interesting, does it?  No antagonist, no story, that's Writing 101.

But there is a line, sometimes it's very clear-cut, sometimes its vague.  The tall guy wrapped in darkness, covered in spiked plate, eyes of flame?  That guy is evil.  Avoid him, unless you happen to have a knight-in-shinning armor tucked away somewhere in your repertoire of characters.  The white-bedecked elf sitting astride a majestic horse, a glowing sword in hand?  Yup, he's good, but he would need the archetypal nemesis.  The differences between good and evil is, quite literally, just like day and night.  Fantasy has always been really good with that.  If you are going to have one, you have to have the other.  Cause/effect, cause/effect, the push and the motion.

Some writers, though, make you scratch your head and think about who might just be the villain.  Trust me, these sorts of stories tend to be the best.  Take George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire.  The man is an expert at killing your favorite characters, presenting villains, even twisting those villains into point-of-view characters.  At that point, you realize they aren't so bad.  They're simply human.  Some writers aim for this--to blur the boundary of moral bias.  Just like real people, there is always a darkness lurking somewhere.  These are the best characters--ones you know aren't evil, but are capable of moral flaw.  The reader can connect with flawed heroes much easier.

The most readily available, well-known example is Frodo.  Yes, Tolkien had a very clear-cut line between good and evil.  Frodo, for all intents and purposes, was the good guy, but began to submit to the urge to use the Ring.  Good ol' flaws--and as he did so, he became more possessive of the One Ring.  The story would have been lame if he had powered through the whole adventure without some sort of...curiosity.

Here are some questions you might want to ask yourself when outfitting your world for some good ol' fashion light/dark showdowns:

1.  Does true good and true evil exist?  Are any characters the epitome of either?  Are there gods that reflect these moral stances?
2.  If so, how does your evil antagonist move the story forward?  Does the villain want something?  Is the villain a ruler?  Perhaps an evil ruler is simply the stereotypical oppressive king?  Is the main character (or characters) out for revenge?  In what way does this antagonist effect the story?  Does he/she have minions?
3.  If you are aiming for a more realistic feel--why are they evil?  Are they true evil?  Were they always evil?  What turned them evil?  Was it personal?  Were they corrupted?
4.  Were they always evil?  Refer to above question. 
5.  Is main character (and/or party) good?  Are they bastions of the light or simple examples of humanity?
6.  If so, do they have flaws?  Like any real person, a character should have something that makes him less than perfect.  Perfect is boring.
7.  Have they ever committed atrocious acts in the past?  Perhaps a character is the epitome of good because he is repentant?  Perhaps like a veteran of some war whose actions have caused him to vehemently strive for good?  Perhaps it drove him to heightened faith.  Consider a holy man in your story--say he's a drunkard, a womanizer (possibly) but still a good man.  One could hide this fact until an appropriate revealing point in the story.  The reader would have to decide whether or not to continue liking such a character.
8.  Why are they good?
9.  How do the good guys move the story forward? 
Are they crusading for some righteous cause?  Are they on a quest to dispel some evil, or are they simply doing what they do best?  In the case of one of my own stories (I don't post my fantasy writing on WC), the central characters were loud, boisterous mercenaries, living their lives, doing their job, getting paid.  Eventually a conflict of evil and good came into it and one of the main characters, a disinherited noble's son, went from an example of realistic righteousness to down-right gritty evil--but not without an outside influence.
10.  Do the forces of good and evil (if divided as such) always butt heads?  Are you going to have the stereotypical good versus evil?  I mean, you could go with that.  It's just the common thing to do.  Or, perhaps, your realistically good characters, built of human flaw and vice, decide to battle evil with evil?  A good example of this is in the movie Chronicles of Riddick.  Riddick, a wild, brutish man (though not evil), combats true evil.  That true evil, however, was not evil in their own eyes, only in those of normal living people--they were simply doing what they thought best. They were bringing people into their flock, all the while moving to their promised home.

It's always a good idea to blur the line.  Remember this, dear reader, and you'll have your readers setting down your book (or lowering their browser) to wonder what the f**k just happened.

Good luck!

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Posted 5 Years Ago

Tasty tips here and because I'm currently giving birth to a new fantasy piece and I am developing characters as I write I want to make it as interesting as possible when it comes to their stance on good and evil. Many have taking the true good and true evil stance but that isn't as realistic as possible good/evil technique. I think I'll let this one stick because it was a real eye opener.
Thank you!
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Matthew Smith
Matthew Smith

Thereabouts, OH

Hello, I'm Matthew Smith. I write. I read. My main-stay genres are fantasy, science fiction, horror, and historical fiction. I haven't been on this site for a long time. I plan on revamping m..