What is Evil?

>> Sunday, May 31, 2009

One of the struggles I have as a writer is providing "bad guys." I'm not saying I'm all peaches and cream myself and many of my protagonists have bite, have shadows, sharp tongues, quick tempers and violent tendencies. But they are not, at least in my mind, evil.

But I need a line, at least in my own mind, between my "good guys" and my "bad guys." Sometimes, but not always, the bad guys are truly "evil" but other times, in my opinion, they are not evil so much as misguided, or selfish or intolerant - which can look a lot like evil and can generally do for most books.

Is there a difference? So, if we're talking villains, how do we determine "evil?" That thought is rather helped along by the fact that "evil" actions, i.e. morally reprehensible, can occur without "evil" results, i.e. causing harm and vice versa. Best intentions, even intended good, can still lead to evil results.

So, how do you draw the line between evil and not evil?

Well, first, I don't think one can draw a definitive line. I mean, I think most people have a line or series of lines in their own heads. I know I do and you'll see them in my books (assuming they every get published). But I'm not sure that anyone can draw a definitive line. Oh, I think there are things that most would agree were over the line, but that area between evil and not evil isn't, in my opinion, black and white.

Ironically, in my opinion, a great deal of evil is done by those that have a line they feel applies to everyone. And, in order to enforce it, they often cross it. Like my picture up there, Tomás de Torquemada, famously described by the Spanish chronicle Sebastián de Olmedo as "The hammer of heretics, the light of Spain, the saviour of his country, the honour of his order".

You may not be surprised to find the latter often on the opposite side of my protagonists.


  • musingwoman

    Interesting that you're writing about this! Just yesterday I came across the book, The Science of Good and Evil, by Michael Shermer and now want to read it more than ever.

  • The Mother

    The eternal conflict of good and evil is writ large on the eternal foisting of religious fervor on the world at large.

    Not that all evil is caused by religious fervor. But a whole lot of it is. And these folks, ostensibly, were absolutely convinced of their righteousness while perpetrating said evil.

    I don't think we need go back to the Inquisitors to find this dichotomy, either. Try the 911 bombers. Or the guy who killed Dr. Tiller this weekend.

  • Stephanie B

    Agreed. One reason I pointed this out is that there are always people talking about lines that should apply to all, but then the same folks who look for that universal line, are often the ones quickest to cross it for the "greater good" - think torture or people who have beaten gays.

    Sadly, you're not wrong about the spate of recent examples.

  • FishHawk

    It is fashionable now to portray heroes with great flaws, and vili
    ans with many good traits. This is, of course, the way it is often is in real life, but when I want to be entertained, I am wanting to escape real life as much as possible--not be reminded of it. Am I really such a minority these days?

  • Phyl

    I think it's plausible to write evil characters -- but part of the plausibility almost has to be that they're seeking something they think is positive.

    That doesn't even have to mean that they're trying to achieve the "greater good" by a misguided means. It can also mean that they want to acquire something good for themselves, to the exclusion of all others and not caring how others might get hurt.

    I think that element -- that they're seeking something of value, even if it's only for themselves -- is what makes evil characters plausible rather than cartoon characters. I don't know that it's possible for anyone to seek evil because it's evil. Unless they're insane, perhaps.

  • Stephanie B

    You're not, FishHawk, but making superman vs. Lex Luthor doesn't come across as at all identifiable.

    Everyone has flaws and a hero without any has nowhere to grow and soon grows tiresome.

    As for villains, I do have some over-the-top villains, but I always try to find an example from history that's as bad or worse. Even evildoers have their own logic. Doing evil for evil's sake doesn't happen except in parables. Realistic bad guys need realistic motives.

    Plus, in an average novel, one has multiple bad guys. If they're all equally evil, it kind of gets repetitive.

  • Stephanie B

    Phyl you make a good point. People don't do things for evil's sake. Sometimes they convince themselves they're doing "good" through their horrible deeds (like Al-Qaida). Others are all about power and control (think Hitler or Ted Bundy), which works out to pure evil, but it isn't motivated by evil. It's motivated by power hunger, insanity, selfishness that leads to evil.

    But I do believe people can be pure evil. Too many examples out there for me to believe otherwise.

  • FishHawk

    Well, an interesting thing that has been revealed to me that might help with the development of your characters is that no one ever does anything that they believe is really wrong. For even when they do understand that it will be considered wrong by some, it is more right in their opinion to go ahead and do whatever it is. This is especially true of villains, who usually only have their own selfish interests at heart.

  • Stephanie B


  • David

    What is the essence of evil? I think it starts with a lack of respect. Respect for others, respect for one’s self. Can evil ever be respectful? On the other hand, what about cultural evil? Once slavery was an accepted part of life. Evil was socially acceptable. Some even said slavery was biblical. Very respectful people can also adhere to some very vile, evil beliefs while thinking they are doing God’s will. Personally, I think we all know evil when I see it…no excuses.

  • Stephanie B

    I suspect you're at least partly right. I don't think self-confident people need to overpower, need to control others. And that, I suspect, if often the source of evil.

    As for your last comment, that we all know evil when we see it. I don't think so. I think we think we can. I think most people can recognize their own evil if they want to. But I don't think (a) they want to much of the time and (b) they are really as good at identifying it in others as they think.

  • Relax Max

    Interesting post. Although at the beginning mainly about how to write evil characters, the conversation soon turned to reality.

    Perhaps the most interesting thing in the above comments was how often the writers were quick to condemn things as being evil whenever such acts were contrary to the writers' own personal values, (for example, the killing of Tiller was "obviously" evil, but what he did for a living was probably NOT evil), and extolling their own values as "obviously" correct. I do that too, of course.

    I think it would be interesting to explore your theory about good and evil, perhaps as an extension of the subject of "ethics", because I love controversy, but such a discussion could probably take a whole blog all by itself. The comments by your readers were very thought-provoking to me even though I was not often in agreement. That's another reason I like your blog - your readers are interesting too!

  • Stephanie B

    Relax Max, long time no see!

    I agree. I have some exceptional readers and I don't have an issue with contrary views.

    And, like your discussion on ethics, circumstances and motivation can be key players in whether someone (as opposed to their actions) are evil.

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