Recently, I spoke on a panel with several other authors where we attempted to dissect the process of creating antagonists with depth. At one point, as I spoke about the word “evil,” a fellow writer in the audience became so severely offended that she grew visibly agitated, began mumbling expletives, then stormed out of the room in protest.
What did I say that was so offensive? I’ll try to paraphrase.
An audience member had asked how we would define evil, and a part of my response was, “I try to avoid using the word evil. I believe that it oversimplifies something complex about human psychology, and doesn’t help us to solve the problems that we might call evil.
“The word ‘evil’ implies some fundamental, primordial, metaphysical force. It reinforces a binary worldview in which the world is neatly divided into forces of light and dark, good and evil. The truth is never that simple, and saying it is doesn’t get us anywhere.
“I prefer to be more specific,” I continued. “I might speak of greed, or weakness, or cowardice. I would not,” I reassured the audience, “attempt to diminish the fact that people often do terrible things for terrible reasons. I simply don’t believe it helps us solve the problem by ascribing to them the motives of a cartoonish super-villain.”
I’ve paraphrased, but my actual words were quite close to this.
Why, I ask, would this be such a controversial statement? It’s interesting to me that people often become angrier at the denial of an Ultimate Evil than the denial of the Ultimate Good. I understand that it’s comforting to live in an easily categorized world of simple binary judgments, but a writer—in my humble opinion—cannot have that luxury.
I’m friends with many visual artists, and they often see the world in ways that are different from my own. They notice subtle color variations that I miss. They’re acutely aware of the composition of nature—the curves, the spirals, the waves. They notice anatomical details in other people. They pay close attention to the subtle visual cues that convey people’s moods and emotions. The average viewer of a painting may never understand the attention that a painter gave to those tiny details, but you can feel it subconsciously when you look upon a piece of great art.
In the same way, writers—as character builders—must notice the subtleties of human psychology and behavior. We must explore the inner worlds of our characters with empathy and understanding, even when we loathe our characters’ actions.
Before you assume that I dismiss the term out of ignorance, let me assure you that I have been the victim of what you would call “evil,” and I understand the temptation to toss it into the conceptual bucket of evil and never give it a second thought. But when I look at, for example, a serial killer, I see someone who is weak—unable to curb the most horrific of impulses. I see someone who will never know the beauty of empathy, love, and connectedness. This does not, in any way, diminish the damage and suffering the person has left in his or her wake. But attempting to define this behavior as it truly is, rather than attributing it to a force of simple evil, gives us a starting point from which we can try to explore and address the problem.
There is, I can sum up, no sin in my attempts to understand the adversary rather than to assign an easy category.
Among the primary functions of a writer, in my opinion, is to remind people of the ambiguities, subtleties, and complexities of life that they may have forgotten; to remind people that behind every set of eyes, whether protagonist or antagonist, is a real person, with all the complexity of entangled feeling and motive that resides in the mind of a real person.