The easiest storytelling technique has always been to pick a good character and let him fight against an evil one. The good Superman fights against the evil Lex Luther. The good Spiderman fights against the evil Venom. The good Batman fights against the evil Joker. The strategy is simple, easy to understand and the ending is usually straightforward. Despite the advantages to such a strategy, the question is whether this kind of storytelling benefits humanity. Does it teach a good lesson? Is it realistic?
The initial issue is the concept of evil. What is evil? Evil is often identified as immoral, wicked, depraved, sinful and/or malevolent. Of course, the list does not exhaust the possible descriptions or offer a proper definition. However, it offers a sense of what one is talking about when referring to evil. This sense of evil raises a second question, though. Where does evil come from? The question is not where it originally comes from. The question is: Where does it reside in? This question becomes the heart of the issue in storytelling. The simple good-versus-evil story identifies evil with a person. The person is evil; evil resides in him. Basically, the force of evil is the person himself. For this reason, eliminating the person means eliminating evil. Batman, Spiderman or Superman triumphs over evil. Good returns to the world and the world is saved. It is simple. But, is it realistic?
Sometimes, even politicians fall prey to this simplistic ideology of good versus evil. A famous line, spoken by George W. Bush on November 6, 2001 at the United Nations, proves this point: “You are either with us or against us.” George W. Bush’s idea was that he was good and whoever joined him joined the good side in the fight against evil terrorists. Not joining him meant joining the evil side. In short, one is either good or evil. Simple? The problem is that people often buy into this ideology on both sides. Hence, terrorists think they are good and the people in the West are evil. Both sides convinced they are good, they march into battle to fight each other. After all, the other side is always pure evil. Does anyone wonder the reason for all the current political conflicts in the world?
What is the alternative? Instead of identifying evil with a person, it is possible to relate evil with an act. A person can engage in evil acts. He is not good or evil per se, but he is capable of engaging in good or evil acts. Naturally, this understanding of evil complicates the situation. In this scenario, it is very difficult to argue that a person is pure good or evil. After all, even Mother Theresa got angry sometimes and Adolf Hitler liked dogs. Thus, identifying evil with the act offers degrees of good and evil. The issue is not black and white anymore; it is presented in shades of grey. This means that the characters in the stories become much more complex. A character can be a murderer, but help the little old lady across the street. He may be a thief, but keep the honour amongst his fellow thieves. He can be a great politician fighting for justice, but have a weakness of looking at child pornography on the internet. It is not so simple anymore, is it?
Identification of evil with an act further complicates a story once a person realizes that the definition of evil act is not straightforward either. For example, some perceive homosexuality as evil, while others embrace it with love and understanding. Or, abortion can be seen as an evil act of robbing an opportunity of a person to be born or as an act of empowerment of women when caring for their bodies. Hence, an evil act can become relative, depending on the interpretation. In short, a story identified with evil as an act is anything but simple.
Given the complications, writers often shy away from situating characters in the zone of shades of grey. Complex characters are difficult to create, evaluate and follow through in a story. Also, the ending is a lot messier. Often times, there are no clear winners or losers in the tale. Nevertheless, they are crucially important because complex characters resemble real human beings. Since even Mother Theresa had weaknesses and Adolf Hitler had strengths, pure good and pure evil are unlikely to be found in real life situations. Most people are a mix of both worlds. Hopefully, the average person has more good than evil in him. Still, the Ultimate Power of the universe, whatever it is, seemed to bless all with the availability of some good and some bad that people seem to lovingly choose in varying proportions. For this reason, stories with complex characters, engaging in good and evil acts, speak to the reality of human existence more than the simpler version of identifying good and evil with the person. The complex version may be more difficult to create, but it comes closer to the true human essence, or existence, than Superman, Spiderman or Batman’s version of it.
Identification of evil with a person can do serious damage, if it becomes the prevalent culture of storytelling. Besides politicians, young people can also adopt it as the dominating theory through movies, books and video games. Looking for evil characters to save humanity may preoccupy their minds, unable to appreciate the alternative. This prevalent ideology can damage the ideas of tolerance, understanding and compassion. It can lead to great harm, if people zero in on certain individuals whom they decide are evil. Therefore, it is advisable for writers to get away from the simple characterization of evil and, instead, create stories with complex characters to teach young people to properly identify both good and evil in people in order to ensure that they do not judge too quickly or too harshly. And, young people are better off taking some courses in philosophy, especially in the area of ethics and morality, to better evaluate specific people and situations.
It is time for writers to get away from the simple and unrealistic and time to embrace the more complex and realistic version of evil!
M. J. Mandoki