Saturday, November 8, 2008

The art of evil

There is an art to evil, whether it be in the real life we experience every day or in the life that we put into our fiction. 

Fiction tells the truths of life in a shorter, more pointed, more condensed and often more entertaining form. Fiction bases much of its power upon the stories inside us, upon our archetypes, our human fears, strengths, hopes, foibles, dreams, and failings.

Good fiction focuses on a few of the above and through a story brings them into a spotlight. And in this blog I want to focus on that part of life that plays such an critical part in fiction--evil.

Because fiction is a condensed, intensified, constructed view of a short space in time of a portion of the human condition, it's natural for authors to wish to do the same with those who oppose their protagonists. That is, there exists a tendency to color and shape the antagonist as the next Hitler, Stalin, Kim Jong-Il, Charles Manson, or the like. Authors find the appropriate archetype, change a hairstyle or last name, and off they go.

Yet fiction does indeed imitate reality in much the same way art often imitates life. Like their counterparts in the real world, such obviously evil characters in fiction often neither arouse the same passions nor raise the same level of concern as those characters  whose evil is worked in subtler, more manipulative, less direct ways. 

This is a very personal evil, an evil that takes a portion of the truth and twists it to its own ends.  It is an evil that leverages human wants and needs and frailties, rather than compelling compliance via brute force. It is an evil that cuts like a rapier, not chops like a cleaver.  It is gradual and insidious, clothed in its own forms of secular or religious righteousness, and above all is convinced that it is right.

Those will a knowledge of Scripture will nod. They will note that the main characters in the original romance were manipulated out of Eden by evil in the disguise of a lowly serpent, not by a raging demon.

If we have learned some personal lesson from the political events of the last eight years, it is that insidious evil is as or more dangerous and as damaging as the external, easily identified one.  We, and I, have learned that predators outside the home are easy to defend against. Predators inside the home are immensely more destructive, infinitely harder to detect, and regardless of clear evidence to their detrimental effects often almost impossible to break free from.

Don't believe me? Note how long so many abused stay with their abusers.

So evil has an art to it, and to artfully portray evil in fiction an author should remember that it is not the devil as demon, villain in black, or crazy woman with a white purse who will put the novel's protagonist at greatest risk or cause the reader the most emotional turmoil. Instead, the most dangerous, damning, and powerful evil is that which comes in countless small yet cumulatively damning ways from the character your protagonist believes in the most.

Such evil is harder to deal with--for the writer and the protagonist--in fiction as well as in life.

May you be successful in both.

1 comment:

Jeff said...

You are so right on about this, sir. Best example I've seen in a long time rests in this past summer's blockbuster, The Dark Knight. Ledger's Joker was a scrawny, nasal wimp. Worse, he was strangely likeable at times. He was obviously a hugely damaged man who thrived on the thrill of conflict and societal breakdown. Whenever you hear about somebody who had a brief meeting with Bin Laden, they always describe him as warm and charming.

Evil characters with a "code" are pedestrian. Evil characters with no "code?" Now THAT'S scary...

Great post and great book! Your boot camp tome single handedly saved my first novel!