Good and Evil, Right and Wrong II: The Quickening

08 Apr

Well! An interesting comment from Rex Jameson has pushed me into writing more about good and evil and right and wrong. It’s one of my favourite subjects, as you may have guessed.

First of all, ‘evil’ and why I’m not a fan. I think what bothers me most about ‘evil’ is that it has become too general and vague a word. People use it too broadly and too casually. I think rather than ‘evil’ the world has greed, and stupidity, and prejudice, and small-mindedness, jealousy, obsession, pride, anger, all of these human flaws and weaknesses that can lead ordinary people to do horrible things. That if you trace ‘evil’ back to its source you’ll eventually find the cause, not some nameless, shapeless thing, but human frailty. It’s too easy to say someone is ‘evil’, it ignores the real problems, the real issues. People are more complex than that. Maybe that gets more to my dislike of the word, that I prefer precision and accuracy–in Stephen Fry’s The Stars’ Tennis Balls, he brings up ‘heap thinking’; imprecision of thought. How many pinecones make a heap? Seventeen? Why not sixteen? “This is good, this is not good, this is bad luck, but this is injustice.” To me, ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are examples of ‘heap thinking’. When is a person ‘evil’? Where is that line? How many pinecones does it take to make a heap? I know that to an extent I’m pedantically quibbling about definitions, but I really feel there’s so much baggage attached to ‘good’ and ‘evil’, so much weight to them. Maybe also because it’s becoming more and more common to have these ‘complete monster’ characters doing horrible things with little motivation, justified by something like ‘he feels nothing’ or ‘he enjoys the suffering of others’ or, of course, the plain and simple ‘he’s evil’. To me this is just so unsatisfying–often it comes across as nothing more than the writer trying to think of the most terrible things he can have a character do, for no other reason than … what? Shock value? Some kind of odd oneupmanship? The authorial equivalent of The Aristocrats, no point but to just see how terrible an act you can imagine? I don’t even know, to be honest. I know that in real life some people are terribly broken, to the point where they can seem inhuman. But then once insanity comes into things, labels like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ become irrelevant–from that person’s perspective.

Of course, all of this is just my personal perspective and my personal preference. I’m not trying to judge what other people write and what other people enjoy, I’m just talking about me and what I like–in both my intake and my output. And I’m not saying that I only enjoy the most wholesome and good-spirited of things, because to be honest I’ll read or watch or play anything if it’s good–and I’m using ‘good’ here as an indication of quality, just to be clear. But I definitely do have a preference for heroes over anti-heroes or villains. They’re just more interesting.

As for my writing, well, I write about what I enjoy, of course. And I also write about things that are important to me–I write about characters struggling to do the right thing because that’s what’s relevant to me and my life; I am one small person trying to do the right thing, whenever I can, whenever I know what the right thing to do is.

Here’s a small example. It’s nothing world-shattering, but I live in reality, I’m not faced with dramatic problems or choices like my characters. But last week, in the evening, I noticed that someone had smashed a wine bottle against my fence. The bottle was still there, along with shards of glass, on the pavement outside of my house. What was my responsibility in this situation? Clearly, not even a choice; someone could hurt themselves on that broken glass. I didn’t create the situation but now that I was aware of it, I had to do something about it. So I went inside and I put on some gloves and I got some newspaper and I went out and I picked up all the big bits and I swept the whole pavement. It wasn’t much fun, but leaving that glass there wasn’t an option.

Like I said, a small thing, but an example of what I’m talking about. Am I ‘good’ for cleaning up the bottle? Is the person who smashed it ‘evil’? I think the answer is ‘no’ in both cases. So I cleaned up a bottle, so what? Maybe I kick puppies and don’t flush public toilets! (Important Note: I would never kick a puppy and not flushing a public toilet should probably be illegal if it isn’t already.) Cleaning up that glass didn’t make me ‘good’, but it was the right thing to do, just like smashing a wine bottle against someone’s fence was the wrong thing to do. A really stupid, prattish thing to do, actually. But you can’t control the world, just your reaction to it. Did I clean up the bottle because I’m a good person, or because not cleaning it up might have meant somebody could have hurt themselves? Did the person who threw the bottle against the fence do it because they were ‘evil’ or ‘bad’, or did they do it because they were lazy and drunk and uncaring? Look closer. Look deeper. Look beyond good and evil and what you find is more interesting and more compelling. The more I think about these things, the less choice I feel I have, and the clearer things become; do right when you can. Don’t do wrong if you can possibly help it.

Simple, right?

Well, maybe. Sometimes. Not that often, actually. And so that’s another reason I write, to try to figure these things out. Why are ‘good’ and ‘evil’ dangerous labels to throw around? How do you KNOW what the right thing to do is? What does ‘not killing’ actually mean, what responsibility do you then take on? To me it’s not enough to have a character ‘never kill’, I have to explore the consequences of that decision. What seems like a simple, clear moral choice turns out to be not quite so simple or clear after all. I think maybe this is MY curse, that I can’t NOT think about these things. I can’t just leave them alone, I have to poke and prod and test and justify.

Like many things, this all comes back to Batman. To me, Batman is fascinating, one of the greatest characters in the history of fiction, and without question my favourite superhero. Why? Among other reasons, because he is defined by ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Superman, on the other hand, I’ve never liked as much. Why? Among other reasons, because he is defined by ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Batman has a crystal-clear sense of right and wrong–and so never, ever does wrong. Well, not in any of the interpretations I respect, anyway. Certain writers have tried to portray Batman as an anti-hero, but he just isn’t. He’s a hero, even if he is a dark hero. Superman has an innate sense of ‘good’ and ‘evil’–but in a sense he’s too ‘good’ to think beyond these labels. Batman is cynical and intelligent, Superman is idealistic and simple–not stupid, just straightforward. Batman does what’s right; he analyses and judges and understands the situation before he acts. Superman does ‘good’; he sees ‘evil’ and he fights it. Superman could be led astray, he could be manipulated into thinking that what he’s doing is ‘good’, when it is in fact harmful or destructive. Batman … not so much.

Superman does what he’s told.

Batman thinks for himself.

I could go on, but this isn’t about how much I love Batman and how much I don’t-quite-love Superman (don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a lot of time for Supes, but Batman will always be my favourite). And in fact this post is far too long already, and so I’ll finish here. Good night, and good luck.


Posted by on April 8, 2011 in Of Writing


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5 responses to “Good and Evil, Right and Wrong II: The Quickening

  1. Mo

    April 9, 2011 at 16:36

    Great post! I totally agree with you re: “evil.” Personally I believe that morality is subjective, there are many who disagree with me on that, but I think one just has to look at other cultures and history to figure that one out. Remember, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

    I much prefer stories where the characters are shades of gray morality wise, like everyone is (despite how much some people like to put themselves up on some kind of pedestal).

    Batman is by far my favourite superhero too! I find he’s the most interesting superhero character, he’s psychologically screwed up, he needs criminals to define his purpose in life (as seen in his interactions with The Joker in The Dark Knight). However, I’m not really sure that he’s always a hero, as you suggest. There are certainly times when the good/bad lines for Batman start to become a bit blurry.

  2. Mo

    April 9, 2011 at 16:49

    Also I find Superman to be dreadfully boring! “Hey look at me, I’m a practically invincible superhero, haha!” Could they make it any more of a yawn-fest?

    • Ben White

      April 9, 2011 at 16:57

      Superman really needs a good writer to handle him, at his best he’s good (although, of course, never as good as Batman), but unfortunately you don’t see a lot of that. I think the best Superman stories are ones where he’s struggling with the weight of responsibility.

  3. Ben White

    April 9, 2011 at 16:55

    I agree that Batman does blur the good/bad lines–but not the right/wrong lines. Well, as I said, not when any of the writers I respect are in charge. His methods are sometimes questionable, which is part of what makes him so interesting. Like in the movie–he’ll break a guy’s legs to get him to talk, that’s not really such a positive thing to do! Personally I’m not such a huge fan of “ends justify means” but sometimes it’s hard to see an alternative. I’m always careful in my stories with phrases like “no matter the cost” and “we’ll do whatever it takes”.

    I read something ages ago that was interesting, comparing The Punisher–a clear anti-hero–with Batman–a hero. The gist of it was that The Punisher is an anti-hero and more ‘adult’ (in his iconography and methods) because the traumatic event that made him into who he is happened when he was an adult, while Batman is a hero and more childish (costume, gadgets, refusal to use guns or kill) because the traumatic event that made HIM into who he is happened when he was a child. Emotionally, Batman is stuck as that scared eight year-old watching his parents being murdered.

    And people say comics have no depth 🙂

    • Mo

      April 9, 2011 at 17:34

      Ohh, interesting analysis. It’s interesting how Batman desperately clings to his “one rule” of not killing anybody: It seems like he knows that’s the one (slim) thing that separates him from the criminal thugs. An interesting look at the vigilante role.

      There’s a book you’d probably find interesting, called Batman and Philosophy, a friend gave me a copy. I haven’t read it all yet, but it seems like it would be your sort of thing.


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