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Good and Evil, Right and Wrong II: The Quickening

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.

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Posted by on April 8, 2011 in Of Writing

 

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Good & Evil (less important than right and wrong), Heroes, Choices, Themes, Necessary Purging

There was a Twitter tag-discussion-thing I followed today, without participating (for several reasons, mostly because it moved far too fast to just ‘jump in’), about YA fiction, specifically about religion in YA fiction. There were arguments about good and evil, how good is represented, how some authors preferred to represent evil, about the place of strong religious themes–about a lot of things.

The thing that interested me the most about the discussion, which was between I guess a couple of dozen writers, wasn’t what was discussed, but rather what wasn’t discussed. ‘Good’ and ‘evil’ came up again and again. But there wasn’t one mention of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.

As a writer, good and evil don’t interest me–not in the sense in which they were being discussed. I think ‘evil’ especially is a label that gets tossed around far too casually, a kind of catch-all that covers over the real issues and causes of ill behaviour. Too many writers use it as an excuse, too–“It’s fine to have the hero kill these sentient creatures because they’re evil and he’s good”, no, that never sits comfortably with me. Good and evil are about perspective–if you have elves who are ‘good’ and orcs who are ‘evil’, then clearly you’re siding with the elves. If you wrote the story from the orcs’ perspective, the labels would be reversed. Real life is, of course, more complicated, which is why I have little interest in good and evil and far more interest in right and wrong. Because although what’s ‘right’ can get blurry at times, there are certain things that are, to me, ‘right’, and certain things that are, to me, ‘wrong’. I’m less about ‘sides’ (good vs evil) and more about ‘actions’ (doing what’s right).

So the themes that excite me, as a writer, are things like … things like ‘if a wrong act is necessary then could it become, in some way, right?’ and ‘how can you know, truly know, what the ‘right thing’ to do is?’, these questions that have no easy, simple answer, these questions that have to be explored in order to find some kind of understanding–and of course I love it when characters do the right thing even when it’s hard–even when it’s impossible–and when they refuse to do wrong even when it’d make things so much simpler and easier–even when ‘doing wrong’ would get them everything that they want–these are the things that I love to write about. It’s most prevalent in Miya Black, because she’s my interpretation of the hero archetype–she is, in every sense, MY hero–but I think it comes through in a lot of my main characters. I don’t think my books are preachy and I certainly don’t intend to stand on a soapbox and tell people what to do, quite the opposite, another theme I come back to time and again is “Think for yourself, don’t let other people think for you, and DO NOT blindly accept that those with power have your best interests at heart”. And ‘doing the right thing’ doesn’t make my characters universally loved, again, quite the opposite–as in real life, the ‘right thing’ isn’t always the ‘popular thing’. But that’s part of it too–Miya does the right thing, no matter what, and this polarises people, they’re either repulsed by or attracted to her. She makes enemies but she also makes friends–she inspires loyalty from those few who understand.

My characters don’t always make the right decisions, either–just like the gap between ‘right’ and ‘popular’, there’s also a big difference being ‘right’ and ‘smart’. The two could almost be said to be mutually exclusive a lot of the time. In fact, book two of Miya Black could basically be subtitled “Every Single Decision Miya Makes Is Wrong”. But all of her bad choices come from good intentions, of her trying to do the right thing. That’s another theme I like, “Action without understanding is futile, even dangerous”. You can’t do ‘good’ unless you understand the implications of your actions–you have to know who and why the bad guys are before you can fight them. Book three of Miya Black is really where these themes start to come through, most of the plot wouldn’t have occurred if Miya had sense enough to leave well enough alone, but that’s part of who she is; she is a person who will fight wrong wherever she finds it, whatever the personal cost. In book three, she starts to realise this–that this is who she is, because she’s put in situations where she’s faced with wrong, where she’s given a free chance to walk away, where nobody would blame her for doing nothing–in fact, where she’d be rewarded for just walking away. Does she? Of course she doesn’t. That’s not who she is, that will never be who she is. Book three is really where Miya starts to grow into herself, where she starts to grow up, and her personal character development from the start of the book to the end is my favourite thing about it. If you read the first chapters and then skip ahead to the last chapters, there’s a stark difference in how Miya acts, even the way she talks. But if you read through, you might not even notice the change. It’s actually even more noticeable if you go back to the first book, she’s so idealistic and young and naive and romantic in that one, it’s almost hard to read when you know what happens later. And yet her ideals, her core, that’s something that never changes. She’s uncompromising in her beliefs; you don’t suffer bullies, you stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves, you do the right thing. All of my main characters have a ‘curse’, some more obvious than others. Miya has a couple, actually. But her big curse, the curse at the core of her character, is that she (almost) always (eventually) knows what the right thing to do is. And I believe–this is my personal belief–that if you know, truly know, what the right thing to do is, then you cannot ignore that. It’s not even a choice. Of course, Miya learns other things too, things that challenge these beliefs–that the world is unfair, that people aren’t always what they seem, that being right isn’t always enough. That even if you fight your hardest, you can still lose. This forms most of the internal conflict of the series, Miya trying to resolve the gaps between her beliefs and the harsh realities of the world. Of course, there’s always that secondary conflict, the conflict central to Miya; freedom and responsibility. She’s a pirate, she’s fiercely independent and adventure-loving and she doesn’t need ANYONE to do ANYTHING. She’s a princess, she’s compassionate and sensitive and bound to her kingdom–to the people she’s responsible for–with chains stronger than steel. Pirate. Princess. Can you truly be both? Can you embody both freedom AND responsibility? That’s the central question behind the whole series. Exploring possible answers is fun. Well, so is having Miya kick ever-increasing amounts of arse, of course. It’s all layers.

Phew! That was fun, I needed to get that off my chest. Have you noticed that writers like to talk? I mean a LOT. Especially about their own writing. I think it’s necessary sometimes, though. When you’re working at the fiddly sentence-by-sentence level every day, working on making things flow and using the right words and hunting for typos, it can be easy to forget the themes and reasons for writing. Even at the ‘plot’ level, I sometimes let myself slip–I let the themes I’m trying to explore get buried by events. So I think it’s good, sometimes, to step back and think/talk/write about things at a higher level, about the whole big thing.

Now back to nitty-gritty low-level editing.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on April 8, 2011 in Of Writing

 

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