Tropes…love ’em or hate ’em, some seem to be here to stay. Whether they should or not is actually up to the individual reader. I think the main problem with tropes is that an author reads a story, they’re so drawn into the world of those characters, and they love those characters so much, they decide they want to write a story like that. Okay, that’s great. Imitation is often referred to as the highest form of flattery. However, there’s a problem. When someone decides to write a story like that, they often have a tendency to rewrite THAT particular story. Oh, not in the manner of plagiarism—though that’s happened—but they’ve taken the bare bones of the inspiring story and just dressed it up in different clothing. There’s not a whole lot out there that hasn’t been done before, and most stories have commonalities as their core. Because of this, you have a tendency to see certain tropes that pop up quite often in specific genres. Some of those tropes have such a universal theme you’ll find them in other genres as well. The secret is, if you do decide to go with a tried and true trope that a lot of readers still love, then you need to find a way to put a new spin on it. To teach an old dog new tricks.
E is for…
Evil for the Sake of Evil.
This trope is not exclusive to just one genre. Evil is often the best way to create conflict and obstacles for characters. Good versus evil is a tried and true concept that has appeared in manuscripts since man first set pen to paper. There are stories where it works, and there are stories where it doesn’t work quite so well. It’s a universal theme. (And no, I’m not about to start discussing theme, symbolism, or any of the other stuff that, while fascinating at times, often brought us to tears or made our brains hurt in Lit classes.) Good versus evil has been ingrained in the human psyche for millennia, and I really don’t see that concept going away. This is because I believe that deep down inside, most people want to see good win. We live in a world where there are a lot of evils out there, and all too often, we see evil triumph in real life. However, a lot of good versus evil stories became too predictable, and I think that’s why some writers turned the concept on its head by allowing evil to triumph in their stories.
While there’s nothing wrong with a good versus evil story, a problem arises when you have evil simply for the sake of evil. If your antagonist is just another cardboard cutout representation of all that’s evil in the world of your characters, you’re in trouble. It makes certain aspects of your story predictable. Now, I’m not saying that you can’t use this trope, because you can. You just have to be careful with how you present it. Of course, if your evil “character” is an entity, demon, or something similar, it’s going to be hard to present it in any other way. And for the record, yes, I do believe that pure evil exists in this world, whether it takes on human form or not. Yes, I do believe there are people out there who are simply born evil. The type of person who—no matter what amount of love and kindness they were shown in their lives, despite their parents’ best efforts, and without the affliction of any kind of mental illness or personality disorder—went on to do horrific things. Yes, I do believe that type of person exists. But unless you’re writing about an entity that’s the embodiment of evil, your readers are going to have a hard time accepting evil in human form without some kind of explanation as to why they’re so evil. Once upon a time, simply presenting a person as evil without any explanations for their behavior was acceptable, but nowadays, it’s harder to make a reader swallow that pill. The same is true for the reverse—characters so perfect and good that they don’t have any flaws at all.
If your evil persona is a human character, you want to present them in a human light. Whether it’s a wizard, a serial killer, or an ex who would prefer to see their former love dead than in the arms of another, they need to be presented in such a light that—while we don’t condone their behavior and would never act that way ourselves—we can sort of understand why they are the way they are. By day, the serial killer can have a loving relationship with their spouse and children, be a pillar in their community, be the type of person others aspire to be like, and essentially be living the American dream. By night, however, he’s the embodiment of evil who does horrific and grisly things to his victims. That’s all fine and good, but WHY does he do these things? What’s hiding in his psyche that makes him this way? Was he abandoned as a child and never had a loving and stable home? Is that why he’s targeting families that seem perfect on the outside? Make him a little sympathetic to your readers. No, you don’t want to endear him to the readers to such an extent that they’re secretly rooting for him to get away with his crimes, but you want to make him someone they can relate to and sort of understand, even if they wouldn’t react the same way. If your character scares YOU because on the surface he could be your next-door neighbor or anyone else in your life, then you’re doing it right. You see some people like this on the TV show Criminal Minds. Yes, I know that these shows get some things wrong, but we’re not analyzing the show for procedure or anything like that. It’s a loose comparison. And remember, while it’s not exactly as it’s portrayed on TV, the BAU and NCAVC really exist.
The same can be said of the evil queen who wants to subjugate the entire world to her rule, and she's doing so by war, famine, mass executions, etc. Give her some redeeming qualities, or at least make her someone your readers can relate to. Do you remember the movie, Snow White and the Huntsman? While I raised my eyebrows at the portrayal of Snow White (how is it that someone who was locked away in one tiny cell for so long, with very little human interaction, could be so resourceful? How is it she wasn’t just a little more wary of people in general? Why wasn’t she just a little unhinged from the isolation? Among other things…), we were shown enough of Ravenna’s past to see why she became the woman she was. We could sympathize with her, even if we didn’t condone her behavior, and we could sort of understand why she did the things she did.
Don’t make a character evil just because you need a reason for your protagonists to go against them. Avoid the cookie-cutter, cardboard stereotype. Give them reasons for their behavior, give them some redeeming qualities, make them a little more human.