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Wednesday, April 6, 2016

E is for Evil for the Sake of Evil

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.


mshatch said...

I think the best evil characters are the most well-rounded. Dexter is a good example of someone who does horrible things, but has learned to channel them upon other awful people. Sauron (no offense J.R.R.)is an a good example of evil that isn't very well-rounded - imo.

Em-Musing said...

Very interesting topic. One character in one of my stories is evil, and I had to go into an altered state (not literally), to delve into his past to explain why he was so bad. After writing the chapter I felt like I need a cleansing. :)

Brett Minor said...

I love this and gives me plenty to think about. In my story I'm writing now, the main antagonist isn't really a person (more of a particular set of circumstances), but there are a few less than pleasant people encountered along the way. I may need to flesh them out a little more.

Liz A. said...

That's the trick, of course. Make the evil understandable.

betty said...

I have to say, I didn't know what a trope was so I had to google it to get the definition, and then this made more sense in reading :)


Darla M Sands said...

Excellent advice, once again. I found myself with a character who acted a little too perfectly. Had to tone that down in a hurry. Thank you for sharing your insights.
Awakening Dreams and Conquering Nightmares with a Pen
I’m still having fun with my little focus on music this month. Be well!

Huntress said...

Angelina Jolie's portrayal of the Evil Queen in Sleeping Beauty was a different take on evilness.
The TV show Lucifer is fairly good at avoiding the evil trope also, but the good parts are killed by the crime-of-the-week aspect.

The monster in Alien is an example of an all-bad character. No redeeming qualities whatsoever in that chest-busting xeno-critter.

susanbruck.com said...

This is a very interesting post. I find it easier to make my evil characters multi-dimensional than my good characters--not sure what that says about me. But I agree, characters are more interesting (real people, too) if they are a combination of good and evil.

Lidy Wilks said...

Great post. Just as the protagonist/hero has a reason for doing what he/she does, so does the antagonist/villain. Whether it's bad guys or good guys, cookie cutter over the top goodness or evilness in characters is a sure fire way to make me drop a book.
“A villain is just a victim whose story hasn’t been told.”― Chris Colfer

Sati Chock said...

Very cool! How could I not check out a blog titled Unicorn Horn! Interesting post about evil, too. Thanks for sharing. :-)



Angela said...

Thank you all so much for your comments!

@Sati Chock - Welcome to our little neck of the woods! We're glad to have you!

@Lidy Wilks - Exactly. And I love your Chris Colfer quote. I'm going to have to print that one out! :)

@susanbruck.com - I think the good characters can sometimes be harder to write because you WANT your readers to LIKE them, but you don't want them to seem to be too perfect. At the same time, you don't want them to cross that line. I do think your evil characters can be a little more fun to write, because while you do have to make their behavior make sense, you can pretty much have them do anything you want them to and not have to apologize for their behavior. Even Stephen King said he had great fun writing Annie Wilkes in Misery because she was such a contradiction. On the one hand, she didn't hesitate to chop off her pet writer's foot (okay, in the movie she broke it, but in the book, she took the axe to it), but on the other, she couldn't bring herself to use language much stronger than "cockadoodie brat". With your evil characters, you can get away with doing things that you may have briefly entertained the thought of, but would NEVER do. Your good characters can push the envelope, but they usually have to stay confined within the realm of socially acceptable behavior. So I agree with you, the good characters can sometimes be harder to write! :)

@Huntress - Oh, I LOVED her portrayal of the evil queen in Maleficent! That was a wonderful movie. You're right, she gave us another dimension of the queen. She made us love the evil queen and sympathize with her. Who among us hasn't had someone we loved so deeply, who then betrayed us? And when that person was a first love, the wound goes even deeper. That's an even better example of a villain who was humanized in such a way that we cared for them. Granted, she wasn't the true villain of the story by the end, but she was for the majority of the movie. And the movie Maleficent is the perfect illustration of Lidy Wilks's Chris Colfer quote. And the creature in Alien definitely would fit with the all-bad character. It's an example of what I was talking about when I said that it might not be possible to write some beings or entities in a more sympathetic light. I don't know if you could have made a creature like that sympathetic! :) Haven't seen Lucifer yet, but it's a show I've been interested in seeing!

Angela said...

@Darla M Sands - I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

@Betty - I'm glad you pointed that out. I'll make sure my next post gives a definition of what a trope is. Thanks for your comment!

@Liz - Sometimes it requires delving a little into psychology and exploring what events in your character's past might have played a role in why he or she became the person they are. Sometimes that can be a lot of fun, other times it can be disturbing. :)

@Brett Minor - I'm glad you found this post helpful!

@Em-Musing - LOL! If you felt that way, then there's a really good chance you got the character's motivations right! When I was in high school, I started a story about an old house where the MC was exploring the house and went into a coma-like state because her spirit was drawn into the body of a person who lived in that house in the past. The house was based on an actual house out in the woods on a friend's property, even though I had only seen the house from a distance. I had over 100 handwritten pages when I stopped writing the story, because I had a VERY vivid, very REAL dream where the evil character from the past (Matthew) tried to kill me. The dream was so real, I FELT him cutting me and when I woke up (scaring my sister half to death in the process), I actually yanked up my shirt to make sure I wasn't bleeding. Then I started crying so hard I couldn't talk to my sister or my mama. After that dream, I couldn't write anything else in the story. I kept it for a while, but a few years later, I burned the manuscript. Something about that particular character scared me...badly. So in my personal opinion, you were likely doing something right with your character! :)

@mshatch - I haven't watched Dexter, but I do know some of the basics because I remember seeing the previews before it started. I'm going to have to watch a few of those episodes, because it sounds interesting! And as much as I love LOTR, I do have to agree with you about Sauron. Not well-rounded at all.

Chrys Fey said...

I don't know what it says about me, but I enjoy evil characters. ;) But a well-rounded and developed evil character is necessary. As you said, a character can't be evil just because the writer needs an evil character. It has to be done right, and the character has to be unique in their evilness.

Patricia Lynne said...

Okay, I read the title as Snake of evil and was very confused. LOL

The best evil characters are one that reside in the shades of gray. They are evil, but have reasoning that you can sympathize with.

cleemckenzie said...

I can get over tropes that handled well. And I happen to love evil characters.