The more I read, the more I experience, the more I question the validity of good and evil as portrayed in many so-called worlds. Certainly there is something within us, as a species, that consistently seeks to weed out good from bad, light from dark, wrong from right. We need our causes, our passions, our drives, in order to go about our daily lives feeling as if we are doing as we ought, happy with our choices.
There is perhaps no other literary genre that so adheres to the dichotomy of good and evil as fantasy, since it itself was borne out of the same womb as the myths that define humanity. As our cultures have evolved, we have brought along new religious undertones to play a counterpoint–the Son of God, Shiva the Destroyer, Morrigan the Goddess of War–in our search for good and evil. While this is not true with every writer, most tend to write from this same tradition, wanting to cast villains and heroes because, in all truth, that is what readers respond to. It’s hard-wired into us.
But because it’s hard-wired, does it mean it’s correct?
I do not deny that there is evil, nor that there is good. What I question is the clear-cut manner in which villains and heroes are drawn. To me, every character must be flawed–in a way, every character should have the potential to be a villain, just as every person has the capability to do extremely terrible things. I decided in The Aldersgate to blur the lines, to create monsters out of heroes, and to force my characters to choose sides. But I want my readers to follow the progression, to develop as the minds of the characters develop. This is by no means an easy task, since each character (at least to me) is very much intertwined in the heart and mind of the writer themselves. Doing evil deeds, selfish deeds, making wrong choices–these are not easy to write. Love stories are easy to write. Dinner parties are easy to write. Triumphant processions are easy to write! A downward spiral from despair, to madness, and then to utter selfishness and corruption… that is not so easy.
Consider what good and evil mean to you, and mean to the culture you’re writing as you build your world. Try and shed the preconcieved notions you’ve gleaned in your lifetime to go beyond black and white to examine the grays. A certain amount of tension is important, but so much of what we see of “good” and “evil” has to do with perception. Some people may think of the Crusaders as mighty heroes, but I daresay that wasn’t the opinion of the Jews in France and Germany.
I have as much trouble with “purely” good heroes as with “purely” bad heroes, especially when the dead start piling up. A good writer will examine what exactly are the ramifications for the decisions each side makes, will make the reader do more than just cheer for the good guys and scoff at the bad guys.
For my final comment, I’ll say one last thing. I’m on board with the Lord of the Rings 99.9% of the time. I adore it. I am indebted to it. But the fact that Orcs are fundamentally evil, that they are a race of creatures inherently bad, beyond salvation and corrupt is certainly uncomfortable for me. And I understand Tolkien’s perspective in writing the books (being a product of the World Wars as well as a devoted Catholic), and know where he was coming from–I only wish that he left a little more wiggle room (gosh, even C.S. Lewis gave one of the Calormenes a ticket to the New and Improved Narnia in The Last Battle).
What I’m saying is this: take time to tell your characters’ stories, even if they’re under the flag of the Eye. Everyone starts somewhere.