Friday, June 30, 2006

Do you believe in evil? OR The importance of evil to plot

Soon, hubby and I are going away for the weekend - very exciting. Either camping, or Finger Lakes, or who knows??? Tomorrow is Canada Day so we got some time off.
The plan is to return Monday evening. Meaning, unless I'm in a hotel, I'll be quiet.

So to the question at hand: Do you believe in evil?
Why am I asking?
Remember that a few days ago I talked about how I feel I don't follow through with some plot lines?

Well, the reason this is all related (evil and plot) is because I was over at Rantings and Ravings of an Insane Writer and saw this quiz - A personality quiz about your religious and spiritual beliefs.

My result - Secular Humanism (100%)
It was the first time I've heard of that and when I read about it seems to indeed fit me and my own set of beliefs and how I live my life quite well.

The point here is not to get into an ideological/religious debate. It's just that the quiz and the result made me realize
(something I knew but never put into words) that I don't actually believe in the concept evil. Makes sense. If I don't believe in a force that is all good, I wouldn't, in the same manner, believe in a force that is all bad.

But, and here's the big but. This causes me to miss on some really really cool and interesting plot lines. For example, I noticed that most of my recent horror (a new thing in my writing life) comes from inner human struggle rather than outside evil force. And I think that in a few latest plots as well, this could very well have been what I was missing, what was required for the plot to be complete - evil. Yet, I couldn't follow through with it because I felt I was cheating myself.

I do envy those who can imagine evil, pure evil, in any form - physical, mental, metaphysical etc. They have more options. I now know why I tend to stick with science-fiction (oh, I can certainly imagine scientific things, or future societies) and mainstream (I can also imagine different, quirky, "evil" human behaviour).

At the same time, I have a hard time with horror/fantasy/religious concepts in my writing because of my very realistic, pragmatic world view.

And you? I think I can already tell which of you (those I know better) explore evil, spiritual, fantastic things. Alas, I keep to the ordinary.
Read the rest

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Nienke said...

I don't believe in 'evil.' I think people are motivated by various factors (wanting to be liked, wanting power, afraid of abandonment, etc.). Even the most evil characters, no matter what genre, will have some motivation to behave as they do. In fact, from what I've learned, that is a fundamental element of creating characters - motivation and goals. Readers should be able to understand why the bad guys do what they do and perhaps even empathize with them somewhat, in some cases.

As far as Canada day, have a great long weekend! DH and I are heading up to Ottawa to visit family and friends.

redchurch said...


Secular humanism! What a great place to draw from actually...

I was just thinking about this (to a degree). I love stuff like Frans de Waal's 'Chimpanzee Politics'

I was recently thinking how evolutionary psychology and one category of books I like reading might change the perspective of characterization... authors like Steven Pinker and maybe even Richard Dawkins.

But even within that too, you can find what might be defined as 'evil' - the frightening ignorance of the mob, or certain special interest groups.

Or consider... Ayn Rand. People have mixed feelings on her, but Ellesworth Toohey -- the villain from her novel Fountainhead is in my opinion one of the best villains ever crafted for exactly the reasons you bring up. He is not 'evil' in the traditional sense. In fact, he is entirely 'altruistic' -- presenting the sickeningly virtuous 'sacrificing' nature of mankind. The catch is, he only enjoys the support of altruism out the power it gives him to manipulate others and influence society. Like the politician who makes a show out donating to charity. The phrase "for the common good" might be just as 'evil' a justification for a person's actions as murder.

There is all kinds of room to re-contextualize evil within the worldview of secular humanism, or evolutionary psychology, etc.

Perhaps evil is a person who denies their own humanity?

Sorry to ramble on, but you touched on a topic I've been pondering for the last few days. :)

Rene said...

Nienke sent me here. I think it is an interesting question. I have to agree with Nienke's comment. When writing, my villains are not motivated by pure evil. They are motivated by selfish desires which often appear evil. The nature of evil really is selfishness. Trying to blame evil on a being such as Satan is a cheap shot.

redchurch said...


The more fascinating aspect of selfishness to me is disguised selfishness. When people pretend to be virtuous, or honoring something, like through charity--when really it's just PR to help their image.

Of course, being interested in marketing and the like, I have a hard time seeing PR as 'evil' -- but the two-faced nature of humanity has always fascinated me, and is the source of many good characterizations.

So you could say there is 'honest selfishness' and 'dishonest selfishness' - one is obvious and no attempts are made to conceal it, and the other is swept under the rug or even spun as care/virtue in 'greater good.'

I guess one way of looking at it, is to consider an anti-villain for every anti-hero.

In other words, where the anti-hero is perhaps a tarnished or jaded hero, the anti-villain is someone who twists virtues commonly defined as good, to mask their own purposes. Corruption and deceit played in the name of morality.

That stuff fascinates me.

Speaking of morality, this is often where the caricature or symbol of Hitler and the Nazis is often trivialized.

What people often fail to understand is that much of the horrors of the holocaust came out of values which are 'noble' in the classic sense--Hitler wanted the perfect nation-state. He wanted to raise, honor, and glorify his nation and its people to the highest level possible.

It was a perfectionist obsession, that led to ideas of 'purity' and 'pure virtue' -- and one of those definitions of purity involved genetics/eugenics.

The 'aryan super race' was nothing more than a misguided morality play. Something which is valued in every other culture, in varied forms, as 'good.'

So it's important to see how they were trying to do something good in the most disgusting and horrible way possible.

Morality itself is a cause of much 'evil' in the world. Villains are often portrayed as amoral, when I think the more fascinating direction is towards villains who are TOO moral in some ways. Hence the infamous; "The end justifies the means."

I'm not even sure it's possible for a person to be purely amoral. We all have morals, values, and bias. And it is when these values are pursued to an extreme that we find ourselves on the side of villainry. Likewise, the obsession with ideology can often demonstrate the growth of a hero character--going from idealistic to apathetic or nihilistic, or vice versa.

All that's really required in the storytelling is that arc of the hero be inverted from the villain. As the writer, you pick the values that each one represents, and the rising conflict that coincides respectively with the arc of both the hero and the villain.

Nienke said...

And then there is a total skewed sense of reality. Whether it comes from motivation, mental illness, or just perception - can be the root of 'evil' behavior.
In the instance of Hitler, for example, I think he was a genius to the point of mental illness - perhaps because of it? - and he just had no perception of right and wrong as the average person does.
There is also religion. Chrisitianity demands good morals (commandments forex), but devouts won't accept non-christians despite good morals. But then, many religions believe in evil (Satan) don't they?
(Not sure where I'm going with this, but this is what came to mind reading the comments.) However, this is a very important subject to consider when developing characters and plots. Thx Melly!
In fact, exploring evil would be a great basis for a book.

redchurch said...

Nienke said,

"In fact, exploring evil would be a great basis for a book."

There are a number of books that do this, mostly in the realm of evolutionary psychology:

Lucifer Principle by Harold Bloom
The Moral Animal by Robert Wright
Blank Slate by Steven Pinker

The secular humanism Melly described is linked pretty heavy with ev. psych, and cultural anthropology, etc. The movement gained huge momentum in the 1970s from guys like Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson...

Another great book geared towards both villains and heroes alike is The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene.

I can see I'm gonna have to do mini-reviews for these over in the Books On Writing section of Quantum. :)

redchurch said...

Sociobiology, that's the field I was forgetting. Sociobiology, Evolutionary Psychology, Cultural Anthropology, are all siblings within the broader category of secular humanism (which is not an official field? At least that I know of).

Apologies for being spammy. This is a rich topic that I've spent a lot of time in.

Discuss! :)

Deborah said...

I'm with Rene on Satan. Most of the evil in the world is caused by ignorance, hate, and selfishness.

Nienke: You hit the nail right on the head regarding Hitler, the devoutly religious and mental illness. Evil springs from misguided perceptions. There is a difference between evil behavior and being evil.

I did some research on serial killers about ten years ago and learned that most of them had savage childhoods that made them insane.

There were some exceptions, which brought me to the conclusion that some people are born with faulty wiring.

Are they pure evil? Perhaps in the moral sense. I don't know, but this is definitely worth researching.

Nienke said...

I'm thinking on a fictional level as opposed to non-fiction. Hmmm... the wheels are turning. I'll be right over for the reviews.

Nienke said...

I've heard about testing they can do now to see if your kids are going to end up in juvey hall. The whole concept of identifying genome(s) (sp??), and knowing in advance about disease, mental health, violence. Scary stuff. I'll bet there's a faction out there that would declare mental illness and faulty wiring as a sign of the devil.

Deborah said...


That is scary. I can't imagine being pregnant and finding out that my baby is going to be the next Adolf Hitler or Jeffrey Dahmer when he grows up. The burden on the mother would be horrendous.

On the flip side, what if science can fix these faulty genomes (sp?) while the baby is in utero? I can just see the outrage from the health care and pharmeceutical industries, who rely on our faulty genetics/wiring for their bottom line.

Yes, there are some extremist factions that would declare mental illness and faulty wiring as a sign of the devil. In fact, anything that falls outside of their doctrine gets shelved into that category.

jayne d'Arcy said...

I don't believe in evil beings, demons or such as that. My belief in evil is that evil is inherent in Man. It's within all of us. Most of us choose not to act upon it.

I can, in my writing, create some very evil characters that are quite fantastical. I choose not to analyze this too closely. After all, didn't a certain horror author once declare that we "write what we fear most"?

Benjamin Solah said...

My first writings featured 'pure evil,' and a lot of my writing, especially the shorter, underdeveloped stories still do. However, I'm not writing more 'Marxist horror' and I've been thinking a lot about writing a post on my characters within them, especially the villains.

Marxists believe that the bad things people do or think have been influenced by their material surroundings and experiences. People aren't born a certain way, but their environment dictates their upbringing and the way they act in the future. I'll hopefully expand on this in a blog post soon.

redchurch said...

This is my explanation of evil.

Jean said...


I'm more interested in your source of conflict than all the "doomsday evil" out there. Internal conflict, how people resolve it, and how it affects their interaction with the outside world fascinates me more than anything else.

I haven't read your work, but don't sell the concept or approach short.

Georganna Hancock said...

Hi Melly,

How about this: don't you believe in "goodness"? "Evil" could also be called "evilness" if there were such a word. I'm a secular humanist (and carry a lot of other tags, including "skeptic") and I don't "believe in" much of anything. But I know I see Good in action, which would better be called "goodness". My logical mind will just not allow me not to balance this with a concept of "evilness", which I've also experienced in life, in people. All of it pertains to people, their thoughts, feelings and behaviors. No, there is no Evil stalking the earth, just as there is no Good waiting to pounce on us.

Melly said...

I'll try to consolodate my comment here somehow and I'm sorry if I miss a point:

Nienke, you're making an excellent point about motives, but many fantasy/horror stories have either evil "entities" or psychopaths or something like that. The entities, don't always have motives (occasinally the need for power), and the story evolves around the protagonist struggle. Similarly with psychopaths, don't always have motives. It's the more subtle/human evil characters that have clearer motives. And yes, following that is an interesting and integral part.
Great comment! :)

Eric. Wow!
Okay, I think you went a bit over my head. I'm new at this secular humanism business and can't wait to read your book reviews.
I loved your comments about how evil can come out of good intentions. If that isn't the truest things I've heard lately. And I love how you put it too. So much clearer than when how I think of it.
Loved the videos, btw. Thanks!

Ah, Rene, thanks for coming because without considering selfishness, this wouldn't have been a complete discussion.

Deborah, I had no idea you did this kind of research. You should share! And you make a good point as to how we define evil - is it enough for someone to be completely immoral to be considered pure evil?

Jayne, really? You think evil is inherent in man? That's a fascinating view point. Actually, it would be interesting to see how many think we're born a blank slate and learn good and bad vs. how many think we are born with these concepts already in us.

Ben, so that's the marxist view. Do you ever deviate from marxism or do most of your beliefs coincide with that? I believe, btw, that Karl Marx was a secular humanist.

Georganna, I'm so with you on the "believing" (or skeptic)/action area.
I think we think a lot alike.

rdl said...

I do believe in Evil- Hitler & the Holocaust confirmed that for me. And alot of what is going on in the world today.

Benjamin Solah said...

I used to deviate from the Marxist view, but now less so. Marxism is a total world view and you always see the world this way (we're not a cult, though ;)). And yes, I believe Marx was a secular humanist.

Deborah said...

Deborah, I had no idea you did this kind of research. You should share! And you make a good point as to how we define evil - is it enough for someone to be completely immoral to be considered pure evil?

I did a great deal of research on the criminal mind when I wrote my first story. I'll see if I can find my notes. If I can, I'll post them on my blog for everyone. :)

Regarding your question: I'm not sure if there is anyone in this world that is completely immoral (a.k.a. pure evil), although there are several that have come close. They've certainly done things that society would consider pure evil. This is something I'm going to have to delve into some more.

Melly said...

rdl, yes, evil such as Nazi Germany proves that point indeed. However, I don't believe there is more evil today than there was once. It's just that we have CNN now to show it to us.

Benjamin, I think it would interesting for you to try some thought experiments outside of marxism since marsizm is a very "clear cut" world view which is but at one end of a spectrum of views, while the world isn't really clear at all and has a whole range of views and idea.
I'm saying that because you mentioned that marxism isn't a cult, yet for me, holding "party lines" is not much different than religion.
Just something I'm throwing at you :)

Deborah, that's great, keep us posted (pardon the pun :)