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Justifying Evil


Photographer Unknown [1]
Photographer Unknown

No, this isn’t another post about the Amazon-Hachette imbroglio.

I recently took part (along with WU’s Donald Maas [2]) in the Surrey International Writers Conference outside Vancouver, absolutely one of the best literary powwows I’ve ever attended, and I’ve been to scads. (Sadly, I’m unable to attend the WU Un-conference beginning today. I have no doubt it’s even powwowier!)

One of the workshops I gave at the Surrey conference was titled Beyond Good and Evil: Using Moral Argument to Develop Plot & Character.

Moral argument as a structural device expands the thematic range of the conflict from a battle of individuals to a contest of moral visions. Each character is seen as seeking to create, maintain, or defend a way of life – an idea of what it means to live well among others – and if the conflict in the story is crafted well, these ways of life are ultimately antithetical.

This is what Lajos Egri (The Art of Dramatic Writing) meant by the Unity of Opposites – a tightly woven conflict in which the protagonist and the opponent (or the problem/challenge the protagonist faces) are inextricably bound together, so that escape or compromise is impossible. Either the opponent must be defeated (or the problem solved, the challenge met), or the protagonist fails in a shattering, life-changing way – in a sense, she dies, if not physically then emotionally, morally, professionally.

But the stakes are also ultimate for the opponent – otherwise the protagonist’s victory or success is diminished. A hero who overcomes a facile, underdeveloped or unconvincing opponent – or solves an unimpressive problem, meets a humdrum challenge – will fail to engage the reader in a memorable way.

[pullquote]We need to see life through the eyes of someone we would most likely flee, berate, or even despise if we made their actual acquaintance. [/pullquote]

To stage conflict meaningfully the stakes have to be ultimate for all concerned, and this requires understanding the opponent’s perspective just as fully as the protagonist’s.

This requires that we justify – not judge – our opponent’s worldview. We can’t remain outside this character, feeling toward him but not for him. Stepping into his shoes is just the beginning. Sooner or later, we have to inhabit his heart and soul.

This often means we need to see life through the eyes of someone we would most likely flee, berate, or even despise if we made their actual acquaintance. And this requires that we not just accept but champion, embrace — dare I say it, love — someone we consider fundamentally mistaken, hurtful, even evil.

I know. Writers have all the fun.

And yet…

As one of my students at the conference noted, doesn’t this mean that we as writers become essentially amoral?

I responded that it’s important we recognize the difference between understanding the opponent’s behavior and condoning it.

[pullquote]Just because I can understand or even empathize with a killer doesn’t mean I want him walking free. [/pullquote]

This difference came up vividly in one of my manuscript reviews, where the writer, a former nurse, was basing her tale on an event she herself witnessed, involving a doctor whose willful negligence led to a patient’s death.

Her problem, she admitted, was that her feelings toward this doctor, whom she described as arrogant, spiteful, greedy, and fundamentally dishonest, was in fact limiting her portrayal of him. She couldn’t even discuss him without palpable – and understandable — disgust and contempt.

At which point I suggested something extreme. I wondered if she’d ever consider forgiving him.

I was grateful when she didn’t recoil – or smack me with her notebook. Rather, she let the idea sink in, and I could see her body change as she thought it through, relaxing a little, as though to reflect rather than do battle.

We went on to discuss the truly terrifying aspect of evil – the fact that it isn’t monstrous, but eminently human. The people we hate, the people we must defeat, are not unlike ourselves. That doesn’t make the need to oppose and defeat them any less imperative. It just colors the engagement more meaningfully, even tragically.

I used to work criminal defense, so this subject has particular resonance for me. I had not just drug dealers and thieves as clients but killers as well. More than once I had to talk to a murder victim’s family face-to-face, and try to balance both my professional obligation to my client and my understanding of the terrible loss these people had endured, the outrage they felt, and their justifiable desire for vengeance. Just because I can understand or even empathize with a killer doesn’t mean I want him walking free. But if he spends his life in prison, or is put to death, I want it to be the evidence, not blind passion, that decides the matter.

[pullquote]The truly terrifying aspect of evil is that it’s eminently human.[/pullquote]

Seeking balance in the moral scales doesn’t mean avoiding stories where one side is clearly pursuing something you or your readers would most likely consider wrong—or even when both sides are morally compromised. But it does mean submerging yourself in the wrongdoer’s world and finding the justification that permits him to see his actions as not merely advantageous, but morally just and logically correct.

Even war and crime stories, where it’s often easiest to succumb to the good-versus-evil temptation, needn’t be reduced to moralistic simplicities, and the best are not.

Arguably the greatest battle in all of literature doesn’t pit Michael the Archangel against Lucifer, Saint George against the dragon, Uncle Sam against Hitler, or concern any other contest where only a deviant would root for the wrong side. It’s Achilles’s combat with Hector outside the walls of Troy. Neither warrior elicits our complete allegiance or enmity. Both, however, inspire us with their courage and skill. And when Achilles slays Hector, then desecrates his body, tying it to his chariot and dragging it around the city’s walls so all the Trojans can bear witness, he reminds us that the Greeks are not unqualified heroes. War honors not just valor but viciousness and hate.

Richard Price’s Clockers forever raised the bar for crime writers not just because of its realism, its pitch-perfect dialogue, or the vividness of its details, but because its two adversaries, the drug dealer Strike Dunham and the detective Rocco Klein, are permitted equal moral footing. We fully inhabit both their worlds, and root for each of them, though in distinctly different ways.

And yet (I hear you cry), doesn’t the reader deserve her catharsis? How can that come off if the climactic battle leaves her ambivalent, wondering if she didn’t misplace her allegiance?

This misunderstands the moral significance of regret. There are a great many things we must do even if we’d prefer to have done otherwise. A protagonist who defeats an opponent for whom we do not lack sympathy merely reminds us that every battle involves another human being. It’s not such a terrible truth to remember.

Who are your favorite opponents/villains? Do you love them because you can so readily understand them, or because they’re in fact so utterly different from anything or anyone you’ve ever encountered?

What makes an opponent more compelling – the fact that he could easily be one of us, or the fact he so clearly stands apart?

Do you find your opponents and villains easier to write than your heroes? Is that because you can easily empathize with them? Or is it because of something else?


About David Corbett [3]

David Corbett [4] (he/him) is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character [5], and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.