Jacob, from the Netherlands, posted a very long question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
How do I create Evil? (not an evil character, but just “evil”)
And should I?
Oaky, let’s see if I can put this in words?
I fear I need a bit of an introduction to this question:
I write about a precociuos girl (based on a real caharacter I met when I gave training in social skills to young delinquents. She is a bit like Lisbeth Salander form the millennium trilogy)
In my story this girl learns that “total freedom” does not exist. She learns that she has to bind herself to the people she loves. She learns that going head-on even if she is right (which often she is) is only getting her in worse trouble.
I want to write this transition (when you love/accept yourself, you can be more forgiving in the faults of others, something like that) not as a psychological novel, but as a supernatural thriller.
So the girl has two kinds of enemies: human, that is everyone who has authority, and supernatural ,that is the personification of the enemy within.
In scary books (I don’t use the word horror because there will be scary, but no bloody scenes in my book) the protagnosists fight against something truly evil.
I can make the human adversaries multi-dimensional.
I hesitate to use an evil force, because (almost by defentition) this is a one-dimensional force.
The origin of this force is the self-destructive part of my protagonist. But in my story I want to use this force as an external force. But by making it external, I also make it one-dimensional. There is my dilemma..
How to handle an evil force? And I don’t just mean enemy. She has those, and they are being worked out in step 3 of the snow flake.
Pure evil is a powerfull symbol, but how to give it body. Stephen King is the only one one I know of that can pull this off. As a reader i can follow him as long as the book is long. George Lucas did it when he created the dark side. Darth Vader is a character but the dark side just is. Now how did he pull off everybody not questioning the existence of a dark side. Because I can see no motive. Now I come to it, i can see no motive for the devil himself! World dominium? Boring! Maybe good enough for James Bond protagonists, but not for me.
(Yes I am a christian, but I believe in the devil only as a symbol)
The closest thing to a motive is Al Apcino in the devils advocate when he says that vanity is his favorite sin.
Please could you give me some insights in good an evil in a novell?
Not as in creating a multidimensional evil character, the snowflake takes care of that one (darth Vader I can manage). But what if you also want some really old fashioned black and white good and evil? How do you set up a mythology that works? Especially when it lies hidden beneath the real world.
Im afraid I am over my head (that is answering my own questions by coming up with new ones). But just in case you can give me some insight I will still click the “send email” button.
Randy sez: Wow, Jacob, that is a tough, tough question. I don’t know if the depth of my answer will match the depth of your question, but I’ll give it a shot.
You’re treating evil here as a noun. Maybe there is such a thing as evil incarnate, but it’s very difficult for most of us to visualize. I can’t see it, hear it, taste it, touch it, or smell it.
So why not simply stick with evil as an adjective? Then it will, as you say, be one-dimensional, but that’s okay because it’s one dimension of a very three-dimensional character.
Maybe I can’t see evil, but I can see a terrorist putting a knife into the belly of a pregnant woman. That’s evil.
Maybe I can’t hear evil, but I can hear the screams of an innocent girl being dragged into a back alley by a rapist. That’s evil.
Maybe I can’t touch evil, but I can feel the jackboots of the SS troops kicking me in the gut while they make an example of me in front of the other prisoners. That’s evil.
Show your reader evil in the actions of your characters. That’s how I’d show evil. I think that’s enough.
What do you think, O Loyal Blog Readers? Can you show pure and unalloyed evil in fiction? Or does evil need a body?
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
Carrie Neuman says
What’s the motivation for a hurricane or an earthquake? Some things are just forces of nature.
Did you see the movie Final Destination? The kids altered the natural order, and death is just trying to put it right. It’s more cause and effect than character. If the girl did Action X, then Consequence Y is coming for her.
I agree with you, though. Our attempts to personify evil usually come across as fairly cheesy. I don’t think most writers really get the vast scope of evil and so can’t portray it well.
I vote you trust your gut. If you don’t think you’d like writing evil personified, you probably won’t.
Kim Miller says
I think Jacob has significant insight in what he says about the dark side. The main thing about the dark side is that it is dark, it can’t be seen, it is hidden, it is never in the light. But we know it is there. OK, that’s a few main things but you can cope with that.
Perhaps when Lucas framed the phrase he hit on something that we know intrinsically. Evil is not a ‘something’, it is the absence of something else.
An author friend of mine calls evil a parasite. It can only exist because of the existence of the host, but the host can exist without the parasite.
Here is a practical outworking of this that might help Jacob. Genetically modified seeds are seen as either the salvation of the world’s food shortages, or the grasping for control of the world’s food by a few companies bent on control of the market. But what if Jacob’s book was about such a social issue and the the decision the protagonist had to make was whether to join a GM company or go underground with a renegade heritage seed bank? ‘GM’ would then be new dark side.
‘Come over to GM,’ might be the catchphrase. We will know what that means to the character. It means the personal struggle between good and evil and needs no further explanation.
Perhaps Jacob’s answer has to do with the characters facing a personal decision and not with a description of evil itself.
Kim Miller says
I have another thought on this.
Consider a school yard bully. He bullies other kids because it makes him feel safe, even thought it doesn’t stop him from feeling frightened. The option for the bully is to allow other kids to be themselves, but that is too risky because he loses some sense of control.
So he has a choice. He chooses safety but still fearful. Or he chooses a continuing risk which is also still fearful for him.
Safe and fearful, or risky and fearful? Which one will he choose? Well, considering he is a bully he will choose the former, which is the way of evil.
So, I suggest that somehow, choosing evil gives us a feeling of safety, even though underneath we are still fearful. People choose evil ways of doing things because it seems safer. Good ways of doing things seem riskier.
Perhaps Jacob can formulate a way to encapsulate the decision in terms of safety or risk and the concept of evil will emerge quite naturally in the mind of the reader. We know when someone has taken a moral shortcut, and we don’t like it.
I believe there are two ways to show evil. There is indeed the personification – the demented mind – the schizophrenic – the psycho, whatever form you like. However for evil to be a feeling or an air, it needs to be established in the rules of your world. Like in Star Wars, ‘the Dark Side’ was part of the rules of the world and, though evil, became a fact and therefore, though most of the characters in the story were ignorant of it, those in the know merely learned to recognize it. What they then did with it brought the issue back to personification. Once the characters in the book accept an issue as one of those unchangeable facts of life, like rain falling, then the reader will easily accept these facts too.
ML Eqatin says
Jacob, your problem with writing evil stems from your life experience. From your comments, I don’t think you have dealt with much of it. And of course, your reader may or may not have had to grapple with the concept of Evil.
So my suggestion is that you start researching some of what’s going on in the world that’s evil. Watch Hotel Rwanda and Schindler’s List and the Killing Fiends a few times, each time saying to yourself, “They prettied this up so people would stay in the theater.”
Then go research human trafficking. Spend some time sitting with the results of a force that is actively opposed to good in the world. Maybe spend time with whoever in your own life is in the grip of evil–do you have relatives who are drug addicts or alcoholics? Think about the process and the choices they are making and who it hurts.
Then you will find your writing of Evil much more powerful.
ML Eqatin says
Make that ‘the Killing FIELDS’. Oops.
Carrie L. Lewis says
You will write about anything to the level you understand it, perceive it or learn about it. I can write about art fairly well because I’ve been doing it for thirty years, for example.
You might consider exploring the definitions of evil as viewed through other religions. The Star Wars series, for example, was based on a conglomeration of all kinds of religions with a heavy emphasis on eastern religions.
Getting outside your own perceptions of what makes evil and good (you can’t have one without the other … they define each other) will give you a broader picture of the subject you’re dealing with. You can then pick boil down the Evil you need for your story from that.
Trevor LS says
It sounds like you are trying to give the character’s inner struggle an outward symbol or visualization.
If the source of this evil is self destructive tendencies and the capacity for evil inside us, then why not give it the same face as the main character.
You can make it an overtly psychological phenomenon, i.e. the Gollum / Smeagol dynamic in The Lord of the Rings, or maybe something more subtle as in a dream visitation.
Even if you are trying to represent a force outside of the character, it might be neat to have it appear as her reflection, an imaginary “friend”, or even just a voice in her head. This kind of evil would create tension just by being so intimate.
Either way, I would treat it as another character, with motives and goals. Think of what the good character’s fears are, and how they could be used to manipulate her.
Kevin (teen writer) says
Here’s an idea. What if you could make the concept both one dimensional and multidimensional. Allow me to explain.
Let’s say that the evil is a Mafia. Throughout the story, the Mafia can be considered the embodiment of evil. Now, what if various aspects of the Mafia and it’s people are slowly introduced as the reader continues to dive into the story? Each character or branch of the Mafia could utilize completely different techniques or motives. “Mafia” sums up evil in it’s entirety, but the revelation of different motives and amounts of severity by those within can add the depth that you’re striving to implement.
Daniel Smith says
Difficult it is. Though I liked Kim’s answer very much, I will try a different approach to answer this question.
I posit that Jacob can’t “write” evil because he doesn’t “understand” it and can’t because he doesn’t “believe” in it as he said. If writing is creating a powerful emotional experience in the reader how much more the experience must exist in the writer!
Jacob, if you read your bible then you will read about Jesus speaking of evil as a person – the devil or satan. He has many names including a red dragon in John’s Revelation.
The story of Satan’s origin is scattered and fragmented in the bible, but understanding his origin may help you understand evil better. Some believe that the book of Job is the oldest in the bible – and there’s good textual support for this. The first part of Job describes Satan not as the great seducing serpent of Genesis, but like a prosecutor in a heavenly courtroom.
Isaiah describes his transformation from a beautiful, gem-encrusted “angel of light” to a proud being who thought that he could ascend the throne and replace the almighty. So God struck him down. His sin – the real original sin – was pride. Naturally, he wasn’t happy with this and so intends to corrupt God’s creation – us. He knows his fate is sealed (Revelation) so he actively works against God’s greatest creation – us – and God lets him do this! Why? Because Satan is just a tool to God. God is using Satan to purify individual humans desires and motivations so that they can honestly choose Him. This can’t happen without a choice between good and evil so Satan, like it or not, is God’s tool, a prosecutor, our denouncer – in order to prove us faithful.
To understand Satan (Christianity’s evil-incarnate) takes an understanding of all the facets of his being – serpent, dragon, fallen angel, prosecutor, etc. Satan is all of those things and more at the same time. Each shows a sliver of what evil incarnate is, but take them together and a much fuller picture emerges. Thinking about these things and reading the stories should help you understand evil (at least from the Christian perspective) and the better you understand it, the better you can write it.
Daniel Smith says
And ML Eqatin’s answer is good practical advice. Watch some of those movies. Also, since you are from the Netherlands, why not take a day and visit the various holocaust museums and monuments? They should not be too far. Being immersed in that history may well give you what words on a page or pictures on a screen cannot.
There have been some very good answers posted here, and Randy, you made a very good attempt to give an answer to such a murky question, but I see another question: What is evil, its motivation? This is something that I’ve thought about a lot, so I will try to articulate my own thoughts on this. However, before I begin, let me say that it’s my own thoughts and I very well could be wrong.
What is evil? Evil is any thing or person that wants what it wants, and doesn’t care by what means he achieves his desire; he will use deceit, hurt, or any other means that we know instinctively is wrong.
What is evil’s motivation? There are many answers to this. Pride, greed, power, the usual motives can be listed in an endless litany. However, I think that evil’s truest motive is that it always wants to hurt others, and it wants to eliminate what is Pure and Good. Satan knows he has already lost the battle against God and he is already damned to hell, but he wants to take as many souls with him as he can. Hitler wanted to eradicate the Jews, and while he claimed that it would promote the Germans to the highest pedestal of race, I believe that this was all a lie. Islamic terrorists want to kill people, particularly people who are doing good in the world, like America. Communists (like in Russia during the Cold War, for example) claimed that their concepts would make everyone equal and establish a higher and better way of living for everyone, but they brought people to the lowest of humanity, and they didn’t care. Whatever the excuse evil gives as a motivation for its goals, if you cut it all away you can see that they just want to hurt and destroy.
I don’t know if I’ve done a very good job trying to support my answer, but I wish Jason luck on his WIP, and I hope that I and everyone else has helped him understand his question.
You guys have posted some excellent insight. MLE’s post got me thinking about the next step in the personification of “evil” and I think that’s in the space in between the words you write. I’m talking mood.
Many writers invoke that sense of foreboding in their work, even when there is no “villain” in a scene, and I think that is what Jacob might have been getting at. You don’t have to read horror or slasher novels to see “evil” in that way, but a well written psychological thriller will show you that. When the mood puts you on the edge of your seat, or when you see the pieces of the story coming together and you KNOW something BAD is about to happen.
Poe knew how to use that dark side of the emotions to create an “evil” mood.
And on a side note, pay attention the next time you see a film where there is a definite villain causing problems. Many sound mixers will include very low frequency bass in the score during tense scenes, or anytime the villain is on screen. VLF is more felt than heard and it makes you tense up, causing that sense of foreboding and unease.
I never expected to get so many answers. And so many great ones at that. I took some time for me tot take it all in.
All your answers help in an tremendous way. So many insights and practical advice. I gladly accept them all.
Kims answer is great, evil as a parasite fits in well.
Trevor is spot on when he remarks: it sounds like you are trying to give the character’s inner struggle an outward symbol or visualization.
His idea to show it as her reflection, an imaginary “friend”, is along the lines I was thinking myself. The idea to give it her face is new, and a welcome one!
Daniel Smith notion of the “pride” as the original sin is also helpful in understanding evil.
Thanks to your answers I have a lot more insight in what I want, and in how to personificate the outward symbolisation of evil.
It is indeed about choices:
My MC feels she is bullied by the world. Adults make the decisions, by her great surprise, most often not on rational grounds. She can’t understand why people who obviously can’t make sensible decisions should be in power to decide over her fate. She is NOT letting them do this: ever!
(I really met a girl in my training that was like this. She argued so well, that in most cases I had to give it to her that she was right. But there was something “frozen” in het attitude that I wanted to melt: By being this way she fenced of others. I thought it would be good for her to sometimes be vulnerable. She even didn’t want other people to be worried about her. She took that as another invasion in her free mind. The lesson I had for her was that she had to connect to life, to other people. And a connection is a bond. And a bond is willingly let go some of your “freedom”.)
In my story she experiments with mushrooms and finds out that these give her the power over other people’s minds. Now she has some shortcuts to get what she wants. But of course she opens Pandora’s box. She unleashes evil. Of course she doesn’t realize this, because she thinks it is a way to set things straight. In the end she realize that letting go is the only answer by which she can put evil back in the box. (A terrible choice for her because her girlfriend/partner is killed (in and accident that leaves her feeling guilty) and by letting go she also declines the power to undo this accident.
Thank you all. I see the darkness much clearer now.
All the others I didn’t mention: Thanks al lot. All your answers have been helpful.
Myric is right. You guys have posted some excellent insight.
Kim Miller says
Hi again, Jacob,
You might like to chase up Ursula Le Guin’s book, ‘The Wizard of Earthsea’. This is an exploration of evil as the inner shadow.
A self-important young trainee wizard unwittingly unleashes a dark monster and spends the rest of the book firstly running from it, then chasing it down to destroy it. The final confrontation comes when he recognises it as his own inner self. He names it with his own name and gains victory, by which time he’s learned the humility that would have prevented the whole thing from happening in the first place.
I read this when I was 18.
One of my favourites, and probably subconsciously responsible for my approach. Now I have to watch out that I don’t copy this idea.
Kim Miller says
The ‘idea’ is universal, what Jung calls an archetype. Jung’s point of view differs from the ‘parasite’ idea. He says that without evil, good can’t exist. That is the whole point of Ged assimilating his shadow in Earthsea.
You might benefit from reading some James Campbell stuff on mythology. He’s got a four volume set called ‘The Masks of God’, and ‘Primitive Mythology’ is most likely to be fruitful for you in exploring how concepts of evil show up in various guises.
kinjal kishor says
Sauron in LOR is faceless and does not feel like anything. His black commanders are also kind of faceless and meaningless feeling like statues of terror, to hobbits of course. On the other hand is the demon king Ravana in Indian myth epic Ramayan, who is powerful, learned but still very arrogant. His arrogance provides lots of comedy in the war portion where he converses with his ministers and messengers of hero Rama(who is avatar of a major indian god in human form), while on the other hand the sheer power, knowledge and recklessness of Ravana is terrifying. He does evil due to arrogance but is really havibg a sane mind too. This makes him likeable and hateable botha t same time. He is really funny and interesting villain while in no way he is wea or coward.
Nicolas Nelson says
Great conversation here! Looking back at Jacob’s original question, I thought of something that others have hinted at or touched upon, but which I’ll try to say plainly.
The _ ways I convey a sense of evil in a story are:
1. Just as Randy says: describe evil actions. And words. And expressions. And occasionally give the reader a peek at the evil characters’ inner thought life, which can either be damning or excusing, but must always leave the reader with a sense of dread (if they care at all about the other characters).
2. Describe evil’s results: make the reader (through the POV of other characters) see, smell, feel what evil has achieved so far. See the heap of smoldering skeletons being bulldozed into the river– or stay up late preparing for the next morning’s corrective surgery, rendered so much more risky by the extent and severity of the deformities caused by the neonatal radioactive/chemical/biowarfare/?? pollution. Whatever. Take time to explore how evil has already warped your storyworld, then make sure the reader discovers that in a way that arouses emotions appropriate to advancing your plot.
3. Describe physical surroundings that inspire the feeling in your reader (and your POV character at the time) that you are trying to convey– foreboding, depression, despair, even insanity (google H.P. Lovecraft and read a short story of his, for a classic example of this).
4. Describe the POV’s own inner foreboding! Take care to do this carefully, or you’ll come across heavy-handed (a possible pitfall in every facet of writing, but this bit in particular I find challenging). One author who does this very well is John B. Olson– see either “Shade” or “Powers” for terrific examples of this. Olson can put a character in a cheery bistro in the sun and yet convey a sense of growing fear and approaching doom merely by experiencing the bistro through the POV’s paranoia… which is justified by his use of approaches 1 and 2 above. And even # 3. The character may know all too well that only a thin slab of concrete separates the sunny bistro from the squalid cellar and sewers below… and are they imagining that smell, so out of place among the smiling faces here on the street? Or… is the slab beginning to crack?
Happy writing, Jacob!
Nicolas Nelson says
…oops… that would be “the 4 ways I convey a sense of evil”… my bad. 😉