mwa ha ha, she chuckled evilly, stroking her little pet dog

1

An interesting thing about returning to a manuscript you haven’t looked at in months is the way you find yourself responding to the characters. They tend to come off the page differently than you remembered, maybe because this is the first time you’re seeing them that way — on the page as fully-formed creatures — instead of in your head, or in that process of getting from headspace to page. In both Bloodangel books I ended up changing the fate of characters I’d killed off in an earlier draft — partly because in some way their deaths didn’t feel right for what the story needed to be, and also because I liked them.

In the BA sequel, there’s a minor character I invented on the spot, filling in the blank of him as I went along, who wasn’t supposed to do much more than be background scenery and add a bit of shade and nuance to another, more important character. He died in an extremely plausible way, but it was still more for the sake of the author’s convenience than anything else (said author wanted to continue the scene with two characters, not three). When I went through the manuscript again some months later, I realized, This guy’s a sarcastic son-of-a-bitch. I kinda like that. Plus for some reason he started speaking with a British accent, and I liked that too. So he lives. (See how far a cool accent can get you?)

2

I can appreciate where people are coming from when they say things like “evil is a point of view”, but I can’t buy into this notion that evil is purely subjective. Sure, evil people never consider themselves to be evil — humans have that innate, amazing talent for self-justification, rationalization, denial — but I could, for example, consider myself to be a talented singer/born superstar, and wait in line through rain and cold and volcanic eruption to audition for Paula, Simon and Randy…but my belief, tragically, isn’t enough to make it so. There needs to be at least some degree of objective reality to support my perceptions, otherwise I am what you might call “slightly crazy” or even “that freak”.

Yes, evil is a loaded word, and it raises slippery issues about moral codes and how they get defined and who defines them…but on the other hand, is it really so difficult to recognize a vicious, destructive, dangerous act (child abuse, molestation, hate crimes, murder) for what it is? The act itself can be evil; it doesn’t necessarily mean the person is evil, if the act was an isolated event, if there were mitigating factors. Context counts for so much.

But if a person has systematically engaged in harmful acts over a long period of time — if his or her personal record demonstrates an objective reality of harm repeatedly committed against other people, regardless of what he or she claimed the motives to be — so much so that you can predict future behavior according to the past behavior, independent of context — the word ‘evil’ comes to mind. Particularly when children are involved. Particularly when the person in question does nothing to change.

I’ve heard some writers and aspiring writers talk about the importance of a shaded, nuanced villian — I agree with this. But the assumption then seems to be — an ‘evil’ character is flat, one-dimensional, cliched, etc.: the mustache-twirling dude who ties the pretty damsel to the railroad tracks. Thus, to have an interesting, full-bodied antagonist, the writer seems to feel the need to deny the possibility of some innate ‘evil’. Evil is the stuff of melodrama and cheesy genre novels; it has no place in literary realism and good genre novels.

But you can also look at ‘evil’ as a character trait, one of many. And if ‘evil’ is too loaded a term for you, you can call it something else — malignant self-absorption, lack of conscience, inability to see other people as ‘real’ but just raw material to be used for your own purposes, etc. An ‘evil’ person is perfectly capable of possessing admirable traits — intellectual curiosity, wit, sense of humor, cool unusual skillsets, etc. Maybe they’re even fond of animals, or loyal to their parents, or something, depending on whatever mental framework they’ve constructed through which to view the world, life in general, and their own all-important image of themselves. But many character traits are value-neutral; it’s another trait (compassion, empathy, social awareness, or utter lack of these things) that bend them into a beneficial or destructive direction.

In other words, if you want to write a truly evil character – or ‘eeeeevil!’ as one writer in an online community put it — but still want that character to be rounded and complex, it might help to think of his ‘eeeevil’-ness as just one part of his/her make-up, steering all his/her other parts into a particular kind of direction. But those other parts don’t need to be ‘evil’ in and of themselves — in fact, things get interesting when you take a quality generally regarded as ‘good’ (loyalty, for example) and see what happens when it gets corrupted (loyalty to Hitler).

I don’t mean to get preachy or anything. I’m not going to get all John Gardner on your ass and start pontificating about moral fiction. But when you’re drawn to a genre that obsesses about good vs evil, it seems like a great chance to explore these questions of what evil is, and how we come to terms, or try to, with the existence of it.

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