Humans have always struggled with the question: what is good, what is evil? A primordial dilemma, evil paints the picture of villains, antagonists, darkness, violence, and oppression. No one likes evilness, but what is being evil in fiction? Is wickedness a subjective phenomenon of the ego?
A Story of Black and White
With the Hero’s Journey, the protagonist is drawn on a campaign, fights the antagonist, and finishes the quest. The antagonist may be a villain, or another force trying to foil the hero. There are many types of heroes as there are villains., but heroes are not always good, and villains may not always be evil. This spectrum of good-evil paints a more realistic picture as seen in human nature, and helps connect with readers.
Ergo, the good versus evil conflict often adheres to a black/white trope. To make distinguishing characters easier. Evil characters prefer hurting or manipulating others for personal gain. That said, an antagonist shouldn’t be evil just for the hell of it. That paints a dry, undeveloped antagonist.
Shades of Gray
While heroes are virtuous and villains cruel, protagonists move the plot towards a goal and the antagonist opposes it. A hero could be an antagonist, and the villain the protagonist. Think Infinity War, where Thanos, the protagonist, achieved his goal of getting the Infinity Stones.
In the olden days, stories always had the hero as the protagonist. Everyone wants to see goodness win, right? Well, that gets old. Fast. With the rise of anti-heroes, everything isn’t so black and white anymore. Readers connect with anti-heroes so well because they reflect the mixed nature of humans.
Anti-heroes are a curious breed due to their methods and personalities, which are a lot more chaotic than most heroes. They often jump between good and evil polarities at will, as long as it serves their goals. This makes them a strong protagonist, shoving the plot forward continuously. Traditional heroes may come off as bland, unrealistic, or predictable; but their adherence to virtue makes them likable and appreciated.
Meanwhile, the antagonist force may be a dark god, a federation to preserve tradition, or an organization dedicated to eradicating a certain species from a world.
Good and Evil in Worldbuilding
Plot is, in essence, a tug of war between two opposing forces. Light vs. dark, good vs. evil, freedom vs. security, knight vs. dragon, unstoppable force vs. unmovable object—and so on. There are a variety to pick from for a story. A traditional good vs. evil may come off as cliche and underdeveloped. Involving more depth, more reasoning behind the motivations of each force, is helpful.
- What does the protagonist want to achieve? How will he do it?
- Why is the antagonist opposing him? What methods will the antagonist use?
- How could a reader classify the relationship, the tug-of-war, between these two forces?
- Is the protagonist a force for good? Whose good?
- What does the antagonist wish to protect from the protagonist?
With the relationship between the two forces established, use it to create tension and drive the plot. If either the protagonist or antagonist receives too much slack, the plot—or the rope in the tug-of-war—will go flaccid. Of course, the protagonist must eventually win, but not until the end of the Hero’s Journey.
Case Study: Pepper Slyhart
As the protagonist of Ethereal Seals, Pepper has traits of the typical hero: sympathetic, courageous, and ambitious. But, she is prone to anger, reckless behavior, and shortsightedness. Society often looks down on her, given her half-dragon genetics, and she falls into depression and brooding. Given her chaotic good character, she has a tendency towards extremism, sometimes hurting or neglecting others in the process of achieving her goals. This places her slightly towards the anti-hero spectrum, but not quite in it.
For those into David Hawkins’ work, Pepper calibrates only in the 200s and 300s in the scale of consciousness. Her habit to dip into anger, fear, desire, and pride makes her unpredictable and dangerous to friends and enemies alike.
Mapping Out Good & Evil
On the chart above, we see the theory on emotions and states of consciousness. Note the level 200, where courage begins and pride ends. Now, for the sake of argument, let’s say emotions that calibrate below 200 are ‘evil’. This paints villains as individuals stuck in states like shame, guilt, fear, and pride. If so, evil characters in fiction are those suffering from these demented states. Heroes would associate more with the upper states of consciousness; those above 200.
David Hawkins states that 200 begins a transformation in consciousness, from self-serving to all-loving. This doesn’t mean individuals never fall back below 200, but that they will establish around their average level of consciousness. As a plot progresses, heroes should, therefore, rise in consciousness. Villain may fall back, as their flaws remain unresolved.
In this context, evil is a form of unresolved inner conflict, whereas good is an upward driving force. The hero serves as a reflection of the villain, and vice versa, as both parties still have some element of good and evil within them—no matter how small. That’s human nature. Fiction is a story about life, about who we are on this planet.
And that, my friends, is why I’ve fallen in love with it.
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Aspectä rey’lief, fair reader.
—Ed R. White