Thursday, January 7, 2010

What Is Evil?

I was reading a post on a blog by mystery writers today and the subject of the post was "evil." The individual who put up the post made a difference between "evil incarnate" and "evil" that is mixed in with the everyday and mundane. She gave John Wayne Gacy as an example of evil incarnate, and some guy in a Polo shirt knocking on your door at night wanting to speak with her roommate as the other. She went on to add that sometimes the latter causes you to react, to realize that something is simply askew. There is evil in the normal, yet you sense it and it makes for fiction, I suppose.

The question that arises in my mind is, "What is evil anyway?" Do you react like the federal judge who, when ruling on a pornography case, said, "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it."? Do you draw firm guidelines, based on the Biblical? Are there shades of gray? When writing genre fiction, are you better served drawing characters who are either evil or good, or are you better off dealing with those who display characteristics of both? These are difficult questions and I suspect that every writer, and every piece of fiction has a different answer, that is to say that one writer may have different answers to this question on different days.

I know that many horror genre writers go for the pure good and pure evil. Stephen King has made a career out of drawing characters who embody pure evil. No nuance there. Yet he has made it work. He continually writes tomes based solely on the idea that there is an ongoing battle between good and evil, and his evil characters are definitely "evil incarnate." I must admit that he has written other kinds of fiction that are more nuanced, but these are not what the Stephen King franchise, the Stephen King fortune are based upon. Plain old good vs. evil, black vs. white are what he has sold the public, and he has done it well. It is, however, horror genre fiction. What about mysteries and thrillers?

I have read a good many crime fiction novels and there are those where the bad guys are the kind of guys who may be described as "evil." These are the kind of people who would just as soon shoot you as look at you, not immoral so much as amoral. They are people who are in it for themselves, and what they can get out of any situation. In real life there are people who fit this archetype. This is "evil incarnate." They are people, who you look squarely in the eye, only to find a moral vacuum that dares you to keep looking, that dares you to hold on to your own principles and morality in that piercing stare, that threatens to suck you into that vacuum.

I have encountered and felt that kind of evil. It offers possibilities for fiction. On the other hand most bad stuff that happens in this world is perpetrated, not by truly evil persons, but by ordinary persons who do stupid shit. There are basically good people who fudge the boundaries a little, thinking it's okay, and circumstances lead them further and further astray, until they are doing things that even they, themselves, find despicable. Some of them find God in prison, thinking that they have redeemed their previous faults. Some of them lose their bearings and drift further and further into the world of the truly evil. Some of them commit suicide, after realizing what they've done. Some just continue being dumb shits and straddle some line, sometimes being the saint, sometimes being the sinner.

For myself, in my current effort to write a mystery novel, it is the latter that intrigues me. How is it that basically good, normal people get sucked into doing stuff that is pretty bad? Dealing drugs. Killing another person in a fit of rage. How does the string of events that emerge out of the previous lead a person into a downward spiraling sequence of events that ends in shootouts with the police? How is it that people of questionable morality, bad, if not inherently evil, can end up being people who do good things for humanity? Who are the police, if not flawed individuals who at times embody both good and evil? What I'm talking about is the nuance and contradiction of the human condition. What I'm talking about is the sheer dumbassness of some people that cause them to go from being ordinary citizens and people next door to being somebody on the evening news.

Perhaps, next time I will have a character who oozes "evil incarnate," but for now I'm stuck on those who are just "sad sacks" who did something really dumbass, and set off a chain of events that result in a story worth telling. This is the nature of humanity more often than not. The other, the "evil incarnate," that's a different side of it altogether. While the movies and TV shows are full of it, it is much less normal as a happening than the mundane that somehow sprouts an act that results in evil doings.

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