Thursday, February 1, 2018

Good and Evil in Stories

Interesting, complex characters aren't "grey", since grey is still only a mixture of black and white. Good characters have colour. And for that storytellers need to shift more towards an alternative worldview ...

The very idea that there is only one true god expresses that
there is only one right way to think and to live and everything else is bad and linked to evil forces.

One advice storytellers often hear is not to make their characters black or white but grey. Everybody seems to be fed up with shiny, good, pretty heroes fighting evil queens, overlords and their ugly henchmen. So the advice is to put both good and evil into one's own characters, to blend black and white into various shades of grey. This, people say, turns two-dimensional characters into complex three-dimensional characters.

However, what people often forget is that grey is, still, a mixture of black and white. It technically isn't even a colour. "Grey" is still a symptom of a two-dimensional, even deeply religious worldview.

Good, Evil and Religion

I'm not quite sure when this binary perception of the world first was created, but there's no denying that monotheistic religions eagerly make use of it. The very idea that there is only one true god expresses that there is only one right way to think and to live and everything else is bad and linked to evil forces.

When it comes to two-dimensional stories, the good characters usually show traits that are considered good by the respective society. This is why the good heroes are often so interchangeable. Since they usually have the same traits, they can as well be one and the same person. Naturally, the same applies to the evil characters who embody traits that are considered bad.

This interchangeability of characters is what makes traditional stories boring. This may also be the reason why especially the old Disney fairytales rely so heavily on side characters to make their stories entertaining. But, as mentioned above, just mixing black and white doesn't really solve the problem.

On Mixing Good and Evil

Grey remains black and white, simply because it is made of black and white. When you say a character is grey you mean that there are traits about him that are considered "good" by society, usually influenced by a monotheistic religion, as well as traits that are considered "evil", again, usually under influence of some monotheistic religion that dictates the one and only right way to live.

The only thing the notion of "grey characters" does is to admit that no human being can keep up with ideals and that we all are "flawed". But the very notion of "flawed" still suggests that there is a right way to live. And this is a very religious view of the world.

Alternatives to Good and Evil

Storytellers who dive deeper into psychology realize that a deep, complex character doesn't consist of random "good" and "bad" traits. They know that the "good" and "bad" traits are usually two sides of one and the same coin. An introverted character, for example, may appear cold and arrogant to others, but once someone has earned their trust they may turn out to be the most loyal friend. An extroverted character, on the other hand, may quickly befriend every person he meets, but fail to realize that he sometimes gets too pushy. Every trait can be "good" and "evil", depending on the circumstances.

This way of thinking is a bit related to the philosophy of utilitarianism. According to John Stuart Mill, the right thing to do is what brings most pleasure to most people. Mill also distinguishes between "higher" (intellectual and moral) pleasures and "lower" (physical) pleasures, arguing that "higher" pleasures bring happiness while "lower" pleasures bring contentment. Or to put it in Mill's own words: 
"[I]t is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied".

When applying utilitarianism to different situations it once again seems like what is "good" and what is "evil" depends on the situation, i.e. on what would make most people happy. Which, sometimes, may be a deed that deprives people of contentment and thus may feel like "evil" to them.

Another alternative is Aristotle's view that there are no rules for what is right and what is wrong. Being "good" means doing the right thing, depending on the situation. According to Aristotle, "good" and "bad" aren't opposites. They aren't sides of the same coin either. "Bad" is rather defined as everything that is extreme while "good" is everything reasonable. This means, for example, that the two-dimensional opposition between courage and cowardice is rather an opposition between recklessness and cowardice with (reasonable) courage lying in between. A truly courageous person isn't someone who fights no matter what; it is a person who thinks first and then decides whether to fight or to pull back.

Personally I believe Game of Thrones to be a good illustration of Aristotelian ethics: There are no characters who are entirely without "fault". The characters who are most likeable are rather those with the most balanced psyche. The internet is full with lists of the mental disorders Game of Thrones characters display. Many characters have extremely unbalanced personalities, some of them being too "evil", like Ramsay Bolton, and some of them being too trusting, good and naive like Sansa Stark in the earlier seasons. Both extremes appear unlikeable, one from the standpoint of traditional morality, the other from the standpoint of reason. On the other hand, everyone's favourite character, Tyrion Lannister, is, despite his alcohol issues, one of the most reasonable and adaptable characters on the show. He's neither cruel nor foolish. He knows when to lie and when to tell the truth. He manipulates other people when he has to, but he's still far from being a monster. Unlike most characters, he uses both his heart and his mind.

Grey vs. Colour

Interesting characters aren't grey, since they are not a mixture of good and evil. They are just people. They have many colours and shades and whether they are perceived as "good" or "evil" depends on the situation and perspective.

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