• strict warning: Declaration of FeedsImporter::copy() should be compatible with FeedsConfigurable::copy(FeedsConfigurable $configurable) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/feeds/includes/FeedsImporter.inc on line 94.
  • strict warning: Declaration of FeedsNodeProcessor::map() should be compatible with FeedsProcessor::map($source_item, $target_item = NULL) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/feeds/plugins/FeedsNodeProcessor.inc on line 319.
  • strict warning: Declaration of FeedsNodeProcessor::setTargetElement() should be compatible with FeedsProcessor::setTargetElement(&$target_item, $target_element, $value) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/feeds/plugins/FeedsNodeProcessor.inc on line 319.
  • strict warning: Declaration of FeedsFeedNodeProcessor::map() should be compatible with FeedsProcessor::map($source_item, $target_item = NULL) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/feeds/plugins/FeedsFeedNodeProcessor.inc on line 227.
  • strict warning: Declaration of FeedsFeedNodeProcessor::setTargetElement() should be compatible with FeedsProcessor::setTargetElement(&$target_item, $target_element, $value) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/feeds/plugins/FeedsFeedNodeProcessor.inc on line 227.
  • strict warning: Declaration of FeedsUserProcessor::map() should be compatible with FeedsProcessor::map($source_item, $target_item = NULL) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/feeds/plugins/FeedsUserProcessor.inc on line 195.
  • warning: preg_replace(): Compilation failed: disallowed Unicode code point (>= 0xd800 && <= 0xdfff) at offset 1809 in /home/writezil/public_html/modules/search/search.module on line 334.
  • warning: preg_replace(): Compilation failed: disallowed Unicode code point (>= 0xd800 && <= 0xdfff) at offset 1809 in /home/writezil/public_html/modules/search/search.module on line 334.
  • warning: preg_replace(): Compilation failed: disallowed Unicode code point (>= 0xd800 && <= 0xdfff) at offset 1809 in /home/writezil/public_html/modules/search/search.module on line 334.
  • warning: preg_replace(): Compilation failed: disallowed Unicode code point (>= 0xd800 && <= 0xdfff) at offset 1809 in /home/writezil/public_html/modules/search/search.module on line 334.
  • warning: preg_replace(): Compilation failed: disallowed Unicode code point (>= 0xd800 && <= 0xdfff) at offset 1809 in /home/writezil/public_html/modules/search/search.module on line 334.
  • warning: preg_replace(): Compilation failed: disallowed Unicode code point (>= 0xd800 && <= 0xdfff) at offset 1809 in /home/writezil/public_html/modules/search/search.module on line 334.
  • You must include at least one positive keyword with 3 characters or more.
  • strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 843.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_plugin_display::options_validate() should be compatible with views_plugin::options_validate(&$form, &$form_state) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/plugins/views_plugin_display.inc on line 1877.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_plugin_display_block::options_submit() should be compatible with views_plugin_display::options_submit(&$form, &$form_state) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/plugins/views_plugin_display_block.inc on line 193.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_field_broken::ui_name() should be compatible with views_handler::ui_name($short = false) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_field.inc on line 641.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_sort_broken::ui_name() should be compatible with views_handler::ui_name($short = false) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_sort.inc on line 82.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_filter::options_validate() should be compatible with views_handler::options_validate($form, &$form_state) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_filter.inc on line 585.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_filter::options_submit() should be compatible with views_handler::options_submit($form, &$form_state) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_filter.inc on line 585.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_filter_broken::ui_name() should be compatible with views_handler::ui_name($short = false) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_filter.inc on line 609.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_filter_boolean_operator::value_validate() should be compatible with views_handler_filter::value_validate($form, &$form_state) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_filter_boolean_operator.inc on line 128.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_plugin_style_default::options() should be compatible with views_object::options() in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/plugins/views_plugin_style_default.inc on line 25.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_plugin_row::options_validate() should be compatible with views_plugin::options_validate(&$form, &$form_state) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/plugins/views_plugin_row.inc on line 135.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_plugin_row::options_submit() should be compatible with views_plugin::options_submit(&$form, &$form_state) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/plugins/views_plugin_row.inc on line 135.
  • strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 843.
  • strict warning: Declaration of content_handler_field::options() should be compatible with views_object::options() in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/cck/includes/views/handlers/content_handler_field.inc on line 208.
  • strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 843.
  • strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 843.
  • strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 843.
  • strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 843.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_argument::init() should be compatible with views_handler::init(&$view, $options) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_argument.inc on line 745.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_argument_broken::ui_name() should be compatible with views_handler::ui_name($short = false) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_argument.inc on line 770.

Justifying Evil

 
Photographer Unknown
No, this isn’t another post about the Amazon-Hachette imbroglio.
I recently took part (along with WU’s Donald Maas) in the Surrey International Writers Conference outside Vancouver, absolutely one of the best literary powwows I’ve ever attended, and I’ve been to scads. (Sadly, I’m unable to attend the WU Un-conference beginning today. I have no doubt it’s even powwowier!)
One of the workshops I gave at the Surrey conference was titled Beyond Good and Evil: Using Moral Argument to Develop Plot & Character.
Moral argument as a structural device expands the thematic range of the conflict from a battle of individuals to a contest of moral visions. Each character is seen as seeking to create, maintain, or defend a way of life – an idea of what it means to live well among others – and if the conflict in the story is crafted well, these ways of life are ultimately antithetical.
This is what Lajos Egri (The Art of Dramatic Writing) meant by the Unity of Opposites – a tightly woven conflict in which the protagonist and the opponent (or the problem/challenge the protagonist faces) are inextricably bound together, so that escape or compromise is impossible. Either the opponent must be defeated (or the problem solved, the challenge met), or the protagonist fails in a shattering, life-changing way – in a sense, she dies, if not physically then emotionally, morally, professionally.
But the stakes are also ultimate for the opponent – otherwise the protagonist’s victory or success is diminished. A hero who overcomes a facile, underdeveloped or unconvincing opponent – or solves an unimpressive problem, meets a humdrum challenge – will fail to engage the reader in a memorable way.
We need to see life through the eyes of someone we would most likely flee, berate, or even despise if we made their actual acquaintance.

To stage conflict meaningfully the stakes have to be ultimate for all concerned, and this requires understanding the opponent’s perspective just as fully as the protagonist’s.
This requires that we justify – not judge – our opponent’s worldview. We can’t remain outside this character, feeling toward him but not for him. Stepping into his shoes is just the beginning. Sooner or later, we have to inhabit his heart and soul.
This often means we need to see life through the eyes of someone we would most likely flee, berate, or even despise if we made their actual acquaintance. And this requires that we not just accept but champion, embrace — dare I say it, love — someone we consider fundamentally mistaken, hurtful, even evil.
I know. Writers have all the fun.
And yet…
As one of my students at the conference noted, doesn’t this mean that we as writers become essentially amoral?
I responded that it’s important we recognize the difference between understanding the opponent’s behavior and condoning it.
Just because I can understand or even empathize with a killer doesn’t mean I want him walking free.

This difference came up vividly in one of my manuscript reviews, where the writer, a former nurse, was basing her tale on an event she herself witnessed, involving a doctor whose willful negligence led to a patient’s death.
Her problem, she admitted, was that her feelings toward this doctor, whom she described as arrogant, spiteful, greedy, and fundamentally dishonest, was in fact limiting her portrayal of him. She couldn’t even discuss him without palpable – and understandable — disgust and contempt.
At which point I suggested something extreme. I wondered if she’d ever consider forgiving him.
I was grateful when she didn’t recoil – or smack me with her notebook. Rather, she let the idea sink in, and I could see her body change as she thought it through, relaxing a little, as though to reflect rather than do battle.
We went on to discuss the truly terrifying aspect of evil – the fact that it isn’t monstrous, but eminently human. The people we hate, the people we must defeat, are not unlike ourselves. That doesn’t make the need to oppose and defeat them any less imperative. It just colors the engagement more meaningfully, even tragically.
I used to work criminal defense, so this subject has particular resonance for me. I had not just drug dealers and thieves as clients but killers as well. More than once I had to talk to a murder victim’s family face-to-face, and try to balance both my professional obligation to my client and my understanding of the terrible loss these people had endured, the outrage they felt, and their justifiable desire for vengeance. Just because I can understand or even empathize with a killer doesn’t mean I want him walking free. But if he spends his life in prison, or is put to death, I want it to be the evidence, not blind passion, that decides the matter.
The truly terrifying aspect of evil is that it’s eminently human.

Seeking balance in the moral scales doesn’t mean avoiding stories where one side is clearly pursuing something you or your readers would most likely consider wrong—or even when both sides are morally compromised. But it does mean submerging yourself in the wrongdoer’s world and finding the justification that permits him to see his actions as not merely advantageous, but morally just and logically correct.
Even war and crime stories, where it’s often easiest to succumb to the good-versus-evil temptation, needn’t be reduced to moralistic simplicities, and the best are not.
Arguably the greatest battle in all of literature doesn’t pit Michael the Archangel against Lucifer, Saint George against the dragon, Uncle Sam against Hitler, or concern any other contest where only a deviant would root for the wrong side. It’s Achilles’s combat with Hector outside the walls of Troy. Neither warrior elicits our complete allegiance or enmity. Both, however, inspire us with their courage and skill. And when Achilles slays Hector, then desecrates his body, tying it to his chariot and dragging it around the city’s walls so all the Trojans can bear witness, he reminds us that the Greeks are not unqualified heroes. War honors not just valor but viciousness and hate.
Richard Price’s Clockers forever raised the bar for crime writers not just because of its realism, its pitch-perfect dialogue, or the vividness of its details, but because its two adversaries, the drug dealer Strike Dunham and the detective Rocco Klein, are permitted equal moral footing. We fully inhabit both their worlds, and root for each of them, though in distinctly different ways.
And yet (I hear you cry), doesn’t the reader deserve her catharsis? How can that come off if the climactic battle leaves her ambivalent, wondering if she didn’t misplace her allegiance?
This misunderstands the moral significance of regret. There are a great many things we must do even if we’d prefer to have done otherwise. A protagonist who defeats an opponent for whom we do not lack sympathy merely reminds us that every battle involves another human being. It’s not such a terrible truth to remember.
Who are your favorite opponents/villains? Do you love them because you can so readily understand them, or because they’re in fact so utterly different from anything or anyone you’ve ever encountered?
What makes an opponent more compelling – the fact that he could easily be one of us, or the fact he so clearly stands apart?
Do you find your opponents and villains easier to write than your heroes? Is that because you can easily empathize with them? Or is it because of something else?
 
Like (6)
About David CorbettDavid Corbett is the author of four novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, and Do They Know I’m Running? His short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, Writer’s Digest, and numerous other venues. He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, Delve Writers, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, and in January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of CharacterWeb | Twitter | Facebook | More Posts

"There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."
W. Somerset Maugham

Random picks

  • CARTOON EMBED CODE: (Before embedding, see my cartoon licensing info.)   Apparently Transport Canada is banning books and periodicals from their flights unless passengers buy them after going through security. Eek. Makes me even happier about being able to read e-books on my iPhone! Hope this ban doesn’t last long. Also see: Books Banned on Canada-U.S. Flights (January Magazine) Stop Dumbing Down: Allow Books on Airplanes (Facebook Group)
  • Virtual assistants mention that search engine marketing is actually tiered, every level providing a distinctly different service compared to the next. At the most standard level is internet search engine listing. Listing is the term for registration in almost any given database. This doesn’t guarantee ranking in the top search engine results, but can acquire consideration. The next level up is search engine optimization or enhancing an online site based upon current internet search engine algorithms – what they seek, the way they label significance, who they place first. Search...
  • StoryPlease is a storytelling app that lets you record a story in your own voice, or your can use the default professional recording. I first came across the StoryPlease people (person?) when they attended the #kidlitart chat last night. During the chat, they said they were purchasing the rights to use illustrations/characters in digital format for the iPhone and iPad. For 99 cents, I couldn’t resist buying a copy from the iTunes store to try out to see how useful this might be to picture book writers. However, it looks as though you can’t add your own stories. The app comes...
  • The editors at Black Lawrence Press have announced that Tracy DeBrincat has won The Big Moose Prize for her novel Hollywood Buckaroo. Tracy will receive $1,000 in prize money and a publication contract from BLP. The Big Moose Prize is an annual award for an unpublished novel. The prize is open to new, emerging, and established writers. The deadline is January 31.
  • Making money is a very good reason for writing. And it can be done from the comfort of your home. Here are 5 ways that you can write to make money.

Recommended sites

Most recent titles

02
1 day ago
05
1 day ago

Fast fact about writing

Well-known writers who have suffered from writer's block include George Gissing, Samuel Coleridge, Ralph Ellison, Joseph Mitchell and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Writers who overcame writer's block and published new work after a hiatus of decades include Harold Brodkey, whose novel The Runaway Soul appeared some 30 years after it was first projected, and Henry Roth, whose first novel, Call It Sleep, was published in 1934; his second, Mercy Of A Rude Stream, did not appear until 1994.