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Bad Guys: What Is Evil?

Monday, August 31, 2009

dr_evilI would imagine that most people reading this blog would answer the titular question by saying that evil is anything that is in opposition to God. Evil=Satan. Right? That would be the religious definition of evil, yes, but we’re looking to go beyond the knee-jerk, Sunday school answers in today’s post, as well as looking at the question from other perspectives.

In many fantasy books/movies, the most evil characters, the worst villains, are usually a non-human entity at which we can take one look and know that they are evil. The Shadow in Inkheart. The Balrog and Sauron in The Lord of the Rings. In horror films, evil is usually pretty easy to distinguish as well. Jason. Michael Meyers. Jack Nicholson.

But what about in those stories in which the characterization is more subtle, in which the lines between good and evil aren’t so clearly drawn? How, then, do we figure out if a character is an antagonist, a bad guy, a villain, or truly evil?

Certain denominations/religions tell us that humans are inherently evil and that we must strive against our natural tendencies toward evil all of our lives. This, of course, goes back to the idea that “evil” is anything that is human and not divine. In this mindset, this means that most of what fills our lives is evil: television, movies, music, games, sports, gourmet food, making/saving money, dancing, dating, art, technology, and so on. An Amish person’s definition of what is evil is going to be different than what a lapsed Catholic would list. Someone who’s Jewish only by heritage and not by practice would define it much differently than an Orthodox Jew.

There is no hard-and-fast definition that every single person would agree to. I would venture a guess that the majority of humans would agree, though, to the statement that intentionally causing another living being pain or harm is evil. But even here, there are degrees upon which we will disagree as to what constitutes “harm.” Vegans and vegetarians would say that raising animals for food is evil because they’re being harmed when they’re slaughtered (to which this carnivore says, okay, but what about the plants you’re killing to eat?). Most of us would say that clubbing baby seals in the head is evil, but what about the natives who rely on them for food? There is a counter argument for almost anything we would put a label on. It’s evil to kill another person. Okay, what about the death penalty? (And no, that’s not an invitation to debate the death penalty.)

Even the types of characters that have always been seen as evil are changing. No longer are vampires always the embodiment of evil—in fact, they’ve quickly become the emblem of the disliked, much maligned segment of the population that has been misunderstood and persecuted (lots of allegorical connections in most of the stories about them—whether they’re being portrayed as addicts who’re trying to get clean or a certain segment of society who’ve only recently been recognized and started to be given rights). However, in the two shows I’ve watched that have vampires as main, “hero” characters (True Blood and Being Human), there are “good” vampires (our main characters who are trying to fit into mainstream life and no longer kill) and “bad” vampires (those who derive much pleasure from torturing and/or killing humans—and are possibly looking to take over the world). It’s one of the ways which the writers help to show us why our dark heroes are just that—heroes—by playing on that root definition of evil: the willful intention to cause harm to others.

In storytelling, the definition and depiction of evil depends greatly on the time and place and values of the characters. For example, between 1540 and 1700 in Spain, Jews were seen as the greatest evil and threat to the people of Spain, thus they were arrested and tortured and executed by the hundreds—even some who weren’t Jewish but who were suspected of being “secret” Jews (by refusing to eat pork, for example) were arrested and tortured until they confessed and converted or repented. The Spanish Inquisition went on for more than a century—and spread to Spain’s holdings in the New World, such as Peru and Columbia, as well. Other countries, including France and England, took Spain’s example and at least outlawed Judaism if not also devolving into arresting, torturing, and executing them. Two and a half centuries later, when another government decided that Jews were evil and posed a threat to society, it caused the largest-scale war we’ve seen to date. Why? Not because Jews changed who they are or what they stood for or believed, but because society’s understanding of the true nature of evil had changed. If asked who the most evil figure from history is, most people would say Hitler. But why not the leaders of the Spanish Inquisition as well? Hitler was motivated by racism and greed. The leaders of the Inquisition justified their actions in the name of Jesus Christ.

Looking back at these two time periods with the benefit of “enlightened” hindsight, we can see the evil intrinsic in each situation. However, for the people living through those time periods, the everyday Spaniards and Germans who didn’t have access to mass media to learn a different point of view, they had to rely on what their trusted leaders—whether political or religious—told them was right and wrong. And when those leaders used scare tactics, when those leaders played upon humans’ natural fear of the “other” or the unknown, those everyday Spaniards and Germans were willing to believe that what their leaders were doing was right, was for their own protection. Does that make them evil, too?

And lest we think we’re not susceptible to this kind of thing in our more enlightened age, just look at what’s going on in the U.S. right now. Leaders still know how to play upon and exacerbate people’s fears—of someone of another race or religion or of a change in how things have worked for sixty or seventy years—to create chaos and discord. But is the “other” evil? Is the change evil? Or is it the intent to sew discord that’s truly the evil behind it all?

At its very core, I think we can define evil as “the intent to do harm to another.” It is the job of fiction, of storytelling, to explore the nuances of that definition—whether it’s in a lighthearted manner, like with Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers series, or whether it’s an exploration of some of the most horrendous acts of evil throughout history—and continue the dialogue on what the true nature of evil really is.

For Discussion:
From a book, movie, or TV series, who is a character you think is the epitome of evil. How does that character define and exemplify evil in your opinion?

  1. Monday, August 31, 2009 11:33 am

    In Molly Noble Bull’s Sanctuary, the military captain is in pursuit of the Hugenots and Jews. One could argue that in essence one in the military is being honorable, faithful to the cause of his employment when in reality the mission as a whole may be inherently evil. But this man is evil, there is no honor in him whatsoever. He is entirely selfish, seeks status, and enjoys destoying people’s lives and killing. His “cause” is not “honorable”, it is only self-serving, a vice for his evilness. He killed the Jewish protagonist’s family and is after her. He is after her Hugenot friends and story’s hero to destroy. His desire to kill her then turns to a desire to have her. This man is obsessed and will stop at nothing.

    The villian remains alive and well at the end of the story, more determined than ever. I find that when that happens, as it did with Sheriff Brannock in Breathe (Bergren), it makes the villian all the more evil because it is so difficult to annihilate him.


  2. Quinn permalink
    Tuesday, September 1, 2009 11:20 am

    I recently read *Illuminated* by Matt Bronleewe, and the character of Stanley was a horrifying killing machine, a butcher who found great satisfaction in his surgical professionalism.

    The character was even more evil because his mind was so darkened that he believed himself to be honorable.


  3. Tuesday, September 1, 2009 7:42 pm

    Don’t laugh but the first character that popped into my head was Cruella DeVil from 101 Dalmations…I mean her name says it all right? Cruel and devil!!! She steals puppies to make fur coats out of them! Plus she has a creepy laugh and hair-do! It can’t get too much worse than that!!!


    • Wednesday, September 2, 2009 10:49 am

      So true. Most of the Disney villians are that way, I think. There’s a couple of exceptions, but overall…


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