Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Blurring the Line Between Good and Evil by Donna Galanti

My worn copy from school translated
by Ian Seraillier
I did a panel this weekend as a presenter at Liberty States Fiction Writers Create Something Magical Conference in New Jersey on the line between good and evil in fiction. This is a favorite topic I love to debate when it comes to writing and reading!

I write fantasy and it can be difficult to separate the idea of good and evil from the fantasy genre, which traces its ancestry back ages with stories about brave heroes battling hideous monsters or cruel tyrants.  Fantasy tales of long ago contain a clear good and bad side, like the hero Beowulf and monster Grendel, or the noble Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham (although personally I kind of feel bad for Grendel).

Here’s the original and translated beginning of the heroic epic poem Beowulf, written sometime between 700–1000 A.D. and primarily in the West Saxon dialect of Old English. It's grand poetic lyrical verse portraying good versus evil for sure! And it's actually a good middle grade read with beautiful language that could open up discussion with your child if you read it together (if you don't mind a little monster mayhem). And I did just this with my son.

Original manuscript from with my translated copy

When J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings he continued this convention of white hats/black hats in fantasy, writing about the evil adversary of the dark lord and the band of courageous heroes that seeks to stop him. He wrote this during World War II, and at that time people had a clear definition of “evil.”

And in The Lord of the Rings the battle lines are clearly drawn between the ugly, vicious orcs as the “bad guys,” set against the handsome and brave alliance of elves and men. There is little doubt in the reader’s mind which character they should be rooting for; J.R.R. Tolkien practically stamped “evil” and “good” on the heads of the characters.

Anti-heroes blur the line now more than ever between good and evil in fiction, even though anti-heroes have been around a long time. But what exactly is an anti-hero? One way to look at it is this: if doing X makes a villain and doing Z makes a hero – what about those that choose option Y? These are the anti-heroes – and my favorite kind of character to write. To get a clearer picture, think 'Dirty Harry' and 'Mad Max'.

Anti-heroes are too good to be a villain, too evil to be a hero. They perfectly walk this line of good and evil, blurring the line. They are good guys who do bad things for all the right reasons.

Take Harry Potter which has examples of good, evil, and the anti-hero at play throughout the series. Harry = classic hero. Snape = anti-hero (a villain for the good guys). Voldemort = pure evil. As a reader, for me it’s a thrill when someone I perceived as bad turns out to be good, and vice versa. Like Snape in Harry Potter.

One of my favorite fantasy series is The Ranger's Apprentice by John Flanagan. In these books, good and evil are clearly drawn between the characters yet while we have heroes like the ranger, Halt, we also see him as a flawed hero - and to me, that makes him more relatable and appealing.

If we keep it in comic book terms, we have bad like Lex Luthor, good like Spiderman, or a mix like Batman. And Batman is the original comic book anti-hero as a creature of the night, striking from the shadows, and using fear as a weapon and working outside the law for justice.

Dragon Con 2012 by  Andrew Guyton

In my book Joshua and the Lightning Road, one of my favorite characters to write was the anti-hero Leandro. Why is he an anti-hero?

He is evil because: He kills “bad guys” like Child Collectors and anyone who gets in his way to further his cause to find his lost family.
He is good because: He self-sacrifices by giving up a life to find his family and helps others he deems “deserving of his help” along the way.

And I think we can all relate to that. It’s a universal feeling to want to protect those we love. And to get back to J.R.R.Tolkien, I actually fashioned Leandro’s spirit after my hero, Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, a tormented, self-sacrificing kind of hero who kills to protect those he cares about. 

But let me play devil’s advocate here. If boundaries help to differentiate between heroes and villains – and if someone is willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish their goals, can it lead them astray forever? Does the end justify the means?

I think it’s important that we as storytellers set up situations that allow readers to seek the truth about good and evil – and that we must do so in a compelling, engaging fashion. It’s our responsibility as writers for story to deeply impact people, otherwise we have failed as writers.

And, ultimately, every character is their own hero to themselves in every story – villain, hero, or anti-hero. Just as we are heroes in our own real life stories. 

As people we embody both good and evil, and our characters need to be equally as dimensional. The question is: have the days of white hats/black hats in stories been replaced by the flawed hero, anti-hero, and the relatable antagonist? And if so, which do you prefer? And who are some of your favorites in middle grade fiction?

A most definite "evil" character but did he deserve what he got?
Illustration by Bill Pesce


  1. I have to admit I struggle with the anti-hero as a writer. Partly because I'm an incorrigible sap, and I tend to find something about my most dispicable characters that's good. It stems from my worldview that redemption should ALWAYS been an option, the character in question may not always take that path, but it's offered in some form.

    In some ways Rum (the antagonist in my upcoming novel, "GABRIEL") is an anti-hero, but his fall from grace was not rooted in abolute darkness. As the above post touched on, anti-heroes often do bad things for the greater good, but they also can do them out of response to something bigger than themselves.

    In "GABRIEL", Rum did cruel things because of the grief of losing someone he cared about trigged a part of him that otherwise would stay dormant. His grief is normal and valid, what it triggers him to do afterward is where he goes awry.

    While it's NOT for kids, those of you with teens, I reccommend checking out "BB Wolf & 3 LPs" by JD Arnold (illus. Richard Koslowski)

    It's a graphic novel that takes the framework of "The Three Little Pigs" and tells a raw and striking story about racism and based on true events of racial profiling at its worst.

    I didn't realize how intense this story was going to get when I first read it the other day, but I'm glad I read this in the morning, had I read this at night I'd have nightmares!

    That said, with all the talk about the lack of diversity (from the authors, illustrators, and the people in publishing behind the scenes), we also need to talk about what causes lack of it as well as brainstorm ways of how to improve it.

    If you've read Art Spiegelman's "Maus" you've got a rough idea of the tone.

    But this is a lot shorter (versus "Maus" being a two-volume commitment), and the pacing'a a lot brisker, so even those with fairly short attention I know this a middle grade focused blog, but for those with middle or high school kids, this is a book worth checking out.

    For a more kid-friendly example, I suggest "The Revenge of Randal Reese-Rat" by Tor Seidler, it's a follow-up book to "A Rat's Tale" but focuses on a minor antagonist of the previous book, and I read him as an anti-hero, but a misunderstood anti-hero.

  2. Taurean, thanks for your thoughts! I am encouraged by the fact so many folks within the writing/publishing industry are talking about the lack of diversity in books - and building the wave of change toward more diverse books for kids. To see more types of kids represented in literature, gives them not only characters to relate to but gives them a voice as well.

    I've always loved writing the anti-hero, as I am drawn to the tormented character. Probably, as the can be tormented over the many universal elements in life that connect us all: grief, love, loss, forgiveness, joy, redemption, pain. And in writing the anti-hero, perhaps we can understand ourselves better - and our world. I like your idea that your character may not choose redemption, but it can be offered up for the taking.

    Best of luck on your upcoming novel!

  3. Great post, Donna! I think that the trend of retelling known stories with the villain as the hero is really interesting too (think: Wicked), or simply casting the classic villain as a hero (Despicable Me). I can't remember who said it, but there's that idea that every character is the hero of their own story, even the most evil or most periphery. This is a concept I want to explore more and I really love your thoughts on it. Thanks Donna!

  4. I love flawed heroes. Thanks for the great insights above, Donna!

    1. Michael, me too! And my own post is now inspiring me to write journal entries of the villains and anti-heroes in the new novel I'm writing - to enrich their own backstory in my mind and write them from the perspective of them being the hero in their own tale.

  5. Joanna, thanks! And great example with the villain/hero in Despicable Me - love him!

    As writers, if we can sink into the skin of every character (evil or good) and see the world from their eyes then I think we can create them with more dimension and believability. To use Grendel here from Beowulf, in re-reading the story it really got me thinking about what Grendel the monster's backstory could be. And if I knew his backstory, perhaps I could sympathize with him and see his desires/needs/heroic acts through his eyes and they would be justified. Would be fun to write a re-telling of Beowulf from Grendel's account and his mother too!

  6. Love those villains with more to them than evil. That kind of character makes the reading of a story all the more interesting.

  7. Thx. Donna. I'm w/ you about anti-heroes and the dark side in general.My novel "Dear Dad, They're Dead," tries to explore the psychological & spiritual aspect of the moral slippery slope, i.e., real-life people may profess idealistic morals, but life sometimes has a way of noodging us toward situational ethics (else who would need religion or for that matter, law?) My protagonist, Donny Lentini,weighed down by emotional need and the protection of loyal friends, finds himself in such a place, and in the end determines--rightly or wrongly--that under all the circumstances, he had little choice. So if there's room in anti-hero heaven for a criminal with a big heart, that's my guy! So he's different from, say, Batman who bends or breaks the law for social good, more like a guy with a big heart who finds himself on the wrong path, one he wouldn't have made for himself.

    1. Lanny, you bring up a good point! That if a character does blur the lines between good and evil does that mean his moral compass is lost and he could forever be astray?
      Best of luck with your novel!

  8. Thanks, Donna! We've had an ongoing PMGM series on Heroes and Villians and this fits right in. And good call on Beowulf as a story for kids!

  9. Nice to know, Eden! And when I got out my old copy of Beowulf I got sucked into reading it, and it was fun to relate it to being a good middle grade read with lovely, archaic language that can hopefully inspire kids.

  10. I read Beowulf and Grendel in high school and thought it was fascinating to read the two different points of view. Snape is probably my all-time favorite evil/good character. I love the way JK Rowling crafted him with so many layers of complexity.

    You did a great job with Leandro! :)

  11. Stephanie, thanks for stopping by! And YES, you are right about Snape - she did a fabulous job of layering him so he is a complex character. (so glad you liked Leandro - thanks for reading an early copy of Joshua and the Lightning Road!)


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!