|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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beowulf 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