When an author can’t tell a protagonist is evil

So, in between casually reading a couple of historicals, I have been poking around in my library, re-reading this and that. Books I don’t expect to get caught up in, the sort of thing I can read a little bit of and put down again, or skim through lightly. This category mostly includes books I have read a lot of times, or books I like but not that much (these categories are not mutually exclusive.)

At the moment, that means I have been re-reading the Telzey Amberdon stories by James Schmidt.

They are kind of fun. I see why I liked them when I was a teenager. I still like them, sort of. But I sure do wonder whether Schmidt realized, while he was writing these stories, what a really awful person his protagonist is.

If you haven’t read them, or if you have forgotten, let me remind you that Telzey, who is fifteen when the stories begin, is a psi. She’s a telepath. She is, in fact, a telepath who can quite easily read most minds, control them, make people forget things, insert false memories, and – here is the kicker – permanently alter their personalities. Which she does rather freely if she doesn’t happen to like someone; for example, the aunt with whom she is staying in the first of the stories. Yes, this aunt is unpleasant. Nevertheless, changing her personality so that she is nicer is, not to mince words, actually evil.

Telzey can crush someone’s mind and turn him into a vegetable. She does this to a bad guy in one of the stories. Yes, he is a bad guy. Yes, he tried to kill Telzey. Still, I can’t help but feel she was pretty casual about destroying his mind. Just how bad would a guy have to be before Telzey would feel she had the right to destroy his mind? From her casual manipulation and control of various others throughout the stories, I can’t help but feel it might not take very much for her. She might feel a little bad about it afterwards, but I’m sure she’d get over it. She sure doesn’t dwell on the liberties she takes with anybody’s mind.

Oh, she’s also a genius and pretty. A fan club of boys orbits her, but she has them well trained so they aren’t too annoying. [Insert eye roll here.]

Now, how common is it, do you think, for authors to kind of miss the fact that the protagonist they have created is actually not at all nice and possibly evil? I am not talking about morally ambiguous characters where the author purposefully created the ambiguity, like Janus in The Thousand Names or, say, Hugh d’Ambray now that he’s been re-interpreted as a better person. Or, or for that matter, Innisth in Winter of Ice and Iron. That kind of moral ambiguity is everywhere and mostly it’s a very good thing, adding depth and complexity to the story.

No, I am talking about characters the author apparently thinks are good people, who are actually bad people.

I can think of a couple other arguable cases.

How about Camber of Culdi?

In tough times, sometimes you have to get tough. Manipulate people, lie to them – or be a bit selective with the truth, let’s say. Force them into lives they hate, murder the odd person who stumbles onto your secrets, take the place of a dead friend for a few years and lie to everyone about who you are, that kind of thing. Oh, and also Camber is another telepath who has no trouble fiddling around with people’s memories. After all, it’s totally for their own good. Can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. If the omelet is important, you can righteously do practically anything to get that sucker made. We sure see this attitude in real life, but it does not make for an actually righteous protagonist; rather the reverse. For self-righteously manipulating everyone around him, it’s hard to do better than Camber.

Is it possible to write a telepath who is a good person? Probably. Drop examples in the comments, please, because I’m blanking on that category.

I’m not sure I can think of another really unpleasant protagonist whom the author thinks is a good person. But I can easily think of an entire society that seems to be exactly that way.

The Black Dagger Brotherhood series by J R Ward is a “closed world” paranormal series. Vampires exist but the human world is unaware of this. The stories are romances, with one of the Brotherhood vampires being fixed up with a woman in each book, generally with relatively little plot given the length of the books. They’re quite readable stories, some more than others.

And, when I read the first eight or nine or whatever, I got the very powerful feeling that J R Ward has not realized what an absolutely repulsive society she has given her vampires. Every single aspect of their society goes beyond problematic to unspeakable.

The women are essentially property. They are so helpless and delicate and they have to be protected, and we wouldn’t want them worrying their delicate little minds with anything important. They live sequestered lives and their fathers or other male guardians decide who they will marry.

The men hardly have it better. Vampires train their soldiers in an incredibly abusive way that would not, by the way, be at all effective in creating competent soldiers. It’s great at making men into rage-filled psychos, though.

Astoundingly, this social system is not working out well for vampires, who are on the verge of dying out. I can’t help but wonder if that would be such a bad thing. I mean, sure, the official bad guys are sort of demonic, but still. Speaking as a normal human, I think the objectively best outcome of the series would be for the whole lot to wipe each other out completely.

Especially since vampires have another species they use as servitors. These servitors are happy happy happy to be of use, thus freeing vampires from the drudgery of making their own supper or doing their own dishes. The Golden Retrievers of sentient species, except that what is charming and sweet and appropriate in a dog is horrible in a species of happy slaves. If there were no more vampires, maybe those people could find their range of options expanding a trifle. It would certainly be worth a try.

… And I’m out. I can’t think of another example. How about you all? Either for telepaths who have the ability to control minds but are actually good people, or for books where the author seems to think their protagonist is a good person even though the evidence suggests the opposite?

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14 thoughts on “When an author can’t tell a protagonist is evil”

  1. A few years ago I played the computer game Tales of Zestiria with my daughter. Pretty standard save the world, high fantasy stuff. The protagonist is the latest incarnation of The Shepherd. There’s some back story about how the order got created a millenia ago when a hero rose to fight back The Calamity.

    Then the game company released a prequel – Tales of Berseria – where you play The Calamity. Turns out the world back then had problems, and the original guy who became the Shepherd was determined to do whatever it took to make things right, and that included sacrificing his nephew (which, to be fair, the nephew was totally on board with). The niece was not in on the plan, and ended up being expendable, but she managed to screw things up, and she became The Calamity. Who is the protagonist. So you start out the game as a young lady, then become a demonic force, confined in an oubliette for decades living off of other demons that your uncle feeds you. Then you break out, kill all the guards, hijack a boat, wreck it, destroy the harbor and walls of the nearest town, and things go downhill from there. You pick up a ragtag group of pirates and psychopaths as your team.

    And after having said all of that, that group, which has major issues, manages to work out rather nice redemption arcs for all in the protagonists’ group. The Shepherd, who is absolutely the villain, is definitely pursuing a noble goal, and an important one, but is Evil with a capital E. Camber of Culdi is a great comparison. I remember I stopped reading that series after finding out all the stuff he’d been up to.

    Mind controlling telepaths are really tough. Absolute power corrupts absolutely and all that. Classic Twilight Zone episode on the topic comes to mind.

  2. Eileen Wilks and Mercedes Lackey have both written books in which telepath characters work on figuring out how to use their gifts as healers, and determining where the ethical boundaries are.

    I think Wilks does a better job of it, because Lackey doesn’t require that her character specifically get consent before treating someone.

  3. Sarah, yes, but then what if the car crash victim is unconscious and bleeding out? And yet …

    So, difficult issue. And worse if it’s any kind of mind control rather than healing.

  4. The Thalani are a race of tele/empaths in the Chronicles of Elantra, who among themselves are always in contact, and never willingly in contact with non-Thalani. Those who do mentally meddle with others do it only by request, either of the person or by legal requirement. And only those among them who can keep what they read from the outsiders out of the ‘hive mind’ do it. It helps that they need physical contact to read someone, so it has to be deliberate.

    The People of Zenna Henderson are pretty careful ethically.

    How about Galadriel in Fellowship?

    I read early Lackey, and more recently looked at it again when the Teen got interested due to ‘see how another writer handled’ things … I don’t think Lackey’s protaganists are very ethical in their mind abilities. Her first trilogy’s character certainly isn’t, and no one has a problem with the mind rapes she does. I see Tom Simon picks on the second trilogy which I got halfway through book 1 and walled, but the Teen got me to read volume 3, and the protaganist had improved tremendously, he really does try to be ethical and do the right thing. There are plenty of other icky elements, though.

    Sasha from Cherryh’s Rusalka trilogy tries very hard to be an ethical, mind bending wizard. It’s hard when you don’t have to will it to affect someone. Uniquely, another character, Pyeter, is a mundane who fights back and loudly lets him know he’s noticed the mind-messing, and doesn’t like it.

    How about Tristan in FORTRESS? Does he count, or not, because he can only contact people through ‘the grey’? Generally those he can reach for two way communication are wizards. or part-blooded untrained. But he can reach others, and scare them. OTOH, he’s really not human, and does try not to hurt people.

  5. The White Council of Wizards in the Dresden Files have an absolutely zero-tolerance attitude towards mind controlling magic, and while their attitude is generally portrayed as too rigid, the basic rightness of the law is unchallenged.

    It’s a major plot point in one book that a highly sympathetic character who was starting to dabble in magic did a personality-alteration spell with good intentions — and it went very wrong, and was clearly an evil thing to do, as well as foolish. Harry manages to save her from execution, but it’s a near-run thing. (The character arguably strays dark side in later books, but does seem to have internalized that mind control is evil and that issue does not recur.)

  6. Where the writing presents the protaganist as a good person, but it isn’t true: how about CYTEEN? Like your vampire society example, the whole culture is warped, and the effort to mold Ari II is just a major symptom. She’s an improvement over Ari I, but the whole thing is objectively screwed up.

    i think I’ve read Robin Hobb that way, too, which is why I stopped with the first Assassin thing. Well, that and I skipped over a LOT of pages, and picked things up without a problem.

    Harry Potter.

  7. I just read a YA novel and I can’t decide whether the author meant to make the “heroine” unlikeable or not.

    The “heroine” decides to join the rebellion, (which is pretty much required if you’re a YA heroine in a dystopian society). The rebels plan to assassinate specific people. At a party, she meets these people, gets to know them, meets their children, realizes that for the most part they are decent and even likable. What a pity they have to die, but of course, it’s For The Cause.

    Uh…. no. That’s not the description of a heroine. That’s the description of a terrorist. But apparently, from the author’s comments in response to reviewers, it sounds like she meant her to come across as being admirably strong.

  8. Coming back this morning to clarify: Harry Potter isn’t personally evil, but his wizard society is, like Cyteen, majorly foul, and they do muck with minds casually.

    Evelyn’s comment describes a book I recall putting back down rather hastily. And reminds me of a… Jermison? .. (invokes Amazon) yeah, Killing Moon . If I recall correctly, the main character sneaks into people’s houses at night and kills them. I liked the book, the belief system justified it… but step back and: Yuck.

  9. Evelyn, I do wonder whether the author realized what she was doing. My bet is: No.

    Elaine: fine, yes, sure, I know Cyteen and Resuene are both seriously messed up. Yet I just love young Ari and young Florian and Caitlin, and of course Justin and Grant … CJ Cherryh is just better at designing good people in a bad society, imo.

    Jemisin pulled that off too, in Killing Moon, I think.

    Craig, thanks for the link! I almost kind of want to go re-read the Belgariad now, except I really don’t, probably.

  10. Boobs, by Suzy Mckee Charnas. It is a short story about a young teenaged werewolf. Who, yes, eats people*. But they are all bad guys. Probably. And it is…pretty funny, actually. If I had to assign a genre, I’d say feminist black humor.

    * She starts out eating dogs, too, when she is new to the whole werewolf thing. But she feels bad about it and gives it up as a new year’s resolution.

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