Writing Good and Evil Characters

From Writer Unboxed, a matched pair of posts by Dave King: The Search for Faith and Goodness and Getting to Know Evil.

What a great idea for post topics! I mean, sure, morally ambiguous protagonists can be fantastic — for me it depends on the, ah, flavor of ambiguity, so that I absolutely love Nicholas Valiarde and particularly, in the later series, his daughter Tremaine. They’re ruthless, but also Nicholas goes to a lot of trouble to save Inspector Ronsarde and of course Tremaine goes to even more trouble to save Ile-Rien. Come to think of it, so does Nicholas again in that series. And all of this is totally believable: both the ruthlessness and the self-sacrifice.

But let’s by all means take a look at characters who are much less ambiguous. Let’s start by taking a look at each of the posts linked above.

Here’s what King says about writing a good character:

What makes it even harder is that, to write goodness effectively, you have to be a good person yourself – to face your own doubts or fears and yet have the internal drive to do the generous, self-sacrificing, loving thing.  A lot of more ordinary writers, faced with writing good people, fall back on a less challenging alternative:  Writing about faith.

And, wow, I’m immediately skidding to a halt. I don’t think that is true. I don’t think either part of that is true!

I mean I was going to go ahead and point to one or two characters of my own who are genuinely good people, and this sort of assertion makes that tough. Fine, I’m going to just flatly disagree:

You don’t have to be a genius to write a genius protagonist, you don’t have to be an exceptionally good person to write a protagonist who is an exceptionally good person, and you thankfully do not need to be thoroughly evil in order to write a thoroughly evil antagonist. I am indeed going to point to examples of each in my writing, so there, but I will pull out great examples of both good and evil characters from other people’s books as well. I’m not having any trouble thinking of examples, in fact, and I would bet that you aren’t either.

I’ll pause to add, I also vehemently disagree that most or even many writers write about faith as a shorthand for writing a protagonist who is a genuinely good person. That may be true in Christian literature, I’m not sure, but in SFF? Absolutely not. That is by far the exception rather than the rule. King’s assertion makes me think that he must write Christian literature because I doubt very much that conflation of “good” with “faith” is at all common in any other branch of literature. Let me just check his Bio. Oh! He’s not a novelist at all. He’s an editor. Well, he may have seen this sort of conflation in the books clients show him, but out in the world of published literature? I don’t think so.

Agree / disagree? Have any of you seen this particular thing, with authors using explicit religious faith to signal that their characters are good people? I think it’s far more often the reverse: explicitly religious people are shown as narrow-minded bigots 95% of the time.

What about the other post, the one about writing evil characters?

But to write believable evil characters, you have to get inside their minds.  Anyone who gives advice on writing will tell you that you have to humanize your bad guys for them to be effective — cartoon evil is no more interesting than cartoon good.  But writers also need a warning about just how painful it can be to enter an evil mind.

I picked that paragraph to quote largely because I want to disagree with it, thus paralleling my disagreement with the first post. You CAN humanize your Evil Antagonist; that’s okay. That’s one way to handle that character. You CAN set out to understand him. But that’s not actually necessary. You and your readers already know that people can be selfish, ambitious, indifferent to the wellbeing of others, and so on. I don’t believe you need to go out of your way as a writer to point to those traits. They come through clearly enough in the antagonist’s actions. And certain kinds of villains work best when they are left rather mysterious.

Daniel, in the Death’s Lady trilogy, is a genuinely good person.

He’s kind, empathic, charitable, and just a good person. He’s a lot nicer than I am, I will add Also, you’ll notice that there wasn’t the slightest need to write about religious faith in order to write a character who is genuinely good.

And you know, now that I think of it, you could make a case for Mitereh also being a genuinely good person too. He sure is committed to keeping Talasayan peaceful and in handing down rulings that are merciful as well as just. But as a king, he has no choice but to be ruthless at times, which is not the case for Daniel.

The villain in the Death’s Lady trilogy is one of the more human and normal villains I’ve ever written, very different from the terrifying Lilienne in The City in the Lake or the creepy, inhuman Wyvern King in The Keeper of the Mist.

And this is why I disagree that you need to humanize or understand your evil antagonist. You do not. Lilienne is super-creepy and no one understands her. I mean, she’s probably driven by a desire for power? At least in part? Sort of? But that sure doesn’t do much to explain her or what little we know about her uber-creepy plans. Same with the Wyvern King. Sure, we had more human bad guys in The Keeper of the Mists too. I’m not saying that understandable evil is not effective; of course it is. I’m just pointing out that mysterious, eerie antagonists that the reader will never understand can also be effective.

In contrast to that kind of creepy antagonist, the Death’s Lady villain definitely is understandable in ordinary human terms. Selfish; ambitious; deceitful; indifferent to and therefore willing to use other people; intolerant of opposition. There was no need for any character to point to the villain and say any of that. It’s obvious that’s what he’s like. This is an understandable, human bad guy. But I found it pretty easy to write him specifically because I never tried to get too close to him, far less force the reader to get close to him. Getting right into his head isn’t necessary to know pretty much what kind of person he is, and that’s great, because who wants to spend time with that guy? No one, that’s who.

So! Genuinely good and thoroughly evil characters. I’ve got a couple candidates for both categories.

Kit, in From All False Doctrine. Kit is one of the most genuinely good protagonists I can think of. Is he a little too good to be true? Maybe. But Degan makes him perfectly believable. Also a particularly good example because Kit is a priest and yet no one would argue that the author is just pointing at the trappings of religious faith and saying, See, he’s a good person! No, Kit really IS a good person, and therefore this is an example of how to handle faith well in a fantasy novel. Here are my comments about this book.

Mouse/Ryou/Ari in the Phoenix Feather series. She’s this very powerful martial artist for a lot of the story, and how many bad guys does she kill during the entire quadrilogy? Anybody remember? One, that’s right, and she felt awful about it and never killed anybody else. Remember how she wouldn’t escape after the Emperor caught her because she’d have to kill the prison staff? Yes, a little too good to be true, but again, Smith makes Ari a believable character. Good contrast to the above because this is a story where people argue about morality and right action and so on, but not at all with reference to Christianity or anything that I think Dave King would call faith.

How about evil characters?

I’m just going to pick out one series here: the Spiritwalker trilogy by Kate Elliot.

I don’t have to look farther afield because this trilogy is practically a showcase of different types of villains: the creepy, terrifying, powerful bad guy who isn’t really understandable; the arrogant noble who thinks he has a right to dispose of people as he sees fit; and most of all James Drake, who is the most human and understandable and also definitely the most hateable. Here are my comments about this series; you’ll see I said at the time that even though this series has a lot of great stuff and the protagonist is good and I love the feathered people and on and on, the villains are particularly outstanding. It’d be interesting to argue about which of the villains/antagonists is the most evil. I’d go for Drake, so maybe there is something to the idea of being able to relate to or understand a bad guy in order to make him really bad, or at least have readers perceive him as really bad.

All right, not crazy about novels that compel the reader to spend time with evil characters, but if a particularly good example of a good character leapt to your mind, please add that example in the comments!

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12 thoughts on “Writing Good and Evil Characters”

  1. I had to work to think of a genuinely good character, though I agree with you about Kip. I went back through the books I have read this year and didn’t find any that struck me that way. Many were good in balance but not what seems wholly Good.

    I think Michael Carpenter from the Dresden Files books is good. His goodness is affiliated with faith, but it’s not simple and uncomplicated.

    Re evil, I found the following discussion near the end of Kingfisher’s Nettle and Bone thought provoking. (Spoiler space)
    This godmother always gives gifts of health at christening. It turns out it’s not that she’s weak, but that all the more powerful gifts she could give take away freedom for the recipient and are more like curses.

    “She’s a very wicked godmother, isn’t she?” asked Marra.
    “Evil magic could flow through her like a river in full flood. Fortunately for the rest of us, there’s a lot of Agnes in the way. Whether that makes her wicked, I’ll leave to philosophers. …”

  2. That sounds like a really strange case to try and make. I’ve been rereading some T Kingfisher Paladin/Swordheart books, and while there are certainly good religious characters, the primary recurring antagonists are a priesthood. I’d say most of her protagonists in that series are good people. I really like the temple of the white rat, but part of what I like about it is that petitioners don’t need to care at all about any religious elements.

  3. Faramir’s a genuinely good character.

    King Haggard in The Last Unicorn is a genuinely evil one.

  4. I would say that while faith or religious belief is not a necessary prerequisite for a good character, good characters must of necessity have a strong moral compass and, while they may not live up to it perfectly, an ideal they strive to reach. Faramir, for example, sees the nobility of Numenor before its fall and yearns for that nobility. Daniel has a strong moral compass – he knows his ability to help or hurt, and refuses to cross any line that might harm someone in a vulnerable state.
    That being said, I think part of the reason that so many evil characters tend to be religious is because we have a strongly ingrained cultural idea that religious people – and especially priests – _are_ good, so when that turns out not to be the case, we tend to see them as more evil than someone who is irreligious but exhibits the same character traits.

  5. The bad vampire in Sunshine (Bo?) is truly evil. So is Raphael in Sharon Shinn’s Archangel. Actually a lot of her books have truly evil characters in them, and her books are so interesting in that the true evil always comes as a shock, you along with the characters never actually see it coming. I like how so many of the characters in your books are truly good: Ryo, Aras, Ryo’s father and brother, Ryo’s friends, although I’m starting to worry about Aras. Also all of the characters in your other books. Patricia Briggs writes really scary books, with lots of ghosts.

  6. We’ve been discussing various depictions of Good characters in this household for a while, and keep coming back to Pratchett: Carrot, Sam Vimes, Granny Weatherwax. All unabashedly Good, probably Lawful Good at that, but handled differently due to what kind of person each one is. And no religious faith in any of them. We’re not sure about Rincewind – I think he is, though.

    On Evil – the Teen has stopped reading Dresden Files because she thinks Harry’s going that way. Wormtongue, Saruman. The former for venal self-seeking evil, the latter a fallen angel presenting as human. The portrayal of a being who wants to do good but gets monofocused on what and how and forgets that how you accomplish things matters.

  7. Cazaril (in The Curse of Chalion) is genuinely good – indeed he saintly – but still real and struggling and beleivable. His antagonist, Martou dy Jironal, is a very understandable villain. His dedication to his own family has been twisted through circumstances (and the Curse) into a hunger for power. One of the many fascinating things about this novel is how the Curse presents itself: it takes character traits of the rulers that would be neutral or even virtuous in normal circumstances, and makes it work against them. The way different characters struggle against or succomb to this force makes for a range of interesting and very human semi-villains.

  8. I tried my best to put genuinely good and evil characters in Through A Mirror Darkly because the entire plot turns on that. Whether I succeeded, of course, I can not tell, but at least no one’s complained that the plot doesn’t work. 0:)

  9. Hmm. I think Cazaril in The Curse of Chalion and Penric are truly kind and good people.

    I also really enjoy complicated characters like Innisth from Winter of Ice and Iron.

  10. Caz is a great example, and shows the reader a great interpretation of what a saint actually is.

    And I’m glad LMB felt no need for villain pov scenes, because I would NOT have wanted to spend time with dy Jironal.

  11. Agnes is such a great character in Nettle and Bone! I loved that line.

    I love what Kingfisher does with the notion of paladins in the Paladin series: I would call each of those characters good, but with really interesting complexities.

    I can’t think of any examples that would illustrate what that post author was talking about regarding faith as a shorthand for goodness. Religion can be a powerful force for either good or evil, depending upon the heart of the character, and I enjoy when authors explore those possibilities. Vespertine, by Margaret Rogerson, does a great job of this: her antagonist has genuine faith and really believes he’s doing the right thing. (She’s got a great ambiguous character in that one as well.) LMB and Sharon Shinn are also great at the nuances of characters intersecting with faith.

    How about Cliopher as Good? (Also slightly too-good-to-be-true?) (Sure wish we had a Cliopher around today!)

  12. Hodgell’s Kencyrath stories wrestle with good and evil, although often as honor. They have a concept of Honor’s Paradox wherein you can’t win: Lord gives dishonorable order. Follow it, keep ‘honor’ but be dishonored for what you did to carry out that order. Refuse, lose your honor. A character sums it up after he ran up against it hard (from memory):
    honor. I used to be as sure as you that I knew what it was. One kept one’s word. One obeyed one’s lord. But then my lord ordered me to do what was dishonorable. I decided the shame was his alone and did as he commanded. I was wrong. But that was my choice and I must stand by it as long as I live. May I die soon.

    Elsewhere in the series it is summed up as a set of choices: abuse power and fall to evil. Refuse to use power and be complicit in whatever comes. Use power and be pulled further towards madness. No choices sound positive.
    The main character is turning into the avatar of Destruction, but she’s trying to be a cleansing flame sort of destruction not mindless chaotic destruction. Good books, although I’ve thought the last couple entries were lacking in something. The weird horror quotient has gone down.

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