Villainy Part 2: Evil in the Name of Good

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February 5, 2014 by Kira Lyn Blue

good-evilSo, I had this really fantastic, thought-provoking piece written up about Evil being done in the name of Good using a case study in current events.

I trashed it.

Why? I realized in writing it that the issue is just too controversial, too heated, too emotional, and too divisive. I realized that any such real world example is too volatile and would overshadow any discussion on human behavior that would help us write better characters and better conflict.

Instead, let’s just consider purely fictional characters and scenarios where villains or villainous actions arise in an effort to do good.

1. What’s Good or Evil may depend on one’s perspective.

In this scenario, there are no true villains just opposing sides with opposing goals. Think warring factions who are competing for land, resources, or power and are willing to fight and kill to get it. I think Vampires are a great example of this in fantasy fiction. From a purely human perspective, Vampires are predators who eat us! It’s fairly reasonable to understand why humans would fear and fight such intelligent, powerful predators. But from a Vampire’s perspective, they have to eat to survive and we are their food. Even if you make them perfectly civil as individuals and remove any demonic undead trappings of vampire mythology, they are inherently villains to humans simply because their diet makes us a resource to them, which threatens our power.

“Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things.” ― Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight

“So you see, Good and Evil have the same face; it all depends on when they cross the path of each individual human being.” ― Paulo Coelho, The Devil and Miss Prym

quote-the-line-between-good-and-evil-is-permeable-and-almost-anyone-can-be-induced-to-cross-it-when-philip-zimbardo-204653

2. Necessary Evil

Characters can do bad things because they believe they are necessary. People will agree that killing is wrong, but it can easily be justified in matters of self-defense or to protect one’s family, loved ones, or allies.

All a hero needs is justification that the reader can support.

Speaking of Justified, I really enjoy that show because the main character, Raylan Givens, is a U.S. Marshall who is willing to bend and even break rules to get the bad guys when he believes he has justification. He’s constantly toeing the line and that’s the fun part of the show because it makes one ask if he’s really in the right.

(Well, that and I love me some post Season 1 Boyd Crowder even though I know I shouldn’t.)

“When you start with a necessary evil, and then over time the necessity passes away, what’s left?”― Matthew Scully, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy

“Keep in mind, Eragon, that no one thinks himself a villain, and few make decisions they think are wrong. A person may dislike his choice, but he will stand by it because, even in the worst circumstances, he believes that it was the best option available to him at the time.” ― Christopher Paolini

“You want to believe in black and white, good and evil, heroes that are truly heroic, villains that are just plain bad, but I’ve learned in the past year that things are rarely so simple. The good guys can do some truly awful things, and the bad guys can sometimes surprise the heck out of you.” ― Karen Marie Moning, Darkfever

3. Conviction can make Evil an Imperative.

And this is where things get sticky from an ethical perspective. The least controversial example I can come up with for this is Ozymandius from Watchmen. 

Spoiler alert: Ozymandius nukes the world’s largest cities and frames Dr. Manhattan for it. His reason? To prevent full nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Unions by unifying them against a common enemy. By sacrificing millions, he believes he will save billions.

Yowzers! Right?

The point is that Ozymandius’s conviction is so strong that he betrayed friends and murdered millions all with the ultimate goal of saving the world from itself. Noble mission? Sure. It’s the method that’s in question.

Now what happens when you add religious belief to the conviction equation?

“Human reason can excuse any evil.” ― Veronica Roth, Divergent

“People are never so completely and enthusiastically evil as when they act out of religious conviction.” ― Umberto Eco, The Prague Cemetery

“All evil is good become cancerous.” ― Isaac Asimov

 

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16 thoughts on “Villainy Part 2: Evil in the Name of Good

  1. Vagrance says:

    I really enjoyed this post. I think the reason why “evil in the name of good” is so appealing is that it allows us to sympathy with the antagonist. Below is a wonderful example:

    “Assume that the last 500 survivors of humanity were on two on two boats. One had 300, the other 200. Now both boats have leaking hulls and you alone have the power to fix it. Which boat would you work on first?”

    “Of course. It’s obvious. The larger boat takes priority.”

    “The 200 on the smaller boat apprehend you, demanding you prioritise their vessel. What do you do?”

    “I …”

    “Obvious, isn’t it? You kill them all and save the 300 on the other side.”

    • That reminds me of the scenario Joker enforced in “The Dark Knight” with the two boats where each boat had the option to blow up the other boat and if neither chose to sacrifice the other, he’d blow them both up. Horrifying to be put in a position to choose to murder others to save your own lives or for everyone to die to save their own conscience.

      • Vagrance says:

        For an avid urban fantasy fanatic, search Fate/Zero in English. Not sure if you’ll find a well-translated e-Book but I’m pretty sure it exists.

  2. MishaBurnett says:

    I am going to use one of my favorite examples again, Samuel Delany’s “Nova”.

    Two characters, Lorq Von Rey and Prince Red, are both trying to use an exploding star to harvest a large quantity of illryum, which is a transuranium element that their civilization uses as a power source. The amount that will be expelled when the star explodes will be enough to drastically change the balance of power between their respective empires.

    What makes the conflict so compelling is that from an objective economic standpoint, Prince Red is the good guy. If he wins, then things stay more or less as they are, and Lorq Von Rey’s empire will stay a minor economic power. If Lorq Von Rey wins, however, their will be widespread changes, leading to uncertainty, market crashes, and probably a system-wide depression. .

    However, in terms of methodology, Prince Red is clearly the bad guy. Our sympathies are with Lorq Von Rey, even though his end goal will cause chaos and disorder, because he is doing what he freely admits is a very self-centered thing, but he is doing it well, treating the people he encounters with compassion. Prince Red, however, is doing what he feels is the right thing to do, protecting the stability of the realms, but using callous and cruel methods.

    It’s kind of a case study of “ends justify the means” vs. “means justify the ends.” Both characters are ethically ambiguous, but one is clearly more likable.

  3. Aldrea Alien says:

    I love all these scenarios. I’ve used them all and I’ve read multiple variations. Although, I’m still not sure under what number I’d file the villains in the last story I wrote. Thinking about the morals there always makes my head hurt.

  4. Setsu says:

    I can’t find the quote but it was something along the lines of “villains make excellent role models for children because they demonstrate you can achieve greatness when the whole world is against you.”

    This is slightly tangential, but I wanted to let you know I’ve nominated your blog for a Liebster award. Want to claim your prize? I’ve left you instructions on today’s post. I’m not spamming you, just humor me. http://preview.tinyurl.com/l4josvd

  5. Olga Godim says:

    Great post, Kyra Lyn. Like any abstract concept, evil is conditional pretty often, depending on the point of view. What an average American might consider evil, a terrorist might view as heroism. But I totally get your decision to get away from real life and its examples. I faced the same choice recently, when I blogged about courage on Ceci Giltenan’s website: http://cecigiltenan.com/2014/02/06/courage-has-many-faces-author-olga-godim/
    Courage, like evil, is also an abstract concept, and as such subject to interpretations. I also started writing my post with real life cases and then ditched them for literary ones, from my own novel. I didn’t want to offend my readers, but I wondered: was I coward for making that choice. Now I see I’m not the only one. It depends on the point of view, right?

    • I asked myself the same question and I still wonder if it wasn’t cowardly to back away from controversy. Then again, my goal isn’t necessarily to convince people one way or another on any particular topic, but merely to make them think and question. And it’s so difficult to directly approach controversy without one’s own personal views becoming involved, and then the opposing side won’t consider what I have to say because I’m the “enemy.”

  6. Kerwyn Hodge says:

    It’s funny – as I started reading your post, I immediately thought of Adrian Veidt from “The Watchmen.” Then lo-and-behold! A few paragraphs in you reference him! I don’t know if that’s an example of great minds thinking alike, or me using one of the finite flashes of insight men are allowed in our lifetimes. 😉

    The challenge with “Good” and “Evil” as concepts is the framework in which they’re defined. Additionally, there is the human factor. We’re emotional creatures, and that creates “gray areas” resulting from mitigating circumstances. No wonder “villains” are often the most compelling components of a story!

  7. Excellent article, as usual! Villains are often the favorite characters in many works of fiction, primarily because their very existence asks such interesting questions. After all, what drives a human being to turn “evil?” What causes them to react in such a violent manner to the world around them? What sympathetic and/or human facets still exist beneath their horrible actions?

    The examples you used for all three types of villainy are perfectly chosen. As far as Type #1, vampires definitely fit the bill; I have a great fondness for Suzie McKee Charnas’ underrated book The Vampire Tapestry, which strips away all the supernatural, enigmatic elements of vampirism and instead portrays the vampire as humanity’s natural predator, with the antagonist working as a college professor and drawing only the most necessary amounts of blood from students that agree to perform sleep studies in his lab.

    Anyway, keep up the great work!

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