The question of good and evil is a largely philosophical question. Entire books on the subject have been written by scholars and philosophers through the ages. Nowadays, there seems to be some question as to whether or not good and evil actually exist. On one side are the relativists who claim that everything is relative, that good and evil are only figments of perception. On the other side are the absolutists who claim that morality is measured by absolute moral precepts that cannot be violated. Of course, that distinction may be something of a simplification. I’m sure there may be other flavors of nihilism besides relativism, and there may be other flavors of … what’s the right word here? … ethicism? … besides absolutism. Personally, I lean far more toward absolutism than I do relativism. However, I don’t think morality is limited to just absolutes. There are definitely some: rape is wrong, murder is wrong, etc… but not everything is so clear cut. There are some shades of grey and even some things which are entirely relative (arguing which is more sacred, Hannukah or Christmas, seems silly to me). That said, I do want to be clear: I believe evil to be very real. The question I wish to address here is: How do you represent evil in Literature?
What must be present for there to be evil? A few things come to mind: sentience (a rock cannot be evil), free will (a magically enslaved creature is not evil, insofar as its actions while enslaved are concerned), and ill intent. I’m sure I’m probably missing one or two. It’s been a while since I studied philosophy. Anyway, if you look at these characteristics the first two appear to be prerequisites of evil but not causes of evil. But the third is such a cause. Ill intent is almost a circular definition for evil. Hmmm. Perhaps I was too quick there. Although it is most certainly a cause, it may not be the only cause. I can imagine an evil being that holds no ill will toward someone while traveling with said someone for a short period of time. It is like the evil is repressed for a while. This makes me think that the evil is more permanent than simple ill intent. It is a property of the creature’s soul, if you will, or their character.
In the comments of an earlier discussion we mentioned ideology as the source of evil. Upon reflection, that seems accurate. If an individual’s ideology causes that person to kill and maim others without cause, it is safe to assume they are evil at heart. But that is an extreme case. Evil can occur in degrees with murder and death on edge of the spectrum, and simple selfishness on the other.
More can be said, of course, but I’ll leave it there for today.
I had another thought on this topic since the last post, so I’m extending the series to three parts. Basically, it deals with the difficulty concerning a strictly politically correct approach to race and the fact that any piece of literature will deal with a finite number of major characters. And by finite, I mean small.
Much literature consists of a protagonist and an antagonist and a variable number of supporting characters. In more recent years, we have seen the rise of multiple major characters. One of my favorite examples is the Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson. There are probably close to a dozen major characters in the series, maybe even more. However, that was a series spanning fourteen books and probably around 10,000 pages, giving the authors plenty of room to flesh out all the characters. Anyway, my point is that unless you intend to write a behemoth of similar magnitude, you will probably be limited to a handful of major characters in your story. Let’s say five.
How many races are there on planet Earth? There’s African, Caucasian, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, American Indian, and, I’m sure, a good many more. If we are going to take political correctness to its anal extreme, we should have representatives from every race among our main characters. But, clearly, that is impossible. There are too many races involved. We only have five characters and the incomplete list of races above has already reached six. We didn’t even include pygmies or Aborigines, and who knows who else.
Still, despite my harping, political correctness has (or at least did have) a point. Back in the 1950’s or so, most of the movies in the U.S. featured almost entirely white casts. And, I think if you take such in the aggregate that can be a problem. I’m sure it leads to a kind of psychological apartheid (as well as a more literal societal apartheid), particularly when there are large segments of the population who are not represented in the movies at all (i.e. blacks, American Indians, etc…). However, I think nowadays, we are so preoccupied with race and “diversity” we are going off in the other direction, insisting on diversity where it might actually do a disservice to the story in question. I must object when political correctness is used to justify an inconsistency with historical truth, such as in the movie “Thor” of my first post on the subject (not sure “truth” is the right word there, but I think you get my point—the gods of Asgard should have been white for historical reasons, not mixed for politically correct ones). Anyway, I think we have reached the point where, on an individual basis, we can set aside politically correct concerns and just tell good stories. There may be times when an all black or all white cast may be called for, and I don’t think the artist should be penalized for such. The needs of the story should determine the characters involved, not the latest trend in contemporary politics or literary groupthink.
Continuing on the theme of race in fantasy literature, I, once more, feel inclined to buck the trend. This is actually a completely different topic than what I discussed in part I, but it does belong under the same general heading.
A few weeks ago, I was reading a blog about race, racism, and fantasy literature (it actually, to a certain extent, inspired this series of posts, but unfortunately, I have lost the link). The whole point of the blog post was that fantasy literature featuring “inferior” or “monstrous” races implied that the writer was differentiating and “creating difference” or “recognizing differences” and was therefore racist. Basically, the upshot was that you can’t use orcs and goblins (or even dragons) anymore, because if you do, you are being racist. Seriously? Seriously? This is why people do not like political correctness. Holier-than-thou loons who pick at trivialities as if they are profound problems.
In my book, Drasmyr, the action takes place on the world of Athron. It is a fantasy world. With fantasy creatures. Although they have not appeared yet, I intend to use a race of creatures called goblins in later books. And they are evil. Ergo, there is conflict between the humans and the goblins. Not because the goblins have blood-red skin and bald, knotted skulls, and therefor look different from the humans, but because the goblins raid and destroy human villages for sport. I suppose, theoretically, the conflict between humans and goblins on my fantasy world could be paralleled with actual real historical conflicts between Race A and Race B on good old Earth which were eventually resolved when Race A and Race B began to talk to each other and trust each other, finding a way forward to peace, and so, such thinking would imply that the goblins and humans on my world could do likewise, but I can tell you, as the AUTHOR, that is not the case. The goblins are evil. They respect only strength; they kill amongst themselves; they think nothing of rape and murder; and they worship demons. They will never progress beyond that. Because I’m the AUTHOR, and I say so. And I want an evil race of creatures for the humans to fight and be in conflict with.
I mean, seriously? Was Smaug just a misunderstood capitalist? Oh, no, it’s capitalism that is the true evil, so Smaug couldn’t be that. But whatever he was, he was surely misunderstood. Never mind the city of dwarves he roasted, or the village of men he plagued. We just aren’t looking at things through his perspective. If only the dwarves had been willing to talk to him. They could have worked things out. Oh, that’s right. They did talk to him. They said, “Aaaaaahhhh!” a lot. And then they got eaten.
I will say from the get-go that I am not a fan of political correctness; it seems far too close to 1984’s Newspeak to me; at the very least, it is eerily similar. When I wrote my novel, Drasmyr (about 18 years ago, now), I pretty much paid little attention to variations in the human race and while writing, pretty much imagined all my characters as white (I’m white); however, I never went out of my way to specify human races in the novel, so, it would require little effort on the reader’s part to imagine the characters as black, or oriental, or what-have-you. The only thing that might jar would be the names. That said, as the author, I imagined the characters as white. So, let’s just assume they are.
Is that a weakness in the book? I’m sure some people think so. Personally, I think it is much ado about nothing. To me, the way to overcome racism is to be colorblind. It simply doesn’t matter that all the characters are white. By the same token, a black author should have no problem writing a book featuring all black characters. Or I could write a book featuring all black characters if I wanted to; either way, taken by itself, a book featuring human characters who are all of the same race should be acceptable, particularly since it is not necessarily true that—especially in earlier times—the human races were mixed equally around the globe. I mean, really, the reason racism starts, is because a homogenous population encounters someone who looks “different.” That presupposes that the population was homogenous in the first place. So, why can’t you write a story that takes place in that homogenous population before they encountered peoples of different races? A story set in ancient Japan would probably be strange if it featured American Indians, unless it incorporated a very specific justification for such, would it not?
Still, the politically correct forces are what they are. But they do lead to some strange, if not downright silly, results. A friend of mine actually pointed the following out to me: in the movie “Thor,” from a couple years back, Thor (played by Chris Hemsworth) is accompanied by a small group of companions. All of them come from Asgard, the home of the Asgardian “gods”—you know, Odin, Loki … them guys. His companions are, conveniently, a mix of different races representative of the peoples of the various places of Earth. Yet, as my friend pointed out, Thor and Odin were NORSE gods. The gods of every culture on the planet have always, according to the legends, pretty much been of the same race as the people who worshipped them—just bigger, stronger, and immortal (or they were human-animal hybrids). That kind of poses a difficulty for the movie “Thor”: if Thor had black and Asian companions, why didn’t the Norsemen worship them and have corresponding legends about them? Maybe that’s a trivial flaw—and I’m sure you could get by it with some mental gymnastics—but it does show how adherence to politically correct tenets can cause difficulties with plots and stories that might be better served if such tenets were ignored. In the case of Thor, political correctness might have been better served if, again as my friend suggested, the major Earth characters in the movie were of mixed races—which they weren’t.
Anyway, this leads to my next point: as a writer, I don’t like being “told” I have to include such and such a character in my story or the story is flawed or I’m a racist. I prefer to write characters that fit the story, and sometimes, an all white, or all black cast might be called for. That said, Drasmyr was written with only white characters in mind only because I never made a conscious effort to do otherwise. It was not intended as a slight to blacks or Asians or anyone else. All that being said, I will tip my hat to political correctness to a certain extent and include a black snake priestess in the next book. But only because I think she is really cool … and that’s the real reason to include a character, any character, in your novel.
Perhaps, since I started writing this blog over a year ago, this entry is long overdue. In any event, I have just gotten around to writing it. Hopefully, my words will entertain you for a bit, and inspire you to look at fantasy in a new light.
First, why write? Writing is an enjoyable process of both exploration and self-expression. Exploration because there are times when you don’t know what’s going to come out next, and self-expression because it allows for the dissemination of personal ideas both simple and complex. I’ve been writing pretty much my entire adult life, off and on, for a variety of purposes. Usually, I’m chasing that ever elusive carrot of publication and entering the big-time, but sometimes I do it just for fun.
Now, why fantasy? Well, this is actually a multi-part answer. First, there is an adage (well, if there isn’t, there should be) that says “write what you know.” I’ve always been enchanted by fantasy, whether it be books, or role-playing games, or videos games, or movies. There is something profoundly alluring about exploring magical realms where dragons and sorcerers are real. It’s a form of escapism. Perhaps, that means my regular life is too mundane—that I’m indeed escaping from something unpleasant. I don’t know if I would go that far, but even if that is the case, then so be it. I enjoy the fantasy world because it re-ignites a sense of wonder and awe. Something we all felt as children, but which has a tendency to grow stale and die as we age. There is something about fairy dust and fireballs that stirs the imagination. Second, there is a certain degree of freedom in fantasy writing that may not be present in other forms of writing. The whole premise of the genre is that you are writing about a world, a situation, or a character that does not follow the same rules that apply here on Earth, or even in our universe for that matter. Whatever you can imagine can take form in your stories. Winged men, burning plants, freezing fire … whatever you want: it can happen. That doesn’t mean you can write completely willy-nilly ignoring all sense of logic. At a certain point, such would degenerate into unintelligible nonsense. But I digress. The third reason for writing fantasy is a bit more subtle, and, to be honest, is not always pertinent. Fantasy can provide a powerful means of providing metaphors about society and criticism of culture. I don’t always write like that, to be honest; most of the time, I just write a story because I like a good story. But I have on occasion written a bit of social commentary using fantasy as its vehicle. This is not uncommon. Some of the most famous names in the genre told stories that were meant to be so much more: J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, just to name two. At any rate, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities for literary criticism.
In the end, perhaps the most important reason for me to write fantasy is that I enjoy doing so. I have several interests and hobbies, but by far, the one with the most powerful draw is fantasy writing. Now, if only I could make some money at it. Then, I’d be all set.