Writing Tips

Writing Evil Well

Guest post by Frances Tait

“Don’t portray evil as glamourous” is something I heard a lot when I was growing up, especially from Christian sources. No vampire and werewolf romances, good witches, or friendly dragons for these people.

I understand why. It could be damaging to make evil something appealing, to teach that what is bad and dangerous might be simply misunderstood. Recently, however, I have been considering whether portraying evil as glamourous is actually bad. I decided not. Here’s why.

In real life, evil is glamourous, at least on the outside and at first. If it did not appeal in some way, it would not happen. People don’t do evil because it is evil. The most basic reason is pleasure, but it is rarely the pleasure of making other people suffer, because the average person is not a sadistic maniac.

However, these kinds of villains are very common in fantasy. Sauron would prefer hobbits as miserable slaves to free, happy people. Why? Because he is evil, apparently. Voldemort and his gang randomly kill families of non-magic people, apparently because that is what evil wizards do.

This idea isn’t a bad one in itself (and I feel bad about criticising my favourite fantasy books), but then you try and reason out how the pure-evil villain came to be where they are. What kind of person chooses to join a guy with no nose who is called “the dark lord” by his followers and is mostly known for torture and murder? It just isn’t realistic that he would have so many followers. At least we know the orcs were made to be evil, so it makes sense that Sauron has them to rely on, but why are there humans fighting for him? It should be clear to anyone with a brain that helping him win is going to gain few advantages in the long-run.

Real life “villains”, the tyrants leading various flawed regimes, for example, did not gain support by their evilness. They promised people things, good things. They inspired them, stirred up feelings of bitterness and resentment. Some of them were quite charismatic, and people were honestly loyal to them. Terror generally came after a leader had gained power with the help of a base of loyal supporters.

Did you know that some of the most heavily criticised biographies of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao are the ones that portray them as human, that talk about their normal characteristics? We would like to believe that these people are a different species from us, that we share nothing in common, but that is not true. If we tell ourselves that everyone who does evil will be obviously evil right from the beginning, we are setting ourselves up to be deceived. We are only going to recognise the next Hitler if we acknowledge that evil is glamourous and even normal.

I think writers have a responsibility to portray what is true, and part of that involves dealing with true evil. However, while that can involve glamour and appeal, there are certain things it should not involve.

1. Don’t portray evil as harmless

A vampire, assassin, or other blatantly evil person is not going to be capable of a good long-term relationship. Evil grows and takes over people who let it in, so it will spill over into relationships with the people they love eventually.

2. Don’t portray evil as bringing long-term satisfaction and happiness

Because it doesn’t, and it isn’t fair to tell people that it does.

3. Consider the responsibility of evil

Make your characters take responsibility (or not). They could be in complete denial about what they are doing, but make it obvious. How is burning down cities affecting the rest of your villains’ lives? Do they think they are doing right? Or perhaps they do not care because they are receiving orders and putting all the responsibility onto someone else?

4. Evil has long-term effects on perpetrators and victims.

Trauma and PTSD seem to be dealt with in every genre but fantasy. Unless your wizard has powers that make him immune to the emotional impact of nearly getting killed/seeing other people killed/killing other people, there is no good reason for this. Okay, you don’t have go all out and give every character trauma from every event that occurs, but any fantasy-worthy quest is going to have some sort of impact on the people involved. This goes for heroes and villains. They should both be changed in some way by the end of the story, especially if it involves city-burning.

 

So what do you think? Should evil be portrayed as glamourous? What maybe are the limits? And who are your favourite villains, and why?

Have a good day!

Fran

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Fran (who previously went by the pseudonym Kikyo) blogs over at Thinkings about book reviews, writing tips, and occasionally pieces of her novels. She is a Scottish teenager who is passionate about science, writing, and books. She wants to discover more about this world while making up fantasy worlds and exploring other writers’ imagined worlds. And she is on a quest to discover the answer to every question she can think of, find an excuse for her levels of coffee consumption, and be the best writer she can be. She still has a long way to go on all of them.

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8 thoughts on “Writing Evil Well”

  1. This is SO GOOD. I really like the part where you said “A vampire, assassin, or other blatantly evil person is not going to be capable of a good long-term relationship.” There are just so many good points in this post. And what you said about us writers having the responsibility of telling the truth about evil is a great reminder.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree! In real life, we usually convince ourselves that sin is harmless because it is so attractive. I think C.S Lewis portrayed evil like this through Jadis/the White Witch. When she first appears, both Digory and Edmund are captivated by her beauty, but in the end they have to pay the consequences of playing with evil.

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  3. I think you’re right, Fran. Evil IS glamorous, at least, it appears to be. And so it should be portrayed that way. I think the important thing is making a point that evil is not what it seems to be, and that it is ultimately going to lead to destruction.
    And good point about PTSD in fantasy. Its often annoyed and upset me that fantasy characters never suffer from trauma as a result of their/others actions.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hey. Dragons aren’t inherently evil! 🙂 You do make a good point. Although I would argue that PTSD is become more and more common in sci-fi, and will probably spill over into fantasy soon as well (Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows comes to mind as a fantasy FULL of traumatized characters). Good post!

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  5. Hi, I just wanted to say that you have some pretty good points up here and I agree with your stance on how more characters should be traumatized and have PTSD in fantasy stories. It is true that evil is glamorous, which is something I didn’t fully realize until now. Great job at this, God bless, and Happy writing to ya! 😀

    Like

  6. Your comment on evil being glamorous reminds me of Lucifer. He was beautiful, and I think he was the one called the angel of light, but I could be mixing him up with something else. And yet, he is the father of lies. The most convincing lies are those that sound like truths, but are twisted into snares for our feet so cleverly that we don’t see the truth until it is too late. That is the kind of villain I want to write. Thank you so much, Fran, for your post.
    ~Bethia

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I like your four points at the end, good advice to keep in mind. As a Christian and a writer, I have learned that evil can be summed up as a person “wanting his way”, whether that is power or money or security or whatever, rather tthan “wanting His way”. Even dictatorships can be analyzed at this level. Why does a leader entice people to follow him and promise them what they want? It keeps him in power. He gets his way.

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