I was sitting around my office (my real one where I am paid money to do things, not the virtual one where I write Gabbing Geek articles) when a friend and co-worker came in abuzz. He’s taking a graduate class on the works of John Milton, and he was rather animated on C.S. Lewis’ thoughts on Lucifer in Paradise Lost. Lewis didn’t understand why Lucifer was such a popular and compelling figure in the eyes of many, and held that Lucifer is not cool with his “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” statements, and that ultimately this led to Lucifer lying to everyone including himself.
That led to a freeform conversation on the nature of evil in fiction.
Why is evil in fiction so fascinating? It’s never that way when you experience it yourself, right? My friend is very liberal politically, and he’s frequently down over whatever is happening in the American government, wondering aloud what we’re supposed to do as he sees what he believes is the permanent erosion of various American institutions (my answer to such concerns for anyone is this: stay informed, vote when the time comes, do whatever else you can, and hope everything more or less works out). He certainly isn’t resting easy seeing things he sees as evil happening in the halls of our government.
So, I proposed this: evil is a product of conflict. Conflict is the root of all drama. Drama is entertaining. Conflict never is if it is happening to you.
Fiction has the remove of putting other people’s (made up) conflict in front of you for your own entertainment. Conflict free drama is essentially nonexistent. Gene Roddenberry had insisted that there could be no conflict between different members of the crew for Star Trek: The Next Generation until he died. That greatly hampered his writers from creating interesting TV episodes. The common complaint about Superman is he isn’t interesting because he can do more or less anything and he lacks a dark side. Batman, by contrast, is a dark hero that people enjoy.
But do they? Superman was for decades a more popular hero, played more or less straight, while Batman only became the popular hero he is today starting in the 70s when writers returned him to his dark roots. That Adam West show wasn’t that far off from his often forgettable Silver Age adventures, while Superman had wacky adventures happen all the time, where he was less likely to throw a punch and more likely to use his brains to trick an opponent in some way. Superman loved deception in those days.
That may also go back to how people want to see themselves. We want a reflection of who and what we are in our fiction. A character that we can’t relate to is not a character we will find compelling. Part of that is wish fulfillment. As my friend put it, nobody really wants to be a Jedi Knight. Sure, you get the cool powers, but you also have to live as an aesthetic, pushing down all your emotions and living as dull and tranquil a life as possible. Jedi don’t start fights and work for peaceful resolutions first and foremost. They don’t go grabbing right for the lightsaber. The same would be true for many heroes. Being Batman sounds awesome if you want to be a badass fighter with a billion-dollar bank account and lots of neat toys, but you also take a lot of physical and emotional punishment going back to a childhood trauma and ending with a war on crime, and crime isn’t going to go away.
No one really wants that. We want the good parts, not the bad. Put another way, the late animator Chuck Jones said we all wish we were Bugs Bunny: calm, cool, collected, able to ably take out any opponent without too much effort and look awesome while doing it. The problem is, we all secretly think we might be Daffy Duck: craven and cowardly.
So, why evil? Evil brings conflict one way or the other. It might be internal or external. Much of morality runs around the concepts of greed and deception. Many of the Coen Brothers’ movies, comedies or dramas, deal with money making people do bad things. Accepting what you have and being happy with it may lead to a dull life, but also a potentially peaceful one. The TV series American Gods demonstrated that with the episode that focused on the backstory of Laura Moon. Her husband Shadow initially attracted her because he was a thief and that seemed exciting. When they got married, he settled down. During a crucial scene for that episode, he says he’d be happy to live with her in a cardboard box. She says she can’t do that and needs more. That leads to him committing the crime that sends him to jail and arguably gets the plot rolling.
So, that’s greed: wanting what you don’t have, not being satisfied with what you do. It doesn’t have to be for money, obviously, but it has to be for something that a person lacks. The other route is deception, the way people lead themselves to believe perhaps they need more. Now, what pop culture character went the full deception route, tricking himself into thinking he deserved more than he did?
How much of Walter White’s behavior is his lying to himself? He thinks he deserves more than he has. True, his life is far from perfect, but it isn’t exactly awful either. That may be why in the finale Skyler seems to forgive him when he admits his real reason for doing everything he did, a reason he never said out loud before. It isn’t a good reason necessarily. He still did a lot of evil things. But it’s an honest reason. This is a man who said he was the one who knocked before that was even remotely true, and he probably believed it. He continually underestimated what other people thought of him and others, and he ruined lives. Mostly he ruined his own and his family’s.
But these things don’t happen to us. They happen to other people. We can remove ourselves from these others, especially since they aren’t real people, and just feel something. The Greeks had a word for the end of a tragedy, when an audience’s negative emotions could be purged and lead to someone feeling better for it. They called it catharsis. That’s why we like evil in fiction. It can’t hurt us, but we can feel the thrill of seeing it win or lose, draw parallel to our own lives, and ultimately see no actual harm done. Some villains are exciting because they fight the status quo. The status quo can be boring. We know all about it. Others fight to preserve it when it is stifling. But it is that behavior, behavior we find both familiar and alien, the person who is willing to do the things we may wish to do but won’t due to our own moral and ethical codes, that makes fictional evil so much more fascinating than fictional good. We know good. We like to think we live in the good. We know evil. We don’t want to experience evil, but we may not mind seeing it doing its thing to someone else.