I’ve argued for a really long time with my friends and have believed for a long time that there is no such thing as “evil.” The man who murders someone isn’t doing it because he’s a terrible person– no one does something really just to hurt someone else. That doesn’t make sense. They’re doing it because they see some kind of positive effect from it.
That positive effect can be redemption, restoring honor for a loved one who was wronged, revenge for peace of mind, getting the supposed person off the street because just by being alive they are in danger of harming many others, getting out of financial trouble, to make a political statement, to help their country and those they love in it, and so on and so forth. But no one ever just kills someone just “because” unless they are mentally unwell, and I would argue in those cases that they still have their reasons, they just don’t make sense to us.
Even Hitler genuinely thought he was helping his country by starting the Holocaust. He wasn’t doing it just to be mean, or racist, or just “because.” It cost his country millions of dollars that could have gone into the war effort to manage something as huge as the Holocaust. No one would do that just because they hated one specific brand of people. No one would risk their country and power just because. And even Hitler was a young boy who was extremely protective of his mother, and never the same after his mother’s death.
Now, this never means that their horrible actions were justified. But it does have to make us question our ideas of “evil.” What exactly is evil? What does that mean from a narrative perspective, and for our lives?
For our lives, it means we can’t just see war as “us” versus “them” and “good” versus “evil.” Naturally, those we invade think that we’re the evil ones. Those that fight against us see us as terrorists, people who killed their families, ruined their cities, destroyed their lives. They don’t see any “help” in our actions. I have a friend who wants to go into the military, and when questioned about how he would feel if he killed people, he didn’t even seem to register the fact that it was human people he would be killing. He just thought of them as some sort of lesser human demon thing threatening the wellbeing of his country, in which lived his family, friends, and girlfriend. Why wouldn’t he kill them?
If we cease to believe that evil exists, that automatically makes us question their mindset. When asking the question, “but why would they do that?” we no longer have the easy blanket of “they must just be inherently bad people” to lie under. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never met an inherently bad person in my life, and I’ve had people do horrible things to me and those I loved. But they weren’t “evil.” They weren’t doing it just “because.”
This is important when writing because– well, every bad action someone does has to have a reason. You’d have to really get into their mindset, to see things they might not even see, to be able to understand them and why they would do such a thing. Even to understand the depths to which they would sink, just how horrible they can actually be just to try and permanently establish someone’s love for them, or financial stability, or respect for them as a person. Suddenly a lot of actions that don’t make sense do, and a lot of actions you would never have thought of them doing open themselves up to you as you write. They wouldn’t just get angry that the hero spat in their face– not if what they were trying to get was respect across the world– they would be murderous. They maybe would be manipulative. Maybe they would see him as someone they could respect, and someone whose respect would be well-worth earning– so worth earning, in fact, that maybe they’d join the “good” side just to get it. It opens up a large dimension for complex characters just by asking, “Why? Why would they do that?” and having the answer not be “well, because that’s the kind of person they are.” No one is “that kind of person.” Not in real life.