Types of Evil (or at Least Antagonists)

This post could just about as easily be a theological one, but since I’ve come to these ideas in working on Avar Narn, I figured they’re better suited to being addressed to the writers out there–anyone who wants to extrapolate into the realms of spirituality and morality is welcome of course.

As an opening, let me first say that it is difficult to write an “evil” character, whether major antagonist or supporting character. It’s difficult because few things in the world are black and white, so a character that isn’t nuanced in his/her morality isn’t believable in stories that intend to maintain verisimilitude. On an obviously allegorical, mythological or moralistic tale, there’s a lot more leeway for capital “E” evil characters. But that has its own bag of tropes and expectations tht I’m not going to address here.

Instead, I’m going to try to put together a few general categories of character types we might describe as “evil.” I think we (myself included) are quick to use terms like “bad guys” when we mean “antagonist” in the more literary criticism sense of the term. That’s probably something we should all be careful of. That said, on to some gross oversimplification that I hope will nevertheless prove useful:

(1) Capital “E” Evil
This is the character who just wants to watch the world burn, who enjoys inflicting suffering for suffering’s sake, who exists to malign and misuse everything around him for the sake of just that.

As such, this should also be the rarest kind of evil in fiction, becuase it’s the hardest kind to get right. I think that there are two subtypes to be thought of here.

The first is cosmic evil–that kind of supernatural evil that is unknowable in its reasoning or motivation. Think Lovecraftian horror. We sidestep the major problem here by positing that we just can’t understand this evil. It just is. Particularly in fantasy, we can often get away with this, but it requires special suspension of disbelief or extra worldbuilding to swing. Even then, we’ve created a de facto villain that is really only interesting in an existential sense.

The second type is the corrupted individual. What we need, I think, to make this work is a believable backstory. Nobody begins that way, so we need an explanation as to what suffering the person has gone through to mold him into this type character.

This runs two ancillary risks, however. The first is that in describing said backstory, we humanize the character to the point that he no longer really fits into the Capital “E” Evil category. The second is that we turn our story into an analysis of the nature of evil. That can be an enthralling type of tale, particularly if the “evil” character is the protaganist of the story.

(2) Mistaken Beliefs
This subgroup belongs to those characters who honestly believe that they are doing the right thing while they commit atrocities the rest of us would find blatantly evil.

There are plenty of real-life examples to draw upon here to make the argument concisely. Take the Islamic State for example. Adherents to this would-be theocracy believe that they are practicing true Islam while murdering the innocent. This is an extreme case that can be attributed to any radical/fundamentalist religious group–Christians who kill doctors who perform abortions, for example. If you truly believe that God (or gods) demanded it and that makes it right, it’s easy to justify your actions.

Next, think of the person gripped by psychosis such that they are driven by an irrational belief that they cannot bring themselves to disavow. This is a particularly moving type of antagonist because they are driven by an affliction and not by their own agency–we can’t actually morally blame those who aren’t in control of themselves. This gives us a good opportunity to explore our “hero’s” approach to evil–is she only interested in ending threats or is she interested in redemption? What does she do when that redemption isn’t something she can achieve.

There are plenty of “lower magnitude” mistaken beliefs that make interesting villains. Les Miserables’ Javier is an excellent example–a man so overcommitted to his idea of “justice” that he cannot allow himself any mercy. This type of extremism in belief is all around us–just listen to how some people think we should fight the “War on Terror” or what we should do to criminals.

We can also extend this to what in the law we would consider a “mistake of fact.” When the antagonist believes that the protaganist is a villain who must be stopped, for instance. Yes, the antagonist’s belief is untrue, but if it were true would we think of the antagonist as a “good guy?”

A brief aside here: what if the protaganist is acting immorally? Watching a character spiral out of control is heck of a dramatic ride, and testing a character’s willingness to act as he says he believes is a classic conflict to explore.

Mistaken identity (along with the particular of being falsely accused) is one of the great archetypal plots, one which fits directly into the mistake of fact.

(3) The End Justifies the Means
This is a commonly-used type of antagonist, perhaps because it’s so relatable. The constant moral choice that faces all of us in life is whether we’ll sacrifice our values to get what we’re after. The only difference here is one of scale. For the sake of drama, the means to achieve the end must be dire–the determination of life and death, or the fates of many. For what profiteth it for a man to gain the world but lose his soul?

One of my favorite examples of this type of evil is the Operative from Serenity. The Operative is a man who accepts that he does evil things, but he is sincere in the belief that it will bring about a better galaxy (which perhaps makes him fall under (2) as well). In fact, he views his sins as a form of sacrifice–he does the unspeakable so that others don’t have to. There is a sort of nobility to his principles, even if they are ultimately wrong. And, for those of you who prefer your characters to wear capes rather than swords, Batman isn’t far off here, either. In fact, I’d say that Batman and the Operative have far more in common than we should be comfortable with if we’re going to call one “hero” and the other “villain.”

Speaking of Batman, most vigilantes fit into this category. Because we love it when the bad guys get theirs, even when they get it in a way that requires a sacrifice of our values, this can be a popular protagonist as well–think of the Punisher.

I would wager that most of our favorite anti-heroes fall into this category as well–it’s their beliefs and the willingness to risk for those beliefs that make them heroes, but the way they go about pursuing the fulfillment of those beliefs that adds the “anti-.”

(4) Honor and Identity
This is perhaps a subcategory of “Mistaken Beliefs,” but it’s a significant-enough subtype that it deserves its own treatment.

People do evil things in the name of maintaining honor all the time. As a student of history–and particularly the medieval and Renaissance periods, the first examples that pop into my mind are the duel and the vendetta. I’ve recently read a book called Mad Blood Stirring: Vendetta and Factions in Friuli in the Renaissance, which reinforces the connection for me. But Renaissance Italy is not the only honor culture known for the tit-for-tat systemic murder that defines vendetta–the Hatfields and McCoys come to mind in slightly more recent history.

And, of course, we could discuss “honor killings” in certain Middle Eastern or South Asian cultures (though, to be fair, the Napoleonic Code also permitted a husband to kill an unfaithful wife and her lover, and even in American law a murder is often considered manslaughter when a husband kills his spouse after finding her “in flagrante delicto.”)

Honor cultures and actions taken under the justification of defending one’s honor are typically about maintaining a sense of identity–either one of purity or of strength (or perhaps both). The ideology of the honor culture says that if one does not maintain honor, one will be viewed as weak and will be taken advantage of by the rest of the culture.

And defending one’s sense of identity is a strong motivator, one that can create fascinating internal conflict, because it can be the conflict between internal belief and external pressures of society. For instance, “I believe that I should show mercy, but my culture tells me that I am not a man if I do not take vengeance.” Powerful stuff.

Honor, of course, is not the only identity-related factor that can lead a character to become “evil” or antagonistic. The need to belong to something greater than oneself is a fundamental human motivation, on that can lead to similar conflict between the will of the individual and the will of the group. Is there a story about gangs that doesn’t include this plotline? What about cults and religions (which takes us back to (2))?

(5) Cross-Purposes and Limited Resources
I don’t have to explain that characters don’t have to possess malicious intent to be antagonists. The world has a habit of pitting humans against each other by its very nature–or at least tempting us to work against instead of with one another.

The core of successful narrative is conflict, and all it takes is characters who want things that are opposed (or even better, mutually-exclusive) to create such.

This suits certain types of stories especially well–the noir and anything else that might be considered “gritty” immediately come to mind. The story doesn’t need to be one of moralistic pedantry, though one must be careful not to let ambivelence about morality become relativism (at least I’m going to moralize on that point).

The Game of Thrones novels come to mind, as does Abercrombie’s First Law books. The political intrigue inherent to both puts POV characters at odds with one another, certainly giving us occasional “villains,” but not as a central theme of the stories.

But this type of conflict does not just suit the morally-ambiguous; it plays well to analysis of morality. I’m going to turn here to my favorite atheist philosopher (and one of my favorite storytellers), Joss Whedon. He’s been quoted as saying, “If nothing we do matters, the only thing that matters is what we do.” As an existentialist theologian, this freedom to create meaning when meaning is not thrust upon us is a core concept to me (but not one we’ll discuss here). Likewise, when the there’s no clear “good and evil,” we must judge the morality of the characters by the choices that they make. This can, of course, be easily combined with all but (1) above.

The conflict within a character of wanting to do the right thing, but perhaps being unwilling to pay the cost to do so, is a conflict we can all relate to. I’m inclined to argue that there is nothing in the craft of fiction so real as this. If you want your writing to have that air of verisimilitude, readers will suspend disbelief for a lot of things when the characters seem lifelike and complex to them. That’s not an excuse to write fiction that is sloppy except for the characters.

That, I think, is why I’m personally drawn to “gritty” stories. They’re rich with meaning.

(6) Inanimate Evil

I include this mostly as a footnote becuase it needs little explanation. This is the classic “(wo)man versus nature” story, where an uncaring and unresponsive natural force (i.e. the elements) forces a struggle for the protagonist to survive.

Conclusion

This list is, of course, not exhaustive. Each category has subcategories and nuances to be explored (and isn’t that one of the great joys of writing?). More general categories could be appended to this. When I think of them, I’ll post an update. I’m also inclined to write more about creating the types of characters that fit into (5), or at least stories of ambivalent morality–that is, dispassion on the part of the narration about moral judgment, leaving such a task to the reader. For now, this seems sufficient.

Demonology

I’ve been doing some research into demonologies lately for some of my fiction writing, and, naturally, it’s got me thinking about demons and devils from a theological standpoint.

Most of Christian demonology (and the demonology of Judaism and Islam, for that matter) is based on folk belief run amok.

The Book of Job features “the Satan” (“Ha-Satan”), not so much a formal name as a title of office: “the adversary.” In Job, the Satan’s position is just that, the skeptic who doubts Job’s sincerity and requests God’s permission to test Job’s faith. Here, the Satan’s intent is not to corrupt Job but to uncover the truth of his piety. We should also read the Satan in this text as highly metaphorical; through the story the author is leading us through an investigation of the problems of evil and suffering. The ultimate answer given at the end of Job is that we humans cannot fully understand evil and suffering and must trust in God as the only satisfactory resolution. The Satan, then, represents a force or condition personified for mythopoeic effect more than a literal being.

The word “satan” appears in the Old Testament about 18 times outside of Job. The King James Version (already saturated with folk demonology–James VI & I himself wrote Daemonologie in 1597) sometimes translates the word as a proper noun when it more correctly should have been translated as “an adversary.”

There is one notable exception: Revelation 12:7-9, which reads: “Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down–that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.” We’ll return to this below.

The word translated by the King James as “Lucifer” appears in Isaiah 14 and should properly be translated as “morning star” rather than a proper name.

So where do our ideas about Satan and Lucifer, fallen angels and great demons come from? As I mentioned above, a borrowed and greatly embellished folk tradition that somehow became enmeshed within Christianity.

The early Mesopotamian cultures had extensive legends about demons, much of which we have come to know from apotropaic amulets and inscriptions. There are Alu and Agag, the edimmu and the Lilu, just to name a few. Mesopotamian ideas naturally influenced Jewish ideas (remember that Abram is called by God to leave the Mesopotamian cities in Genesis) and through Jewish thought came to Christian thought. The Exodus and the Babylonian Captivity provided additional opportunities for pagan demonologies to influence demonological thought among Rabbis and Jewish scholars.

The Dead Sea Scrolls provide some insight. We know that Qumran, the community of the (probably) Essenes where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, was probably founded between the 130’s and 100’s B.C. and was destroyed by the Romans in 68 A.D. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls are 1 Enoch and the Book of Jubilees, both of which make reference to the episode in Genesis 6, where the “sons of God”–interpreted in these texts as angels–rebel by taking human wives, giving birth to the Nephilim. Because of this, we know that a well-developed and codified set of demonological ideas exists at about the time of Christ. To what extent these ideas were widely accepted is, I think, unknown.

The likeliest influence for a chief demon in the popular concept of Satan is Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism is a dualistic religion, in which the good God Ahura Mazda battles the evil god Angra Mainyu (or Ahriman) for control of the world. This idea of a powerful evil being in opposition to the supreme being (and in the early Old Testament the Hebrews appear to be henotheistic long before they are truly monotheistic) must have been an attractive one for the explanation of evil and suffering in the world.

This jibes well with the story of Satan’s rebellion against God, a war in heaven that ends with Satan and his followers being cast out or cast into Hell. In a truly monotheistic mindset, it doesn’t make sense to think that one–angel or not–could overthrow the sovereign creator of all things and take God’s place as lord of creation. If this popular “Satan’s rebellion” story is true, I question the danger of an adversary who can’t do a basic benefit to risk assessment; it’s the smart criminals you have to watch out for.

Now we return to the passage in Revelation. But we ought to be careful: while the core nugget of Satan rebelling against God and a war in heaven is there, the nature of the text and the narration make it unclear whether we’re looking backwards in time or forwards. Based on the surrounding context (that the seven seals have been broken and trumpets are blowing) this appears to be a depiction of a future time–not a spiritual history.

The Revelation of John was probably written somewhere in the 70’s to 90’s A.D.–not long after or perhaps even concurrently with the Book of Mark. Plenty of time for popular demonological beliefs to take hold–and well before the canonization of the New Testament texts. We know that 1 Enoch and the Book of Jubilees existed before the Book of Revelation was likely written, so we know that there were demonological ideas that to draw upon at the time, even if most of these ideas would not make it into canon.

There is much information to be had on ancient demonologies and their potential influences on one another. For my purpose here, I mean only to point out in broad strokes that most of our ideas about “the devil” and Satan are based on conjecture and elaboration–some of it fanciful–rather than Scripture.

Most of our understanding of the “war in heaven” narrative–in the popular mind–comes from Milton’s Paradise Lost. It is from that work, Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and long-standing oral traditions that our concept of the devil comes about.

Why does this matter? Because the way we think about evil matters. Is there evil in the world? I don’t think there’s any question about that. Is there a personified, capital “E” Evil at work in the world? I don’t know–I don’t think that Scriptures are entirely clear on this matter and we can cause more suffering than we alleviate if we focus overmuch on a the “spiritual warfare” against a personified Other in our efforts to seek justice and peace in our world.

To be clear, the Scriptures do indicate a confidence in the existence of supernatural entities that can affect the world, some of them evil or unclean. The Witch of Endor (surprisingly not related to Star Wars) summons the spirit of the prophet Samuel at Saul’s command; Jesus is shown driving spirits out of the afflicted as well. I’m unwilling to deny this; nor can I categorically prove or disprove the existence of a Satan. But, we don’t know the extent to which Jesus’s exorcisms were really the contemporary cultural understanding of the miraculous healing of mental illness and to what extent actual predatory beings were involved. Maybe I’m hedging my bets, but I’m inclined to believe that it’s some of both. Still, we’re not Jesus and therefore not blessed with absolute knowledge of which is which, We ought to take a very careful approach, then.

What are the dangers of a focus on Satan as a strong influence on our lives? The most obvious, I think, coincides with the previous paragraph: the employment of exorcism as a tool when the situation really calls for mental health treatment. Much research shows how mental conditioning can create a situation where a person can be made to believe that they need an exorcism and to play the role of the afflicted even when they would not have said that they were possessed before entering the preparation for exorcism. The extreme measures used in some exorcisms have led to deaths–this isn’t really helpful to anyone. Again, I’m not saying that an exorcism can never be an appropriate course of action (I’m skeptical but I don’t have any way of knowing for sure) and I have no problem with ritual abjuration and exorcism, such as performed by the Eastern Orthodox Church prior to baptism. More often than not, however, I think exorcism is the creation of problems that do not exist, obstructing the addressing of those problems that do.

In the wider spiritual sense, however, it’s not exorcisms that most concern me. What concerns me is the functions a Satan figure fulfills in practice. On the one hand, Satan makes a convenient scapegoat for personal responsibility–the classic “the Devil made me do it.” There’s a definite psychological advantage to saying “I did that thing I feel guilty about because I was weak in the face of the Devil’s temptation” over saying “I made a bad choice that was my doing entirely.” While psychologically advantageous, this practice is not spiritually advantageous–to repent for sins we must accept responsibility for them.

The most dangerous, as I’ve seen firsthand: saying that someone is under the influence of Satan is the ultimate act of creating Otherness. Once done, the namer typically treats the name as a force of Evil against which the only righteous course of action is vehement opposition. The named can never have a good point, raise an issue that ought to be considered, or be approaching a conflict from a place of reason. The voice of the named may be entirely disregarded. I have seen this in intrachurch conflict; it is painful to watch, frustrating to deal with, and Sisyphean to resolve.

As a further example of this, take a look into the Satanic ritual abuse panic of the 1980’s and early 90’s. This is the closest we’ve come to a witch-hunt in modern times, I think, and most if not all of the accused were innocent. If there is a Satan, he was well served by those events.

Here’s the ultimate irony, I think: Jesus commands us to love even our enemies. If there is a Satan, as an archnemesis of humanity, ought we not to try to love even him? Yes, we must reject evil, but rejecting evil is a matter of standing against particular actions and outcomes, not against people themselves. What does opposition to a Satan in a way that shows mercy to the extent possible look like? Personified evil can only lose its power in the face of love.

A focus on Satan as a force of evil blinds us to looking at institutional evil, the ways in which our society–which includes us and our own complicity–perpetuates oppression, injustice and inequality. When we look to a personified evil acting in the world for us to oppose, we neglect the evil we do, especially when we can say “my evil is far less than that of the Devil.”

As an aside, I think it’s interesting (and perhaps important as well) to note that most self-avowed Satanists do not belief in a literal Satan. They instead believe in the Nietzschean pursuit of selfish power at the expense of all else (an idea that remains nevertheless anathema to the Christian), but they do not per se believe in a Devil or even necessarily in evil for evil’s sake (although the line quickly blurs when exercising power for power’s sake). If even those who explicitly make Satan the focus of their philosophical ideology (and there are, unfortunately, some Christians who do the same, albeit from a more oppositional  perpesctive) view Satan as a figurative symbol for selfish living and rebellion for its own sake, we ought to consider the figurative meaning of a Satan in our own theology at least as much as a literal meaning.

The thoughts of Satanists do not make the existence of Satan true or untrue. My own thoughts here bear the same powerlessness, and I’ll explicitly state once again that I believe in the possibility of the existence of evil supernatural entities–personified evil or not. There are far more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. At the same time, we are far better served striving against the evil within us and within our collective way of living before looking for some external evil to combat–even spiritual warfare has a tendency to bring out the darker side of human nature, I think.

A close inspection at the Biblical sources for Satan, especially when viewed alongside the historical development of popular ideas about a personified evil in the form of some archnemesis spirit, leaves some doubt about the literal existence of a demonic force. A belief in Satan as the ultimate adversary is not a key component of Christianity (although I think that it’s fair to say that belief in the existence of evil as a condition or description of conditions is). I fully understand that there are those convicted that they know that Satan does exist. I must respect their position as much as possible because I cannot confirm or deny the truth of their experience–not that there is no absolute truth about their position, just that I don’t have access to it. In light of such uncertainty, we are better served looking to humanity and the ways in which we sin and bring evil to fruition before we blame Satan or some other supernatural force for the decisions we make and the conditions we allow to persist.