Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Black hats, white hats, grey hats: things to think about when writing ‘bad guys’


The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil - Hannah Arendt

The thing about the best bad guys is that they usually don't perceive themselves as bad or evil. They see the world about them as wrong and they want to make it right in their eyes. One of the best examples of this is the character of Magneto in the X-Men comics and films. He's such an interesting character that he's going to get his own film. He isn't simply a foil like the Joker is to Batman or a doppelgänger as in the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty. A Jewish Holocaust survivor, Magneto's actions are driven by the purpose of protecting the mutant race from suffering a similar fate. His logic is that the end justifies the means.

In a 2008 interview, Stan Lee elaborated that he "did not think of Magneto as a bad guy. He just wanted to strike back at the people who were so bigoted and racist ... he was trying to defend the mutants, and because society was not treating them fairly he was going to teach society a lesson. He was a danger of course ... but I never thought of him as a villain."[1]

Right and wrong are such fluid terms. In England, in 1966, a gay man would have been a criminal, a 'bad guy', whereas in 1967 he would not. But, if he'd moved up to Scotland he would've become 'bad' again as soon as he crossed the border since homosexuality was still a criminal offence here up until 1980. Some people, those who believe in a higher authority, would regard him as a ‘bad guy’ no matter where on the planet he moved to: simply because it’s no longer a crime doesn’t mean it’s not still a sin. He probably doesn’t think of himself as anything close to ‘bad’. He no doubt pays his taxes, never exceeds the speed limit and is kind to kids and small animals. He probably believes that doing ‘bad’ is a choice whereas being gay is not.

Through one man sin entered into the world and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men because they had all sinned. (Romans 5:12)

Okay, so sin is inherited. But is sin evil? Or even a propensity towards being evil?

Bad guys have been a mainstay of literature for thousands of years. It used to be all very straightforward. But that’s not so much the case nowadays. In a lot of cases the true identity of the bad guy is unknown until the climax where he gets his chance to deliver his little speech before being summarily despatched and, even if he has what might seem like a just cause (even if his methods leave something to be desired), it's often hard for a reader to develop any real empathy for him. In the first of the X-Men films the action opens with a scene from Magneto's time whilst in Auschwitz. It is a relatively short scene but it immediately grounds the character in reality; he is not simply a bad guy.

lex_luthor We see this being done most effectively in the TV series Smallville where over several years we get to observe the character of Lex Luthor struggle with his dark side (some might say his destiny) but very few actors will ever be afforded the chance to work on such a large canvass.

It used to be so clear, the guys in the white hats were the good guys and the ones in the black hats were the bad guys. It makes total sense just like colour-coding your army: blue coats versus red coats, for example. And then Clint Eastwood came along with his grey hat and nothing was quite the same ever again.

I don’t tend to write bad guys. They don’t really interest me. None of my good guys are perfect, you need to understand, but who is? I actually have only one short story, ‘Time’, where the protagonist is evil (he’s a serial killer so on a scale of one to evil that’s pretty wicked) but he spends the entire story trying to justify himself. He sees himself as an artist, the people he carves up merely the raw material he works with:

It was the media that christened me ‘The Glasgow Ripper.’ You know, those journalists really have no imaginations. They weren’t to know how much it displeased me – but it did, very much. It was reminiscent of the time I acquired the nickname ‘Prof’ at school. Part of me wanted to believe it was really something even if there was a tinge of sarcasm in the moniker; the rest of me detested it. Still, it was a slightly more suitable appellation than ‘Jock the Ripper’. God be praised none of them thought of that one; we are thankful for His small mercies. That kind of cognomen demonstrates no appreciation for a man’s art. Then again, one man’s art is another man’s butchery. Personally I’m fond of those animal corpses swimming in formaldehyde but I expect most people don’t know what to make of them. People are so superficial in how they look at things. Take for example Jack. It takes a truly sensitive person to fathom the art in Jack’s Whitechapel pieces. Perhaps if he’d called them something, given each work a name, possibly one with religious connotations after all there were two Marys and an Elizabeth. The public do prefer their artworks to have titles even if it’s just something generic along the lines of ‘Arrangement in Grey and Blood Red’, though that might not have gone down so well in 1888; a little too ‘Whistler’. Either way it would have been ahead of its time don’t you think?

I was actually quite pleased with this character but I don’t think I could sustain him for a whole novel although I have thought about it. In most stories the bad man lurks in the shadows. My artist is the narrator and I’m not sure he has enough to say to keep my, let alone my readers’, interests hannibal_lecter for a whole book. There have been exceptions, of course. In the later Hannibal Lecter novels he moves centre stage. Villains have come a long way from the Anglo-French and Old French vilein, which itself descends from the Late Latin word villanus, meaning "farmhand". Turning Lecter into a hero, even an antihero (although he does give it a shot), was never really going to happen which is why the world was ready for Dexter Morgan, the serial-killer-with-a-conscience, created by Jeff Lindsay, a bad guy who only kills bad guys.

I’ve known people who’ve done bad things – hell, I’ve done bad things – but no one likes to think of themselves as bad. Even the Devil doesn't think of himself as bad; he simply has an alternative take on the universe, that’s all. He’s a popular bad guy. He crops up all over the place, usually more mischievous than out-and-out-malevolent, a prankster, like Loki.

Most of your bog-standard bad guys are out to rule the world or something OTT like that. Or destroy it. Destroying the entire universe is a popular end too (I seem to recall that was the aim of the Daleks in a recent Doctor Who) but what anyone would do with a ruined universe no one seems to have thought through.

In the real world there are no villains. No one actually sets out to do evil. Fiction mirrors life. Or, more accurately, fiction serves as a lens to focus what we know of life and bring its realities into sharper, clearer understanding for us. There are no villains cackling and rubbing their hands in glee as they contemplate their evil deeds. There are only people with problems, struggling to solve them.[2]

My wife and I like watching crime shows, all kinds, but especially programmes like Criminal Minds where they profile the “unsubs” (unknown subjects) and invariably evil is shown to be a symptom rather than a cause which leads them to be often more understanding than you might expect – if they can. They view bad guys as victims, too, which is probably very true.

Even in fiction that evil is a symptom is acknowledged when you look at the stock character, “the mad scientist”. The name says it all; he’s insane, mentally deranged. No one in their right mind wants to blow up the world with them on doc-brown it. There are benevolent mad scientists too, characters like Dr. Emmett "Doc" Brown from the Back to the Future movies, “mad” being read as “obsessive” or “absent-minded” rather than criminally insane. A man scientist does not need to be an evil genius. Even Dr. Frankenstein is a sympathetic character as is his monster; neither is pure evil, far from it.

Conflict is good though. But just because you have an antagonist it doesn’t mean he or she is the ‘bad guy’. Is the Big Bad Wolf evil or plain hungry?

Moustache-twirling nemeses of the ilk made famous by actor Tod Slaughter still exist – think of Lemony Snicket’s Count Olaf. He never allots Count Olaf any redeeming qualities. We’ll never learn that he had an unhappy childhood or anything. He’s bad because . . . well, just because. And I found that a little tiresome. But that can also work to an author’s advantage. What you don’t tell your audience they will imagine.

Probably the best example of evil incarnate has to be Michael Myers who we first get to see in the film Halloween. On film John Carpenter has described the character as "almost a supernatural force – a force of nature. An evil force that's loose," a force that is "unkillable." When asked his opinion of Rob Zombie's expansion on Michael's family life, writer Stefan Hutchinson says that explaining why Michael does what he does "[reduces] the character." It is human to want to understand evil. We’re frustrated when we can’t. It’s okay for the creature in Alien to do what it does – it’s a freakin’ alien – but we struggle with that kind of mindset in humans. We believe that being bad is unnatural. I think so too.

There is an argument against the existence of God based on Natural Evil.


1) If God exists, then there exists a being who is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good.
2) If there existed a being who were omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good, then there would be no natural evil.
3) But there is natural evil.

Conclusion) God does not exist.[3]

And if God doesn’t exist why should the Devil?

There are three major religious alternatives in explaining evil, stated by the pantheistic, dualistic and monotheistic religions.

· Pantheistic religions regard evil as ultimately unreal. Human suffering is a product of spiritual ignorance gathered in previous lives and distributed in the present one according to the dictates of karma.

· In the dualistic religions, good and evil are two eternal and rival principles. Neither has created the other one and each acts according to its own nature.

· In the monotheistic religions, evil has a personal identity. Its source is a being that has fallen from an initial good status as a result of misusing freedom of will.[4]

My father once explained to me the difference between perfection and imperfection in humans (and angels). The question was how Satan, one of God’s creations (and all his works are perfect – I’m paraphrasing Deuteronomy 32:4 here), how does a perfect creature become imperfect? His answer was that a perfect man’s natural inclination is to be selfless but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t be selfish; likewise an imperfect man’s natural inclination is to be selfish but that doesn't mean he can’t be selfless. Good and bad don’t enter into it.

This actually ties in with an atheistic approach to the nature of evil. For the atheist evil (a.k.a. godlessness) doesn’t exist:

Things have simply evolved this way. Evil is just a name we perhaps give to our left-over instincts of self preservation from the time when we were brute beasts; that force which drove us to kill, thieve and do whatever necessary to preserve ourselves and our offspring at all costs – italics mine.[5]

I think looking at ‘bad guys’ as selfish people is a good start if we want to make them believable because, as we’re all imperfect, we all know what it’s like to be selfish. Most of us don’t even equate being selfish, looking after No. 1, with being bad. A ‘bad guy’ is someone whose selfishness has got out of control, like an addiction, and that’s something all of us will have come in contact with, either personally or indirectly. If nothing else we all know what it feels like to want to lose control. Control is hard work: not ordering another pint, not having another slice of pie, keeping your flies buttoned.

Ignoring, for a moment, how the villain got to be the way he is, how do you defeat him? Killing him is good. It’s a bit extreme. But it is effective. Unless he’s Michael Myers. Very often, especially in shows like Criminal Minds, they talk the bad guy down; they reason with him.

Adolf_Eichmann_01.jpg Hannah Arendt, in her often-quoted account of the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, wrote: "The deeds were monstrous, but the doer was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic or monstrous." Arendt concluded that Eichmann, far from having the desire to prove a villain, sent thousands to their deaths merely because of "a lack of imagination." His only motive was personal advancement: "he never realized what he was doing." Arendt wondered whether "the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining and reflecting upon whatever happens to come to pass, regardless of the specific content and quite independent of results...could 'condition' men against evildoing."[6]

“I didn’t think.” How many times have we said that? “I didn’t think it was any big deal.” “I didn’t think anyone would get hurt.” “I didn’t think I’d get found out.” “I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong.”

Really the most important one though is: “I didn’t think things through.” Of course bad guys think. From all accounts they think constantly, they obsess . . . but only up to a point.

What do you do when you get the world the way you want it? What then? Even we non-evil people are guilty of being short-sighted when it comes to our plans. But let’s just say that the bad guy wins, and it does happen, what then? In Nineteen Eighty-Four the bad guy wins. Or does he? If badness is defined as behaviour that isn’t socially acceptable – certainly criminal behaviour could be defined that way – then aren’t Winston and Julia the real bad guys, trying to rock the boat? Just a thought.

Some of the most interesting antagonists in recent history are those whose loyalties shift back and forth as circumstances change. In the revamped Battlestar Gaius Balthar Galactica TV series, Gaius Baltar is a brilliant scientist and key player in the Twelve Colonies' defence research. His unscrupulous character allows a beautiful Cylon to manipulate him into granting her access to the colonies' defence systems, the resultant failure of which ends in the destruction of most of the human race during a Cylon attack. Now it’s not as if he personally killed them but understandably he’s burdened with guilt. It’s not clear-cut if he’s a bad guy or not; he’s certainly a highly flawed individual and he makes a number of questionable decisions. One thing he is though is a survivor. He never goes completely over to the dark side but then, although he achieves redemption, you could never call him a hero either.

Probably the closest I’ll ever get to writing a bad guy is by personifying a character’s inner conflict. In my first two novels Truth is the antagonist but he’s certainly not the ‘bad guy’; neither is my protagonist a ‘good guy’. Good people do bad things. You need to be able to distinguish between a man and his actions. None of us are all good or all bad, or all selfish in contrast with completely selfless, and so there should always be that tug-o-war going on being doing the right thing and being a selfish bastard. Robert Louis Stevenson took this to the logical conclusion by splitting a man into two halves, or at least only allowing each half control for a certain time. It was clearly only a matter of time before some science fiction writer devised a way to split an individual in two so that his good half can do physical battle with his evil side; just think of Superman doing battle with his evil side in the junkyard in Superman II.

Talking about comic book characters, if there is one thing I have always hated – and the Batman TV series with its cliff-hangers was especially guilty of this – it’s villains who, when they have the hero by the short and curlies first of all take time to explain their entire dastardly plan to them includes dates, times and place before leaving them to die in the arms of some fangled, OTT machine that it just guaranteed not to do its job properly without at the very least taking a peek under his mask. I ask you!

Evil is attractive. There’s no doubt about it. And more and more films are focusing on the bad guys some of whom never quite seem to get their comeuppance. The logic is that evil never dies. People don’t go to films like Saw to see the bad guy get in in the neck. And they go back (five times so far) to see him not get it in the neck. In the past jigsaw that was the reason for having a bad guy, to make the good guy look good. Not so much these days. I couldn’t write something like that. Actually the Jigsaw Killer does get it, literally in the neck, in Saw III, so don’t ask me how the thing’s still ongoing (yep, Saw VII is due out in October which means the remake of Saw is probably being pencilled into someone’s diary for sometime in 2032).

I know this post has covered quite a bit of ground but the bottom line is, as far as a writer is concerned, is that deciding to include a ‘bad guy’ into a story isn’t as simple as it used to be. Readers want to understand why someone is evil. I suppose that’s why millions read books trying to get inside the minds of serial killers like Fred and Rosemary West or the Yorkshire Ripper. Type ‘serial killer’ into Amazon and you’ll come up with 7,256 results – I actually thought there might be more. Books like that don’t interest me but, as I’ve admitted, I don’t mind watching TV programmes about them; my wife and I love Dexter.

I think, for me at least, there’s a feeling of there but for the grace of God/natural selection go I.


Andrew Bernstein, Villainy: An Analysis of the Nature of Evil


[1] Marvel Spotlight: Uncanny X-Men 500 Issues Celebration, p. 5-7

[2] Ben Bova, Tips for writers

[3] Philip A. Pecorino, Philosophy of Religion, Chapter 6, The Problem of Evil, Section 3. The Nature of Evil

[4] Ernest Valea, The problem of evil in world religions

[5] Chris Lazenby, What If God Doesn’t Exist?

[6] Searching for Evil: An examination of the nature of evil and its persistence in the American legal system, Evil Examined


Elisabeth said...

A timely post, Jim.

A terrific analysis of sin and evil in literature. Hannah Arendt called it the 'banality of evil'.

Al these 'evil' characters and I can only agree with you, Jim, it helps for us as readers to get some sense of why they might be so.

I am reminded of the Australian writer, Kate Grenville's Dark Places:

To me this is a brilliant book, beautifully written and relentlessly authentic, it offers, through the use of first person, an insight into the mind of a man who is perhaps more 'mad' than 'bad', but who is undesirable. This book follows Grenville's Lillian's Story wherein we are offered the daughter's account of her own life and that of her abusive father.

Here I quote: Dark Places tells the story of 'a pitiful, self-absorbed and knowingly empty man, Albion Gidley Singer. From a young age he attempts to fill a void that exists within him – a void associated with his lack of knowledge of the feminine. He stuffs it at a young age with mother’s secret cakes; he tries to close it over with an outward construct of able manliness and power later on. He defies the void through the ownership of women in mind and body – through manipulation, put-downs, shame and despicable sexual acts...

a man whose true condition is an at-times incapacitating lack of depth, which causes him to be deceptive, derisive, judgmental, angry, controlling. A way to fill the gap, to get a handle, to become less inadequate – is to belittle others, particularly women, who threaten him with their presence, their secrets, their bodies and their fullness and purpose of being.'

We need more writing like this to help us get inside the minds of our disturbed, so called evil characters, for however else will we be able to understand ourselves better in the context of your thought here, Jim: 'There but for the grace of God, go I.'

Kass said...

Half the harm that is done in this world
Is due to people who want to feel important.
They don't mean to do harm
But the harm does not interest them
Or they do not see it, or they justify it
Because they are absorbed in the endless struggle
To think well of themselves.
T. S. Eliot

This is a huge subject, Jim, one I think about all the time. You're right about evil people and their obsessive thinking. The "I didn't think" argument can't really be used because everybody thinks all the time, except the most conditioned mystics who can empty their minds when meditating (but then what good are they to the world, except that they are not doing evil at that time?). The difference with evil people is that in all their thinking, even when they cover the consequences of their actions, they just don't care. The biggest missing ingredient in their make-up is empathy. And this may be a genetic or brain chemistry problem.

The attraction of evil in literature and film is obvious. The fascination with out-of-control selfishness is the very stuff of addiction, which all of us admit to in certain areas of our lives. I know the areas where I am addicted and my actions in those arenas could be labeled evil, in that they have harmed others.

Well written post (with the exception of the paragraph that begins, "My father once explained to be.." I think you mean "me." See, there I go again with an addiction (obsessive, compulsive need to correct typos) that may harm someone (no one likes to be corrected unless they have a perfectly balanced ego).

Art Durkee said...

Just for the record, Valea's summation is simplistic, and flat out wrong in what he attributes to pantheism. (His definition can apply to some interpretations of Hinduism, but is ludicrous when applied to the Greek pantheon.)

Of all the characters (types within the type?) you discuss here, the one I feel the most sympathy for is Magneto. Then again, i was an avid reader of the X-Men comics during the period when he started to become an ally, even a good guy, at least for a period of time. his biggest flaw is that he tends to believe his way of doing things is the only way, the best way, to do them; and he is deeply cynical about human nature, which one might expect from a survivor of atrocity and torture, after all.

Characters who are "pure evil" are unreal to me. We don't need to ascribe evil as being a supernatural force, when it's plain enough that humans contain as great a capacity for evil as we do for transcendent good. After all, all these characters do come out of the human imagination. Jung's theories of the collective unconscious and the Shadow are very relevant here.

The psychological theory of the sociopath and the psychopath, being different and progressively more extreme forms of disassociative deviance from human feeling—well, that's one that often turns up, both in profiling and in fiction. Patricia Highsmith's character Tom Ripley is one of these: a charmer who finds it easy to kill, because he has no feeling that doing so is wrong. Sociopathy is not only a lack of empathy; it's a lack of a sense that other people are real, or that their needs and feelings have the same reality as one's own. Psychopathy takes that further, into the realm where nothing's real so you can do anything. It is indeed an extreme form of self-centeredness.

Yet explanations are not excuses.

And not every evil deed is rooted in selfishness. There is often a good motive mixed in there, with the bad result.

Jim Murdoch said...

I read some reviews of that book, Lis, which I’ve heard mentioned before (perhaps even by you) and I wondered: Should I buy a copy? I decided not. The main reason is that I’m not sure I want my evil to be that believable; I like a bit of distance between me and the bad guys. It’s enough that people like that exist. I don’t have to deal with them and so I choose not to understand them.

I do prefer to think in terms of selfishness as opposed to selflessness, Kass. They make more sense to me than terms like ‘good’ and ‘bad’. It’s not always wrong to be selfish. Indeed one needs to take care of No 1 before you can take care of anyone else. Often though I find that I can’t decide whether a particular course of action is one or the other. I remember I went to my dad once and owned up to something I’d done. He asked for details and his assessment was: “So, you did it because you wanted to.” It wasn’t a matter of having done a ‘bad’ thing. I had chosen to do something, a something that, like all somethings, was going to have consequences. And that was me facing the consequences. I felt like trying to defend myself with, “But I didn’t want to be bad,” which was true. My being bad was a consequence of satisfying my want.

Fixed the typo. Thank you. It’s hard to catch them all.

And, Art, yes, Magneto believes that the end justifies the means. He grades his actions. That makes sense to me. I’ve never much cared for the monochromatism that is good and bad. I always liked the Roy Batty’s ‘confession’ to his maker in Blade Runner: “I’ve done . . . questionable things.” If we act we should be willing to answer for our actions. And answers are not always as simple as “Yes, I was bad,” or “No, I was good.”

I realised when I read the quote that Valea's summation was simplistic. I don’t know enough about the subject to question things like that; I have to take them as read. The point I wanted to make is still valid, that there are alternative views out there. I also think that the notion of “pure evil” is a bit OTT. It’s used too often and has become devalued.

I’m not entirely in the corner of the consequentialists. Nor do I think that you can arbitrarily label actions ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ I don’t buy the 'The Divine Command Theory' either. You cannot determine whether an action is right simply because God has decreed that it is right. The ninth commandment says, “Thou shalt not lie,” but when my wife asks, “Does my bum look big in this?” lying is definitely on the cards, not because of the potential consequences to me if I told her the truth but because it would hurt her if I told her the truth. My motive is pure and therefore my actions become pure. Besides she knows her bum looks big in it. That’s not what she’s asking me. The assumption the Bible makes is that people want to know the truth. Maybe in a perfect world but we don’t live in a perfect world and so what’s the point trying to live by perfect laws?

Art Durkee said...

All good points, Jim. I agree with your that the idea of pure evil is OTT. Yet for the strongly dualistic religions like Zoroastrianism, which did influence early Christianity a bit, they're very much either/or, good/evil, constant war between the two poles. I think that's extreme, and the real world is a lot more complicated than that. And your point that there are alternative viewpoints out there is, I agree, still a very valid point. (Oversimplifications notwithstanding, it is always a valid point.)

Your points about motivations are well-taken. I think there's some complexity in there, of course, and in practice it can be grayer than in theory. I admit I always do look at the motivations; I think they're very telling.

Dave King said...

For me the best bad guys - and the best good guys come to that - came out of the Westerns that I used to watch on TV. I recall the local Methodist minister proclaiming that there was more religion in a good Gun Law than a bad sermon.

I never did see, though, why if there was a God - a single creator God - He had to be perfectly good.

Jim Murdoch said...

The problems with sermons, Dave, is that it’s all theory. It’s not until you’re faced with a choice in the real world that you realise that theory is all well and good in theory but it has little to do with life as we have to live it whereas a good episode of Gun Law (why did they change the name from Gunsmoke I wonder?) shows how to survive and be a decent person.

Marion McCready said...

One of the things that make Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment such a good/shocking read is the empathy the reader develops with the criminal mind in the protagonist, Raskolnikov.
What we keep hearing about Derrick Bird is that 'he seemed to be such a nice man'; hardly the face of evil.

"Maybe in a perfect world but we don’t live in a perfect world and so what’s the point trying to live by perfect laws?" - the laws are there to demonstrate that we all fall short, not one of us can claim to be without sin.

Jim Murdoch said...

I was being a bit facetious there, Marion, when I talked about the Law. Actually my father used to use the existence of the Ten Commandments as part of his proof of the existence of God. He maintained that an imperfect man could not come up with a perfect law. The Law existed so that when God sent his son he could live by it, something only a perfect man could do, and by doing do earn the right to everlasting life which he could then exchange for what Adam lost. That it also underlined the fact that the rest of us were in need of redemption was by the way.

I’m afraid I tend to side more with Patti Smith:

      Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine
      meltin' in a pot of thieves
      wild card up my sleeve
      thick heart of stone
      my sins my own
      they belong to me, me.

Dick said...

Thorough, incisive and eminently readable as ever, Jim.

There has been increasing speculation recently concerning the extent to which the most emotionally detached and systems-obsessed Nazis were on the autistic spectrum. There is so close an association to be found between an inability to empathise and a need for mechanistic organisation by which to make sense of a disordered world that the personal profile of an Eichmann or a Himmler seems to fit within its characteristics in all important respects.

I hasten to add (not least because my son Reuben is high-functioning autistic and both needs and gives love readily, as do millions of his peers) that no immutable equation emerges from this whereby autism and an incapacity for expressing or experiencing affective behaviour is a given.

But following up on Kass' reference to 'genetic or brain chemistry problems', maybe we need to shift the processes of enquiry into the morphology of evil from the philosophical, the spiritual and the psychological and towards the startling new findings currently emerging concerning the nature and extent of autism.

Jim Murdoch said...

I sometimes wonder how qualified I am as a writer, Dick, and by “qualified” I’m talking about life experience, because I’m over 50 now and I cannot honestly say that I can remember ever meeting an autistic person in my life and once I started to think about it there’s quite a list of “types” that I have no personal experience of. I was struck when I went to America juts how many black people there were and I felt bad at myself for noticing but the simple fact is that I’ve never known a black man and by that I mean sat down and had a conversation with. And the same goes for all ethnic minorities. I have more experience of different religious backgrounds. And then there’re the bad guys. In that regard I’ve known more than I’d have liked to. I remember one – probably the baddest person I’ve ever known, saying, “You’ll write about me some day,” and I never have. I doubt I ever will. What I can tell you is that the more I learned about him the more I realised that he had a whole host of mental issues and being ‘bad’ was part of a coping mechanism.

From what I’ve read and watched about autism I can see where is similar to sociopathy the issue in question being a sense of self and the relationship of that self to people around them. The guy I spoke about just now was without a doubt a sociopath. I’m looking at a list of the typical characteristics of a sociopath just now and it’s a checklist of his personality, frighteningly so. You could tick every single box.

Art Durkee said...

I think it's highly problematic, if not veering towards the thinking that leads to evils like eugenics, to reduce evil to brain chemistry of whatever kind.

There is always a choice. We have free will. One of the choices available to fight uphill against whatever brain chemistry or cognitive challenges we're given, to strive to overcome them, to be better than we are. There is always a choice available, whether it's framed as a moral one, or a personal one.

The seductiveness of systematic evil in totalitarian systems is that you don't have to think for yourself anymore, all your answers and ideas and beliefs are given to you on a silver platter. There have always been people who prefer that way of being—but they still have a choice as to whether or not to follow their inclinations, or the options given them.

Brain chemistry is only determinative if you choose to let it be so. That's where people always miss the point.

Jim Murdoch said...

If I understand what’s been proposed already, Art, then I’m not entirely convinced. You could use the same argument about depression, that I, in some way, chose to be depressed and, although I’ll agree that I could often do something to alleviate my depression or indeed make it worse, I have to argue that there were factors that I could not control. Is evil like that? You must be able to relate to that as a gay man. Homosexuality is not a matter of choice. And nowadays most enlightened people see that. But what about murder? Nowadays it’s no longer the done thing to murder thy neighbour when he slights you but it used to be perfectly acceptable. Perhaps talking about evil in the abstract is what’s confusing the issue. Perhaps if we restricted ourselves to evil acts it might take some of the mystique away from the word.

Lisa K. said...

Excellent post. Quite educational for me. As a writer, I tend to avoid writing bad guys in favor of man vs. nature or man vs. some troublesome speculative element instead, and I think it's in part because I find writing villains so difficult. I was very interested in what you said about the villains who don't see themselves as villains but rather see the world around them as wrong. Now I'm anxious to apply this to my writing. Thank you!

Jim Murdoch said...

It’s the problem we all face, Lisa, how to write something unique and believable. So much has been written already that it’s inevitable that what we come up with will feel like recycling but when I think about that I think about the love song. People have been writing love songs since time immemorial and we’ve still not got fed up with them and people are still managing to write new, interesting and different ones. All it takes is a little imagination. Glad my post gave you some food for thought.

Ping services