Writing ‘Evil’ Characters In Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein
My novel Code Name Verity is set in Europe during World War Two. In talking about writing the book I had a conversation recently about how the concept of the Third Reich’s National Socialist Party should be presented to the rising generation of readers. I ended up doing a lot of thinking about it afterward because, after the conversation ended, I felt that somehow I’d lost an argument I should have won. Essentially here’s what the opposing views were, simplified:
Theirs: Nazis are the ultimate personification of evil and should be represented as such.
Mine: Nazis are complex human beings and should be represented as such.
In some sense, both views are correct. Nazism was and is evil. But I think there’s a lot of evil out there now, and that it is both blind and dangerous to fool ourselves into thinking that the evils of the Third Reich are confined to the past, as a lesson to learn from that couldn’t possibly happen again.
I think the reason I felt I’d ‘lost an argument’ is because there was some moral high ground taken in the opposing viewpoint. It felt like I was being told, ‘It is your duty as a writer to show what monsters these people were, so as not to downplay the evil of this regime.’
Without going into a list of recent genocides or atrocities, what I want to point out here is that social concepts aren’t evil; social concepts don’t kill and maim and make war; people do those things. Nazism wouldn’t have taken hold without people buying into it. I feel that my duty as a writer is not to describe in detail the evil of any specific regime but to warn the reader that the potential to embrace such a regime lies dormant in all of us.
Rather than list the countless genocides, torture, injustices and local outbreaks of civilian killings connected with continuing political fighting all over the world in the 70 years since the defeat of German National Socialism, I will give you one name: Malala Yousafzai. The Pakistani schoolgirl suffered gunshot wounds to the head and neck, inflicted by a Taliban militant sniper on her way to school. It wasn’t random. At fourteen, Malala is a known and targeted revolutionary. Since she was eleven, she was keeping an online journal chronicling life as a schoolgirl under the Taliban. She has a lot in common with Anne Frank – except that Malala’s diary is available to anyone with access to the internet, worldwide, as she’s writing it. She is in fact working with the BBC and knows the danger it puts her in.
What makes her a revolutionary is that she’s telling the truth and that she’s going to school. That’s reason enough to shoot a 14 year old girl? Sounds familiar.
Take note teenage readers and writers: bravery and political awareness start early, and suppression is always lurking just around the corner. Our duty is not just to describe the horrors of the past – it’s to make the evil and errors of the past relevant to modern readers so that we can guard against it in the present. It is our duty to let young people know that evil is possible in everyone – in yourself as well as in your neighbour – but also that our world is in our own control. Evil is not a cause for paranoia. It is the reason we speak out. It is a reason to write.
Elizabeth Wein’s author website: www.elizabethwein.com
United States (and beyond)
United Kingdom (and beyond)
Australia (and beyond)
Writing Teen Novels