Beyond Good And Evil In Teen Fiction, by Ben Chandler
Do you believe in good and evil?
I was asked this question by a nine-year-old during my first public appearance as an author. I was both impressed and stunned. I mean, what nine-year-oldworries about good and evil? Stupid question. Every child does. Childhood is when we’re most concerned with the question. It’s only as we grow older that we’re introduced to the grey areas. When we’re young, we crave the simplicity of the good/evil dichotomy. It makes us feel safe, and that’s exactly why answering the above question is essential for writers of YA fantasy.
Here’s the thing: Good and Evil are boring. If you can answer the following question solely with reference to either, you’re writing is probably boring too: Why did your antagonists / protagonists do that? The assertions ‘my protagonist is good’ and ‘my antagonist is evil’ are fine in themselves, but they tell us absolutely nothing about who these people are or why they’re doing what they are doing. People don’t really sit around in their lairs plotting evil plots just for the sake of being evil, nor do they gallop around the countryside looking for pretty damsels to rescue just because they’re ‘good guys’(except maybe in parody or early 90s cartoons). Something drove them into that hollowed-out volcano or on that never-ending quest. I’m interested in what those something’s are. If you tell me it was ‘just because they’re evil’ or‘just because they’re good’ then I’m going to put your book down. This is what I like to call the Dark Lord Syndrome, or the Hero of Light Disease. It’s boring and, frankly, lazy writing. Writers need to give their characters some psychological depth and believable motivations.
Now, hang on a minute! What about that flaming eye in The Lord of the Rings or, you know, the Devil? I’m glad you asked, because these are the two most infamous Dark Lords in Western culture, and they are not simply embodiments of abstract evil. Sauron’s tale is actually pretty dense, and Lucifer’s fall is one of the most intriguing, most human, stories we have. It’s why Milton was accused of being ‘of the Devil’s party’ when he wrote Paradise Lost. The motivations behind Lucifer’s rebellion and subsequent fall are absolutely human. Milton’s Adam, on the other hand, comes off as the quintessential Good Guy who is so holier-than-thouthat no reader could possibly relate to him. Paradise Lost is a classic example of a perfect villain (Satan) and a completely awful hero (Adam). The former is complex and relatable, while the latter is good and perfect and boring as all Hell (see what I did there?).
Portraying characters with depth is vital in forging connections between those characters and their readers. Most readers just don’t relate to abstract principles. There’s nothing for them to latch onto. Writers need to give readers something more, put some meat on their characters’ bones. It’s the interesting fleshy bits that a reader will grab hold of and relate to.
If there’s any time for a writer to abandon simplistic notions of good and evil, it’s when they’re writing for a YA readership. Their readers have already caught a glimpse of the grey spaces and probably aren’t going to buy into the abstract absolutes any longer, particularly as motivating factors for the actions of heroes and villains. YA readers hunger for characters wrestling with the same moral dilemmas they are. They’ve moved beyond the simple answers they were given when they were growing up and are venturing into the grey, featureless moral wastes, perhaps for the very first time. This gives writers of YA fantasy plenty of scope to explore moral ambiguity in a way that’s meaningful for their readers and relevant to their characters.
So, do I believe in good and evil? Nope. I believe that even bad people have reasons for the things they do, even if those reasons seem like justifications or excuses to me, even if I think their actions are ‘evil’. We are none of us perfectly good, nor perfectly evil, and none of our YA characters should be either.
Ben Chandler author website: www.benchandler.com.au