G is for Good and Evil and the area that lies between

Author: Anne

Date Published: Jul 10th 2017, 10:29pm

This blog was originally posted over a year ago


The never ending struggle between good and evil is the basis of much of our mythology and theology as well as the foundation of some excellent fiction. In fact, some genres are almost entirely concerned with it. It’s an attractive idea to work with as you can set up confrontation and then play with great peril for your characters whilst your reader is pretty sure that right will prevail, despite probably some death, treachery and self-sacrifice along the way.

The epic fantasy genre (think “Lord of the Rings”) is where we see this theme most often used. Early books in the genre were quite straightforward and the evil characters were seen as sub-human and often as beasts. At least one character would probably betray others, all will look like it is lost but not be, and maybe one character will give up their lives for the sake of others. And there will probably be elves. There’s nothing wrong with books like this and I devoured stories like this when I was younger but the genre and the content has evolved.

Good and evil have become less defined and the lines between them more blurred in epic fantasies I have read recently. “Evil” characters have become more sympathetic. A good example of this is in the Harry Potter universe or in the depiction of Darth Vader in the Star Wars films where this is done in a small way. In Joe Abercrombie’s fantasy novels the line between good and evil doesn’t exist and he portrays all the characters as very human – it makes the book less epic but more realistic. “Good” and “evil” have been replaced by “us” and “them” in many books in the genre – or even, “us” and “not us at the moment”. George RR Martin and James Barclay are two other authors who are moving in the same direction.

If “good” and “evil” have begun to disappear in epic fantasy they still hang around to some extent in crime and suspense novels, although who is defined as “evil” varies over time (Cold War moves to Islam for example as possible opponents). Serial killers are “evil” and the investigators are “good” – except, of course, where the serial killer is sympathetically portrayed (“Hannibal” by Thomas Harris for example, or the Dexter books by Jeff Lindsay) or when the investigator is depicted as having their own issues or even being a criminal themselves.

The stark division between good and evil is now relegated to children’s books or very simplistic tales or dark horror and the supernatural. In books being published at the moment in both suspense and epic fantasy the authors are more inclined to examine the frailty of humans and betrayal. I think that this subtlety enhances my reading. I enjoy stories where we see both sides of a situation or understand what makes people act in a way that harms others and maybe even consider in what circumstances we might do likewise.

I am always interested to look at how books are evolving and how story themes are changing – the blurring of lines between “good” and “evil” is only one of many changes I have noticed – I will blog more about this in the future.