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  1. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    Definition of a 'good' character or an 'evil' character

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Elgaisma, Dec 22, 2010.

    So what makes a character good? What makes one evil? Do you have shades of grey?

    I like good, kind, noble, decent main characters - I personally don't like reading protagonists that are unpleasant.

    Whilst I give my good characters humanity (vanity, snot aversion, irritation, sibling issues, body issues etc) Their ultimate goodness drives them.

    Likewise my evil characters have reasons for being evil (need for an immortal to die, abuse, sibling issues) but they are ultimately evil characters.
     
  2. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    The definitions will vary from person to person. Someone who believes in natural law and that good and evil exist outside of the subjective views of humanity (which can be based on religion, but doesn't have to be) is going to view this differently than someone who sees everything as a purely utilitarian calculus.

    You can give your characters a sort of guide post - if you want you can call it their true nature, that which they tend toward, or a set of ideals that they strive for. The nature of these can impact whether they're viewed as good or evil.

    Irrespective of these, however, will be impulses, doubts, contradictions, etc.
     
  3. FrankABlissett
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    FrankABlissett Active Member

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    "Write 'em all and let the reader sort them out," to rephrase an old saying.

    -Frank
     
  4. Jonalexher
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    Jonalexher Contributing Member

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    well, there's all sorts of evil and good
    in a fantasy, for example, they're a little bit more exaggerated. I was going to write a short story with the MC being a massacrer, but it didn't feel right, I started writing the same story last night (this time with a good MC) and got up to like 700 words in one straight flow, it's much easier :]

    PS: What's the best novel out there that has an evil MC?
     
  5. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Monument, by Ian Graham, has a thoroughly unlikeable, immoral, and many would say "evil" main character. And it's a very good book, if you like Fantasy.
     
  6. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think Perfume is the most famous - can't stand it.
     
  7. Jonalexher
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    Jonalexher Contributing Member

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    I'll check out Monument, thanks.
    Perfume has been on my "to read" list for a while now, you didn't like it? :eek:
     
  8. AnonyMouse
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    AnonyMouse Contributing Member Contributor

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    I prefer shades of gray. Rather than think of "good" and "evil" think of "do and don't." What will the character do to achieve his/her goal(s)? What are his/her goals? I have quite a few characters in my current WiP and I would be hardpressed to put each into 'good' and 'evil' categories. I prefer to think of their individual actions and motivations and ask myself "what would _____ do if _____ happened?" Would s/he lie, cheat, kill, steal, betray? Why or why not? What was his/her upbringing like and what are the standards of his/her society, past and present? I take all of that into consideration.

    However, the world at large is not quite so considerate. "Good" and "evil" are defined by society, not by our individual selves. So, which side your character falls on will depend on what most people think of him her. And always remember no one is good to everyone, nor is anyone evil to all.

    "Good" = people generally think this person's actions are benefiting them in some way
    "Evil" = people generally think this person's actions are harming them in some way

    And this can all get further muddled by deception or secrecy. Someone the people think is good could be moonlighting as a serial killer. Or maybe the serial killer is moonlighting as a humanitarian. It can all become very convoluted. Frankly, I don't care who's been naughty or nice. Let the characters be themselves and the chips will fall where they may.
     
  9. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    Catcher in the Rye and Perfume are two books although I was supposed to finish them (one for schol and the other for book group) - I couldn't do it. I read about half of each of them. They are most definitely the two worst books for me :)
     
  10. R-e-n-n-a-t
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    R-e-n-n-a-t Contributing Member

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    I'd give my own defnition, but Anonymouse said it perfectly. A protag doesn't need to be evil to do distasteful things. For example; to save someone he loves, an MC might condemn 50 or more people. Does it make him evil? No. Just human, for better or worse.
     
  11. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Possibly. Though different readers are going to view it differently depending on their own views. Many would say condemning 50 people to save 1 is inherently evil, so if you're writing a character who does something like that and you don't want him to be perceived as evil, you have to be aware of how many readers will view it and address it accordingly. On the other hand, if you don't care whether readers see it as evil or not, then you just put it out there and let the reader arrive at whatever conclusion his own beliefs direct him to.
     
  12. R-e-n-n-a-t
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    R-e-n-n-a-t Contributing Member

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    Hey! I actually agree with Steerpike for once!
    That's one of the most interesting features that a book can display, in my opinion; letting the reader decide if they like the protag or not. Some will question themselves, some will love the book for uncovering a part of themselves, and some will condemn the book as evil and stupid.
     
  13. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Elgaisma, I agree wholeheartedly on "Catcher in the Rye". I didn't read it until adulthood (missed it as a teen, when maybe it would have had more appeal for me - all that teen angst), and when I finished it, I couldn't help but wonder what all the hubbub was about. Never read "Perfume"

    As to your original post, I think the answer is in the question. We inbue our characters with certain qualities that, in the aggregate, will make the reader perceive them to be either good or evil. Because the reader may have values that differ from the writer, it is entirely possible that the character the writer intended to be good is seen by the reader as evil.

    I don't much care for characters who are either perfectly good or completely evil, except possibly in satire. I've never met anyone in this life who as all one or all the other, and I like characters to be more realistic.
     
  14. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    Personally, in almost all cases where a character is easily labelled evil, I think it's because the author has failed to reveal the deeper sentiments behind the action, or their failure/disinterest in understanding their own character and instead make them a cardboard villain. Often it's a shortcut for the lazy. In some cases it has deeper motives (like propaganda).

    You may say the man who sacrifices 50 to save one person is evil. Well... If my girlfriend was in mortal peril and a bus-full of random strangers were too, I wouldn't have a second's doubt about who I'd save. 50 strangers are just 50 strangers. 50 strangers in a bus are usually just annoying, when you're in the same bus. Am I evil, or just honest?

    If you'd consider me evil for this, then ask yourself why you haven't sold everything you own in order to save 50+ lives of children in Africa? They're dying as we type, but still you'd rather keep your desk and computer.

    I'd much rather read about honest characters than some religious icon who throws his own life and values overboard for some abstract "higher purpose", or the much more frequent hypocrite who thinks himself good, but hasn't sold his computer desk yet.
     
  15. Lothgar
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    Lothgar Contributing Member

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    I must agree with AnonyMouse here, that shades of gray are the only way to go.

    Purely good and purely evil characters are are flat, one dimensional and usually boring.

    Even the best of the good has a few faults and the worst of the evil shouldn't be totally beyond redemption.
     
  16. R-e-n-n-a-t
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    R-e-n-n-a-t Contributing Member

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    Yaaay! Good job HorusEye! Seriously, thanks for being realistic instead of just following the sheep who say, "It's wrong ur stoopid save more peeple!". In life, things are rarely so simple, and every heartfelt decision usually turns out badly for somebody.

    The 'computer > 50+ starving children' is an excellent analogy.
     
  17. FrankABlissett
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    FrankABlissett Active Member

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    I agree with Steerpike on that specific example.

    Condemning 50 to save one, motivated by your emotional attachment to that one. That just sounds inherently selfish to me. What about the feelings of love surrounding those 50? Well, they're not important because they are not the love *I* feel.

    So, we have selfishness that condemns 50 people. I'd say "evil".

    Now, we can comprehend that. Probably even feel empathy. But it's not a good act.

    "...ask yourself why you haven't sold everything you own in order to save 50+ lives of children in Africa? They're dying as we type, but still you'd rather keep your desk and computer..."

    I agree, Horus, that it is evil to allow such things. A few issues though.

    a) Okay - it is an evil act. We are evil in our inaction. We are also good in other actions. Life is sloppy. Allowing 50 to die to save one is still evil.

    b) We can not do the math. Commercials for charities not-withstanding, we really don't know how to best allocate our money. It would be more accurate to say "maybe save 50 on the bus, or probably save one that you love". But that's not the choice that was postulated. The choice we were given was absolutely saving 50 vs one.

    c) Because of (b) we do try to save the 50 through our governments and churches. A more efficient way to do it - letting someone else become an expert and allocate our money for us. Not without big pitfalls though. And, yes, it does "pass the buck".

    -Frank
     
  18. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    does good = perfect and evil = flawed then? I feel good is weaker than perfect whereas evil is stronger than flawed ?
     
  19. AnonyMouse
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    AnonyMouse Contributing Member Contributor

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    Personally, I think anyone who pauses in a crisis to decide who should live and who should die is guilty of at least a little 'evil-ness.' You might get an award for saving 50 people, but in the back of their minds everyone will be thinking "dang, he left his girlfriend to die... that's coldblooded." I'm always a little skeptical of "good" that is measured in terms of what is mathematically optimal, with no regard for emotion. It can be argued that killing a single loved one is far more evil than killing fifty strangers. His natural inclination would have been to save his girlfriend first, therefore turning his back on her is a premeditated act because he has to willingly tell himself "no, don't save her." On the other hand, if he had blindly followed instinct and saved her he would at least be able to say the thought of leaving her to die didn't cross his mind, thus the fifty deaths aren't premeditated... just negligent/thoughtless.

    Moral of the story: don't count human lives like you're counting beans. It's never that simple. ;)

    NOTE: I still think saving the fifty would do more 'good,' but I'm just trying to play the other side a little. :p
     
  20. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    How about sacrificing a fairly large number of people in order to save an unknown (but presumably larger) number of people? I'm thinking of Winston Churchill learning (through broken German code) of the impending air raid on Coventry and refraining from providing a defense so as not to alert the Germans that their code had, in fact, been broken.

    Getting back to the one vs. many dilemma, at the end of "Fail Safe", after the President has failed to stop Moscow from being destroyed, he orders his own bombers to destroy New York City, knowing that his wife is there.
     
  21. FrankABlissett
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    FrankABlissett Active Member

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    "...don't count human lives like you're counting beans..."

    You make some very good points AnonyMouse, and I do agree with the gist of it. However, the situation was always presented to us as a matter of accounting. The idea was floated that if one were to total the value of love felt for the one girlfriend versus the total value of love felt for the 50 strangers, economics would tell us to save the girl and avoid that personal grief.

    I'm saying that that sort of economics is selfish, and that a selfish act that knowingly leads to many more deaths than with the alternate course is evil. That a broader economic perspective would show that saving the 50 would result in less grief all around.

    I do disagree with the idea that someone chosing the 50 would be seen as coldblooded. On the very rare real life situation (ie Hurricane Katrina, to name one) where people had to make choices between loved ones and strangers, we felt sorrow for the person who had to make that choice.

    -Frank

    ps: Missed Ed's post. Quite right regarding Churchill. From what I've read (victor writes the history?), his choice was thought of, even by many residents of Coventry, as being not coldblooded. Rather, he is viewed as a victim of that particular situation.
     
  22. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Frank, on Churchill, that was always my take as well.

    This is exactly why the realm of gray (as opposed to simple black and white) is the breeding ground of quality fiction. By placing our characters, who are neither all good nor all evil, into difficult moral dilemmas, we create compelling stories.
     
  23. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I don't know that I'd always say that selfish act is evil, Frank. I'll have to think on that.

    Suppose a person was taken into a room with their own child there, say a five year old girl. And suppose the abductors planted a bomb in a big city and told the person, if you kill your own child with this gun, we won't detonate the bomb. If you don't we will do it and kill tens of thousands, but you and your own child can walk out of here. And let's assume for the sake of argument the abductors are telling the truth in all respects, so we don't have to debate that particular point.

    How many people would kill their own child in that situation? In addition to the strong emotional attachment there is also a strong biological imperative to protect offspring. Is the person who would walk out of that room with his little girl, leaving tens of thousands to die, selfish? Yes. Evil? I don't know about that.

    The little girl's life is also valuable as an independent, autonomous being. Wouldn't it also be evil to sacrifice her life? Purely utilitarian rationales can lead to immoral results, in my view. Is it not evil to use that little girl's life as merely a means to saving a greater number?

    To me, the blood from the bomb lies on the hands of the abductors who are threatening to set it off. If there is evil to be found in the hypothetical, that's where it is.
     
  24. FrankABlissett
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    FrankABlissett Active Member

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    Steerpike,

    I won't contend that all selfish acts are evil. Rather, that an act is evil if the person takes the action for their own gain (even emotional), and the person knows the action will cause harm. To my mind, it's a sort of "informed consent" to the act. Not necessarily consent to getting into the situation, but to taking the action that results.

    And then, there are mitigating factors too. Our "self" is actually several minds working in conjunction. They each have their own economic considerations - one may be concerned with day to day survival, another with money, another with emotional well being, etc. When making a decision, one or two of these takes the fore and makes a snap decision. Then others weigh in, modifying (or even changing) that decision.

    So, in a situation of the sort we've been discussing, we should ask "how much time did s/he have to make the choice?" If very quick, we are not able to bring our full set of faculties to the fore.

    We can also ask "how odd is the situation?" If we have no concept that we are putting someone in grave danger, then we take that into account.

    Likewise, are we comparing "apples to oranges"? if we had to chose between food for some or medicine for others, and were without the data to know how much suffering our choice would prevent/cause - that too would be taken into account.

    But that's getting quite far from the simple "one you love versus 50 strangers".

    -Frank
     
  25. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    This whole selfish = evil setup is a bit off track, as I see it. It's crude simplification and what's more, a categorical mistake.

    You simply can't label someone as Good or Evil by the choice they make between saving one or more people, in a situation they never chose to be in in the first place.
    One choice can easily be argued as being more selfish than the other, fine, but that doesn't lump someone into the demon category.

    Evil would lie in the third option you didn't even consider: To stand back and enjoy as all 50+1 people die. What's in that choice, which wasn't in the other two?

    Malice.

    I think it often gives a clearer understanding of the moral concept to replace the word "evil" with "malice" -- the willful intent of causing harm to others for the sake of harm itself. Anything beyond that enters the grey zone and when perceived as evil it's often done so from a lack of understanding the situation fully and from all angles.

    To simple prefer to save one group of people over another group of people is not even in the neighbourhood of being malicious. After all, you're doing something to save someone. The person doing the saving would likely have preferred to save everybody but was never given the luxury. Would you feel good about either choice? Would you feel right about the choice you made? They too are different things.

    One thing my philosophy teacher said which stuck with me: If you think it's simple it's because you got it wrong. I think that applies to morality more than any other branch of thinking and is all the more important there, as well. Simplifications of what is right or wrong, good and evil, are the prime sources for all the bloodbaths of human history.
     

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