Conflict: Fancy Way of Saying Good vs. Evil

This topic has been sitting on my ‘thought post’ list for a long time.  I believe I had a genius post for it in January and figured it was so great that it would stay with me as I built up to it.  Then, I wandered off to other topics and forgot what I was going to say.  Still, I think this is an important topic for writers.

We say ‘good vs. evil’ to make the idea of conflict simplistic, but it is rarely that easy.  Yes, the hero is going to save the damsel while the villain is going to lock her in the tower.  Hero equals good, villain equals bad.  It is the basis of almost every story ever written even if the ‘villain’ is nothing more than self-doubt or other crippling emotions.  The ‘evil’ side of the equation is really the obstacle, which is not always as obvious as a roaring dragon or an alien squadron in their death ships.  It gets stranger with the good side because this is typically more cut-and-dry as the protagonist.  Rarely is there an incident where good is an emotion such as a sudden act of heroism.  Villains that do a sudden change of heart fall into this category because the ‘good’ is the positive emotion that transforms them.  Best example here is The Grinch and I apologize for anyone that just had Jim Carrey flashbacks.

As an author, you have to design your characters carefully with the conflict in mind.  The idea of good vs. evil worked back in the day when stories were used almost exclusively to teach people about morals.  Now, there’s more to it than Bad-guy McBad will be defeated by Good-guy Goodstein. (How in the world did Goodstein not set off my spellchecker?)  You have various levels of good and evil now.  Villains that believe they are doing good and heroes that are one parking ticket away from villainy.  You have to figure out how far you are going on both sides with your character and stories.  Too far to either side and you could find yourself back to the designing board with a character.  For example, say you have a perfect, infallible hero going up against a villain that has a soft spot for children.  That perfect hero could be less appealing to the reader because the villain shows depth and draws the reader in.  You have to make sure that you keep the moral and emotional investment on the hero if you want to retain the classic ‘good conquers evil, no questions asked’ ending.

On the other side of the equation, it’s easier to get away with a villain that goes around kicking puppies and beating the elderly with live chickens.  Total evil seems to always have a place in literature because people are supposed to hate the villain.  Yet, you do run into a problem by going all the way to the dark side.  A horrible, unredeemable villain can get tiring rather quickly and lose the reader’s interest.  This becomes the ‘will you two just fight already?’ scenario.  You can’t spend every 3rd chapter section reminding the audience why this guy is evil without it losing its novelty.  I offered to read a classmates ‘book’ in college, which was 10 chapters long and the hero was traveling to the villain’s lair.  At the beginning of every chapter, the villain did something horrible to an innocent prisoner.  It started with a simple stabbing and went up to the point where the villain gut and ate his own daughter.  By that point, my dislike of the villain was more of a ‘not this schmuck again’.  My time with the hero was less enjoyable because I felt like the guy’s snail pace was costing people their lives.  It was a fantasy setting and your enemy just ate his daughter for no given reason.  He could wrangle a Pegasus, find a wizard with flight magic, steal a flying carpet, or buy a damn horse.  My point here is that if you’re going to drive home the evil side of conflict then spread it out and make it count.

I’ve been very straightforward with good and evil, but they can be non-physical entities.  A romance book may have the ‘evil’ side of the conflict be the main character’s lack of self-esteem, which is defeated by the realization that he or she deserves whatever it is that makes them happy.  I’ve only dabbled in romance, so I could be wrong here.  Any of my romance writing friends can feel free to correct me.  I think the trick with this conflict is to focus on the journey through the conflict than the actual emotions.  Not so much to ignore them, but they will come through to the reader by using dialogue and specific actions.  I have a feeling that’s an entirely different post.  I also think I no longer know what I’m talking about and should stop before I make a fool of myself.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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32 Responses to Conflict: Fancy Way of Saying Good vs. Evil

  1. Good reminders for authors… A lot of the time we want our good guy to be all goodness and sweet, kind, and, well, perfect. But no one is perfect. Ever. Reblogging 🙂

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  2. Reblogged this on Danielle Taylor and commented:
    Authors must remember this…

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  3. Great post, Charles. I constantly have to stop and ask myself ‘where’s the conflict?’ when I’m writing fiction. It makes the throw out so many words, though. 🙂

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    • I have an opposite problem at times with my characters disagreeing to the point where they make a new conflict. It’s like having bickering children only it’s legal to knock their heads together. 🙂

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  4. Conflict, in my view, varies massively depending on the genre. But I do think, even in fantasy, nowadays pure good and pure evil don’t cut it. With he return of Game of Thrones, I’ve actually been thinking about this. Even the characters you root for aren’t purely good. The ‘evil’ characters…okay, they are just evil. But they’re done in a realistic way. And I think you’re right with romance; conflict there tends to be more internal than external. Fear, insecurity, pride. Also, I really, really hate characters that are perfect, or who have stupid flaws that don’t affect anything. Characters need depth, no matter what the role in the story is.

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    • There has definitely been a rise of the anti-hero and flawed hero. Even some of your best villains aren’t full villain like Darth Vader and Magneto. I keep fearing that one of my characters will come off as perfect because, as you said, pure good and pure evil are no longer interesting. They’re not realistic.
      I’m curious about the flaws that don’t affect anything because I hear that a lot. Can you give me an example? My mind goes to Eragon, but I’m not sure if I’m right since I never read the book and nearly stabbed my DVD player when I watched the movie.

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      • Mary-Sues, for a start. I used to read a lot of fanfiction when I was younger, especially Harry Potter. And you’d have characters who were perfect; beautiful, attractive, could do advanced magic. When people began realising they were too perfect and were labelled with the dreaded Mary-Sue, they gave them flaws like….oh, well, she gets a bit angry sometimes (but never enough to hurt anyone or for it to have consequences) or she’s so beautiful she gets hit on, like, all the time. (I don’t know how people saw that as a flaw.) More recently…a character who is clumsy. Such as Bella, in Twilight. I actually read that book and it’s like…she gets hit on by every guy in the school but she’s made out to be plain looking. And clumsy. She basically just trips over randomly.

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      • I wonder if the clumsiness stemmed from an influx of anime and manga. Clumsy leads are common in that medium. No idea why ‘everyone wants her’ is a downside unless it’s to the point where she’s being chased into the bathroom or it’s not a savory type of wanting. This is just me taking a stupid flaw and making it work, I think. I’ve never read or saw Twilight, but I was told that Bella is basically a shadow that the reader is supposed to put themselves in the shoes off. Just an empty shell for the reader to take a literary joyride in.

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      • Basically…yeah. She clearly stems from Mary-Sues. And like those fanfics, gets a lot of readers who go “OMG SO GOOD WANT MORE!” and an equal amount of people who just stare and go “What the hell!” I think every bad element of writing out there can be taken, turned on its head and made, well, actually quite good. There are plenty of female protagonists who have a ton of guys after them (or just two guys, but still) and yet it works, because its in the handful of a skilled author. Don’t see as many male protagonists that have all the women after them, or maybe I’m just not reading those kind of books 😛

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      • Typically, a male character with that problem doesn’t see it as a problem. Even the reader might not notice. James Bond could be an example of that and it never slows him down. Honestly, I would think a character that is mystically attractive to every member of the opposite sex would be the sign of a succubus. That would have been a funny end to Twilight. The townspeople burn Bella because they think she’s a female demon out to devour all the men. I’d still avoid reading it, but it’d be funny.

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  5. I really like this post, Charles. Its all very true…whatever balance you choose in your characters (and there must be at least some, because there are very few true sociopaths in this world), good and bad, it has to work with the story. The example you gave of your friend’s story is perfect…at some point you’re wondering why the hero is such an incompetent dolt. I always know when a story loses me, because its the point where I start rooting for the villain to win. Of course, if the writer is REALLY good, I will be happy when the villain loses but still sad at their destruction.

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    • I can see some stories where I would want the villain to win and still enjoy the stories. If the villain is very well written, it can keep my interest. Though, it means I will be upset when the incompetent hero wins. A bizarre example, but I would root for Dr. Doom over Mr. Fantastic because I find Doom more interesting.
      I do wonder about stories that utilize incompetent or dim-witted heroes. I have a story (the one I’m outlining now) where the ‘hero’ is a halfling sorcerer with the common sense and street smarts of tree bark. So, is it possible to have a hero that comes off as on the dumb side and not lose the reader?

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      • I think there’s a lot of incompetent heroes that readers can love, but they have to have some redeeming quality…for example, a huge heart, or good intentions. For some reason my mind is drawing blanks here, but I know this has been done quite a few times. The trick is still making the hero appealing to the writers, in some way.

        And I do agree about villains…another example for me is Loki. I love Thor, but Loki is so much fun to root for. But I’m thinking more of cheering for a villain simply because you’re so annoyed with the hero that you can’t be his champion anymore.

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      • Well, I really don’t like Mr. Fantastic, but I get your point. Trying to think of a good example. Actually, in The Red Pyramid, I hated the female hero to the point I was down whenever she survived the encounters. She just kept complaining to the point where I wondered if she was deaf or an android stuck in a loop.
        I guess my character can get by on the fact that he’s always trying to help others. It isn’t like he erases 95% of an entire race off the planet . . . at least not intentionally and he really does feel sorry about it. 🙂

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      • Well, remorse is a redeemable quality!!

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      • Yeah, but I’m not sure I’m even going to have him know that he’s responsible. Darwin is rather oblivious about events that are bigger than his general vicinity. He’s basically a simpleton caught up in great events and continuing on his way to help people that he meets.

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    • I’m really going to have to apologize to my character for that last crack. That’s if he notices and isn’t distracted by his own shadow.

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  6. JS Riddle says:

    I completely agree with the change of format and kind of like it in a way. I suppose maybe it brings the anti-hero or almost-villain to our level to a degree? Personally, internal struggle is a soft spot of mine…..mind you not internal as to which hunk the main character has to choose…..more of a true life struggle. Take Gollum for example. He is beyond evil in his own way, totally disgusting until you rip away the exterior and understand his conflict. I can’t help but feel sorry for the little guy although I still dislike him.
    I’m reblogging, this is a great post.

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    • Thanks. Gollum is a perfect example of a ‘villain’ with an internal struggle. If I wasn’t pretty sure he’d eat my face, I’d give him a hug.

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      • JS Riddle says:

        you just kind of want to pat him on the back, hug him and say “there, there” until you hear the cough/change and then give him a good stab in that back only to think, “poor thing” as he lay still. 😀

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      • I don’t think I could ever bring myself to stab him. It was interesting how none of the creatures and heroes that he ran into ever tried to kill. They either thought he was too pathetic or not a threat. Though if you think about it, Gollum ended up being the real savior of Middle Earth. Not that he meant to do it.

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  7. JS Riddle says:

    Reblogged this on J.S. Riddle and commented:
    Exactly!!!!

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  8. Pingback: 12 Phrases That Are Never a Good Sign For a Hero’s Survival | Musings of a Mild Mannered Man

  9. This is really important to remember. And you gave such perfect examples! Thank you very much for reminding me how in-depth conflicts must be!

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  10. Always good learning at the Yallowitz saloon

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  13. Pingback: End of an Era Revisit: Conflict: Fancy Way of Saying Good vs. Evil | Legends of Windemere

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