Storytelling Tropes: Good vs Evil

A series looking at common storytelling tropes in literature. This essay looks at Good versus Evil, and how to use, avoid or subvert it.

Image Credit: 
© 2017 Epytome / Used With Permission

Conflict of Good and Evil is a concept that has survived for over three thousand years, and has long been ingrained into literature. The fight is considered to be universal, to be understood and recognised across every faith, culture and civilisation. There are many variations of the conflict. The fight can be external, between an underdog and a corrupted figure, or internal, within one character choosing from two conflicting paths.

It is usually seen in a hero’s journey. The hero (Good) must defeat the villain (Evil), but this is the journey in its simplest form. This is a story stripped down to the bare bones, and once a writer starts added their own unique take on it, it has the potential to not look or read like other Good versus Evil stories.

Yet, if the conflict is dealing in absolutes, then it poses a real risk of sounding overly done. This is because when dealing with absolutes, the story writes itself into a corner. There are only so many ways an author can deal with the lack of middle ground, and humans do not function in absolutes.

Characters that are written in absolutes run a risk of reading as flat, predictable and boring. Nuance is what spurs a reader on, it makes a character feel real, like they’ve lived long before you started reading and will continue to after you’ve finished. For characters to seem real, their choices and consequences must feel real too, and their struggles.

Evil needs nuance too. An evil that just goes and destroys pointlessly can seem scary, but in many ways this can backfire. Humans are scared of the unknown, true, but we’re also logical thinkers. What is an all-consuming evil’s end goal? Destroy everything? Then what? This man is prepared to incinerate the world to rule the…ashes?

These nuances don’t necessarily need to be known to the reader, but what the author knows will bleed into the writing. It could be in something he says that the readers will pick up and process in the backs of their minds, or it could be a slap in the face. Something to remind the reader that this villain has a past, a reason, which pushed them to do what they are doing.

Absolute Good characters run the risk of falling into the Mary Sue trope by virtue of being good, as well as reading as self-righteous. This is a fast way to alienate readers, as not very many can attest to enjoying the company of real self-righteous people, let alone actively read the lives of one.

The easiest way to subvert the Good versus Evil trope is to simply have Evil win. This is a risky move, as it can feel like it lacks reward, but not impossible. It can serve as a hook for a sequel, such as in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, or as a warning for present day, a “this is what could happen if you let it,” found in Dystopian literature.

Good could win, but at great cost to themselves. Evil may be down but their final blow to the heroes could mean a loss on both sides, resulting in a bittersweet ending. For either side to win but at great cost is called ‘Pyrrhic,’ meaning that to win was not worth it.

Another subversion of this trope could be the twist of who is actually Good and who is Evil. A protagonist is not necessarily Good by virtue of being the protagonist. Or the Evil they face may not be Evil, but a puppet or a decoy of the real thing. Or there is the possibility that neither side is Good, such as that found in V E Schwab’s Vicious, in which two devious rivals duke it out.

“You’re the hero…,” she said, finding his eyes, “…of your own story anyway.”

Vicious by V E Schwab

The main protagonist is fuelled by vengeance; his rival is fuelled by ideology. Both are nuanced in a way that rewards the reader from start to finish. Though one’s actions may technically benefit innocent people, this isn’t what drives him.

Then there are other dualities, other conflicts that could be the driving force of a plot besides Good versus Evil.

For example, Progress versus Preservation is a good way to encourage conflict. A protagonist may be trying to find a way to better their community, but their community’s focus is simply on staying alive. One deviation could be considered a threat to this, and the protagonist can risk being ostracised or exiled. This can be found in Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, in which the ant Flick—a troubled inventor—keeps butting heads with his nest. Sure, the ants in this film are depicted as Good, and the Grasshoppers as Evil, but the film tackles Progress versus Preservation on a deeper level than the Good Versus Evil aesthetic.

On this note, Individuality versus Community is also a sure fire way to drive conflict into story. Neither one can be considered outright good or evil. Is individual perseverance worth it if the rest fall, or is community worth the cost of individuality? It is, in some cultures, expected to put others before self. This can be seen particularly in eastern countries, where it is the norm for children to one day look after their parents—regardless of ambitions and dreams. Meanwhile, it is increasingly common for the elderly to be either independent until death, or cared for in retirement or nursing homes in the west.

Community thinking can be seen as a ‘hive-mind’ by those who shirk away from it; meanwhile, those who look for individuality can be considered selfish. There are arguments for and against both sides—a perfect breeding ground for new ideas and stories to tell.

There are a whole host of dualities that writers can use in the place of Good versus Evil, from one party resisting change to keep safe clashing against the other party, the one prepared to take a risk and adapt. Should justice be served, or forgiveness?

Dig into the heart of your story and find its core—is it really just a black and white re-telling of Good versus Evil? Or is it nuanced in a different way, is it a rainbow of different sides? Is the antagonist evil? Is the protagonist good? Do they need to be either? You decide.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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