WARNING: THIS IS A NO-EDIT ZONE…
In reading and writing, we never tire of some things. Classical stories of good versus evil where good wins is one of them. Throughout history that’s been a popular theme and it remains so today.
There are numerous theories on why these stories stand the test of time and remain popular, and an amazing amount of diversity in theoretic rationales. I have to be honest about this, and the truth is, I have not spent a lot of time thinking about the reasons. Why?
Because when the issue of good versus evil comes up, my auto-pilot response is, “Well, sure, we want good to win.” And I’ve pretty much left it there. At least, I had until now.
Recently, I received a question from a writer that forced me to dig deeper and more specifically define why the majority of us want good to win over evil. What follows is my subjective supposition, and I have to admit that I’m glad I got the question because it made me think, and that’s always enriching for people and especially for writers. So thanks.
Why we want good to win over evil.
1. We view “good” as more difficult than “evil” and that makes it more valuable. We treasure it, admire it, yearn for it. We respect it.
2. We’re programmed from the cradle to be good, so when good wins, we win. It’s an affirmation from our earliest memories that, in a sense, gives us the harmony we found in childhood–before we had to start being concerned about anything beyond us and our own backyards.
3. In real life, it often seems that good does not win, and we see the impact of it losing on innocent others. Seniors are swindled, kids are abused, leaders who are supposed to be protecting our interests are corrupt and protecting their own, hanging us out to dry. These things frustrate and anger us, and they make us wonder, Where is the justice? Is there no justice? Who stole it?
4. We suffer from the fallout of evil winning. Look at the retirement plans lost to CEO thieves. The deaths on 9/11 and the families impacted, the nation impacted. We see the hardships and hurts and it taps that “But for the grace of God, there go I” in us. That makes it all to easy for us to image the struggles and strife being endured, and we are irrevocably changed by our awareness of it.
5. Good winning gives us a feeling of control in a world where too often we have none. We can’t prevent those layoffs, those high gas prices, those rent increases, we just have to live with them.
“The good have to suffer for the bad.” We’ve all heard it a million times. And we’ve seen it enacted where the good did suffer for the actions of the bad and bristled against it but were powerless to change it. We can teach our kids to walk a path with dignity and grace, we can share the benefits, encourage and do our damnedest even to inspire them, but we cannot force them to walk that walk. Good winning inspires us to continue to try taking the high road, to keep teaching morals and ethics and it gives us the desire to gird our loins and stand up to those who just want to take the easy way and to hell with all that added effort. It helps us take the heat and keep on keeping on.
6. Good’s triumph over evil affirms our faith in universal justice. Most of us have a sense that even those who seem to get away with murder do eventually get smacked and are forced to accept responsibility for their actions and to atone for them. We don’t always see the smack, but we believe it is inescapable. At core-level, we believe in universal justice. Sooner or later, everyone pays for their actions–in full.
7. It’s comforting. At some point in our lives, we all hunger for security. Eventually, we discover there is none and that’s disconcerting to most of us. So when we see (or read) of good besting evil, in a sense it gives us a measure of pseudo-security. Things will be all right. And that assurance, we find comforting.
8. Fear. We hate what we fear, and we fear evil. It robs us of peace and contentment, of the ability to focus on other things, and so when good wins, personal harmony is restored.
9. Hal Lindsey said this best: “Man can live for about forty days without food, and about three days without water, about eight minutes without air… but only for one second without hope.” Hope is good. Evil is or fosters the absence of hope. We need hope and good to sustain life–and to sustain us in life.
In short, we identify with good. It makes us feel great to see good win. It doesn’t rock the boat, or our lives or our souls. Evil kicks our butt, steals our peace and robs us of the ability to deal with anything other than it. It robs us of life as we would live it, and so we hate it.
I expect I’ve oversimplified the case but, you know, everything doesn’t have to be complex. If it did, we’d have no simple truths, and we have a million of them.
A few random thoughts:
The most evil man in the world, doing the most evil things in the world never sees himself as evil or bad or his actions as evil or bad.
Define good and evil. Not as easy as it appears. “One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.” Forgot who said that, but credit’s given and it aptly makes the point.
Some things are so grotesque that by anyone’s standards they’re evil. Some are so good, they make the immediate cut as good. But there are a million things that fall into shades of gray, depending on who’s making the call.
The motivation for an action often designates the action. Example: A guy kills a horse. If he killed the horse just to watch it die, then the universal reaction to that is pretty certain to be “evil.” The action, and because he committed it, the man. If he killed the horse to end its misery, then the universal reaction is just as certain to be “good.” Not happy that the horse had to die, but good in that the man and his actions were merciful. The motivation–mercy–defines the action as good.
As writers, we can build a case for good or evil through the characters’ motivations. If we do our jobs, then the reader will perceive the characters in the light we intend.
If we remember the human responses, and the emotions and logical thinking that drives those responses, then we’ve enhanced the richness of our stories. We’ve added depth and dimension and tapped into the reader at deeper levels.
The deeper we tap, the stronger our connections between characters and readers. Stronger and more real. And we, as writers, can do this because we’ve glimpsed into the power of why good versus evil still works in storytelling.