Real life is never as simple as the good guys and the bad guys, and on either side of any conflict you’ll find good and evil. Despite this, stories are often a simple way of distilling the conflict down, and making it easy for your audience to feel safe that they’re rooting for the good guys.
The stories that stick with you, make you think long and hard after they’re over, will often blur those lines between good and evil, and show the rich complexity of life. I’ll be explaining how and why we blur those lines in stories.
Why Blur The Lines
Whilst it’s nice to imagine that there is a good side and bad side, and therefore if you’re on the good side you’re safe from condemnation, and the people on the bad side are the “others”, in reality life doesn’t mirror that.
The people who we are in conflict with, at any time in our lives are a combination of good and bad, just like we are as individuals. When stories represent people, they should represent all shades of us. Some people have more evil and cruelty in than others, but even good people can be drawn into doing bad things if they’re motivated enough, or are being misled to believe that what they’re doing is morally right.
Whether you’re writing two individuals in conflict, or two sides of a battle, pretending that one is 100% good at all times and the other 100% evil at all times is overly simplistic. Willingness to explore the light and shade in all of us, the good and evil, the right and wrong, means your story will have depth, and your characters will be more human and interesting.
Reflecting the truth of life is part of our job as story tellers, and no greater part is in that of the complexity of human nature. And, even if you’re not writing about actual humans, the characters you’re writing are who your readers will emotionally connect to, and therefore you need to pull on their humanity.
At the beginning of the 2019 film Captain Marvel, things seems pretty clear. The Kree, a species whom Captain Marvel and her teacher Yon-Rogg are, are engaged in a longstanding war with another species, The Skrulls.
During the course of the story, we are shown The Skrulls are shapeshifters who are fighting ruthlessly against the Protagonist, Captain Marvel, and it seems that the set up is accurate.
When Captain Marvel lands on Earth, she is teamed up with Nick Fury, whom we already know is a “good guy”, and the lock seems set. The Kree are the goodies, trying to stop The Skrull, the baddies.
However, things are changed at the midpoint. You discover that The Skrull are actually refugees searching for a home, being targeted and eradicated by The Kree.
Whilst they have been doing ostensibly “evil” things by killing people, it was shown to be for good reasons; they were defending themselves and their families after being violently oppressed for generations. Equally so, whilst The Kree seem to be acting in good faith by trying to stop The Skrulls from attacking them, it was for evil reasons; they wanted to maintain their power and authority.
In that moment we are shown that the line between good and evil is blurred. Sometimes evil is done for good reasons, sometimes people who appear good are actually not. There are good people on the side of The Kree, Captain Marvel herself, so it’s not a simple switcheroo, but the overly simplistic sides being drawn has been wiped out.
How To Blur The Lines
When you’re constructing your conflict, remember the humanity in both sides. If you’re writing a larger conflict, such as in Captain Marvel, where there are essentially hundreds of people on both sides, this is easier than if you’re writing a smaller scale story, but it’s still possible.
Large Scale Conflict
For a war type story, there will always be shades of grey across your entire cast. On both sides of any large conflict, there is cruelty, there is evil. There are people who find joy in causing others pain, and there are people who stoke the flames of conflict for the love of the war.
Even characters fighting on the morally “good” side of the war will have evil doers amongst they’re ranks, so don’t pretend otherwise. Characters on the morally “bad” side will be as complex and human as all people. Some will be fighting because they’re ordered to and have no choice, others will have been lied to and believe what they’re doing is right.
In any battle there is a morally grey area around the entire conflict, not just the characters in it. If you can step away from writing one side as “good” and one side “bad,” with shades of humanity within it, you can see that conflict is often wrought with good and bad on both sides, being dealt with in different ways. This is when you can have your characters doing bad things for good reasons, because there’s no other choice. This creates internal conflict, as well as potential conflict with characters around them who disagree with the choices being made.
Small Scale Conflict
In a small conflict, one Protagonist character, one Antagonist character, you can still blur the lines between good and evil, because most people aren’t 100% good or 100% bad.
Good people are capable of doing bad things and making bad choices, and even if they learn from their mistakes and commit themselves to improving, they can cause hurt from that initial mistake.
Bad people are often coming from a place of humanity, a vulnerability which is being twisted. Either your bad character is committed to their evil doing, the good core having been warped over time, or they’re simply misunderstood.
A person in pain will lash out, act aggressively or with cruelty, as a shield to protect themselves from further pain. It doesn’t diminish the hurt they cause from their actions, but it demonstrates they’re not pure evil, and your audience can have sympathy for them despite their actions.
Blurring The Lines Is Important
By demonstrating the complexities of humanity, and the fact life is never as simple as a clear cut line between good and evil, you can use your power as a storyteller to make your audience consider the humanity in their enemies.
When we start to understand that people on both sides of a conflict are an array of good and evil, some will want to hurt, others will hurt by necessity, and others will try to avoid hurt at all cost, we start to understand that they are human. It’s hard to “other” people when you realise they’re essentially the same as yourself but with different opinions and experiences.
There will always be good people and bad people, but we cannot idolise people on our side of the conflict as angelic, when all people make mistakes, and we cannot assume everyone on the other side is completely driven by evil. There are layers, complexities, pain and hope in all people.
Layers Of Humanity In Life And Fiction
Demonstrating the humanity of our enemies in fiction humanises our enemies in our own lives. When we see people as human, we are more likely to put our claws away and try to find a way to communicate that doesn’t require as much vitriol.
Recognise that your characters have done wrong, don’t excuse evil as if it doesn’t matter, but find the core of their humanity. Most characters, no matter how cruel they may seem, can be redeemed if you allow them to grow and change, learn from their mistakes, and find compassion for those around them. It might require punishment, it might require acts of apology and reparation, but the humanity can be found.
The blurred lines between good and evil exist, and I’m pleased they do. If no characters are completely morally pure, then it makes it okay that we as people are not completely morally pure. But allowing them to grow and change, learn and make amends, means we can embrace that about ourselves and others. Stories are a powerful way to breathe humanity in those we have considered “other.”
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