There Are No Words

At least, no singular words. I’m sure I could manage a diatribe of sufficient length and vitriol to describe the actions and ideas of certain people given a down hill run and a following wind.

See, I’m getting a bit tired of the automatic assumption that those who do not agree completely with someone’s ideas, beliefs, or whatever must automatically be evil and enemies. It makes for crappy fiction and crappier reality.

This is one of the many reasons I despise the “evil for evil’s sake” villain types. I can completely accept “inimical to human” or even “inimical to life as we know it” but existential evil? That I have difficulty with.

Of course, I tend to take the perspective that inimical to human or inimical to life as we know it is going to appear evil from a human perspective anyway – but that kind of being is, in my opinion, better kept as a shadowy force of nature than dragged out into view. Not least because whoever is writing it doesn’t have the imagination or ability to do so properly.

Anything so different from us that its very nature will destabilize us in some fashion (whether by corruption, dissolution, or some other means is immaterial) is going to be utterly alien to us, and probably equally terrifying as well. We might not even be able to recognize it as life.

I’ve seen this concept handled well in some of the older short stories. Life that takes the form of concentrated energy and can’t understand why these peculiar squishy things vibrate and explode when it tries to communicate with them, and other such concepts can work very well indeed in a short piece, as long as the author refrains from excessive moralization.

Which is a rant for another day: suffice to say that if I have to choose between my species and any other, it’s humans all the way.

So, yeah, disagreeing with someone doesn’t make them evil. Nor does it make you – or me – good. Most humans, unless they’re damaged in ways that go beyond recovery (and sometimes not even then) fall somewhere in a moral spectrum that tends not to have absolutes.

We, being human, tend to prefer the absolutes because we use them as shortcuts. If we can class something as this then we can definitively say it isn’t that. It’s a big part of why we tend to demonize someone who’s done something we disapprove of (especially if we really majorly disapprove of it). The same thing applies to not wanting to hear anything bad about those we admire.

I suspect it’s a way to push someone who endangers the safety of the group outside the boundaries that mark them as being “of us” – if they are all bad, then they’re not really real people, so they can be eliminated without breaking the rules about not killing people and we don’t need to feel bad about hurting them.

Unfortunately that particular quirk of humanity leads to two equally bad results: those who push too hard to avoid falling for it and race headlong into the bleeding hearts of all perspectives being equally valid; and those who don’t try to push at all and happily lead the witch hunts against all who differ from whatever the current standard of good happens to be.

Neither view works well in fiction, I might add. The former tends to generate wishy-washy utopias with bland, unconvincing antagonists (or, on rare occasions, existential evils), where the latter leads to caricatures of evil for the sake of evil, complete with gleeful metaphorical mustache twirling and cackling.

Somewhere in between is the target. Precisely where depends on how sympathetic the antagonist needs to be for the story (never forget that every “being abused/growing up poor/whatever cause made me evil” is an insult to the many thousands of others in similar circumstances who didn’t grow up evil) and how likeable the protagonist is (remember, protagonists need to protag, and antagonists need to do more than prance about and plot evil deeds). The balance is right when people devour your story and don’t notice any plot holes or other technical issues until they’ve finished it and had a bit of time to let the story settle.

If, after that, your readers still want more, you found the words.

25 comments

  1. Nod.

    IMO Chris Nuttall did a good job of it in his book “Their Last Full Measure”.

    For those who haven’t read it, the book was a “Plucky Humans Against the Evil Alien Empire” type story.

    While we knew that in Chris’s mind, the Humans were the Good Guys, he showed the Alien Empress (self-crowned) in a sympatric light.

    She knew that the humans had created a situation where her people “had to change” to survive (and stay on Top). We saw her struggles with the “stuck-in-the-mud” mindset of her own people.

    The Empress became a tragic figure IMO. While she wasn’t a “Nice Person”, we could see her as “fighting for something besides personal power” (or Not Just For The Evilness).

    1. That kind of setup can work really well. I’m always going to be a “humanity, f*** yeah!” type, but I can agree that a non-human is going to put their species first.

  2. I don’t know, I sometimes think of myself as an Anti-Lawyer, and that would seem to come with a professional obligation to do some pro malo work from time to time. 🙂

    “Akshully, vigilante killings are really society’s fault” might perhaps be better described as being a contrarian jerk.

    1. “Akshully, vigilante killings are really society’s fault” might perhaps be better described as being a contrarian jerk.

      Debatable. A single vigilante killer is probably an issue with the killer refusing to accept the social compact that the state has a monopoly on violence. A rash of vigilante killings by unrelated killers probably is society’s fault in that people have lost confidence in the justice system to such a degree that the social compact has fallen apart.

      1. Yeah, that is the sensible take.

        One of the trolling formulas is simply very close to hand, because of certain lawyers on twitter who have irritated me. Despite knowing that it is good that so many lawyers are so very blind. If more a had truer perspective of their position in human groups, the degree to which law is a contrivance, we would have more defense lawyers doing business by having witnesses murdered.

      2. Um, if there is any such compact, I’m not a signatory to it. The compact that I agreed to is that the state has a limited monopoly on the initiation of force to achieve certain political/social goals.

      3. Society has failed, AND the vigilantes are to blame for the killings because they further undermine said socieity.

  3. This quote sums up why I really, really hate that “origin”, when it’s taken as justifying:

    It’s a well-known fact that abusers and violent offenders were generally abused themselves. See the evening news on any particularly gruesome crime, and sooner or later the talking heads will explore the perpetrator’s “deprived childhood”. What’s less well-known is the facts assembled by sociologists and psychologists determined to look at all abused children, not just the ones that end up in court. What they’ve found, you probably won’t hear on the news, because it’s just not bloody enough.

    About three-quarters of abuse victims go on to never abuse anyone.

    Three out of four. People who come from the most horrible backgrounds, the worst traumas one human being can inflict on another. Made even more horrific because the abuse was perpetrated by people they should have trusted. And yet these survivors pick themselves up, and go on, and refuse to do unto others what was done unto them.

    It’s a footnote, on a fanfic, and the author spent more time thinking about it than 99% of the people who claim they want to humanize abuse victims. (Which somehow always ends up meaning making it so they are better able to hurt more people.)

    1. I mumblegrumbled the quote for what I was supposed to be replying to:

      never forget that every “being abused/growing up poor/whatever cause made me evil” is an insult to the many thousands of others in similar circumstances who didn’t grow up evil

      1. I know of a fellow who takes that attitude about heroic characters given a tragic background, like the superhero who fights crime because someone shot Uncle Ben, or a firefighter who took the job because their family died in a fire, etc.

        As he said, ‘Why can’t writers accept that someone may desire to do good simply because it’s right, because they can help? Why must everyone who makes even the smallest personal sacrifice for others have some personal and implied neurotic reason to help other human beings?’

        1. In Spider Man’s case, it’s kind of acceptable. He did get his powers as a teenager and he blew off trying to stop the mugger that would eventually kill Uncle Ben. This was his moment of clarity that he had to do the right thing.

          Otherwise, I do agree that the trope has been used to death.

        2. Yeah, the heroic character being that way because of some tragic event is just as cliche as the villain who’s only evil because of a bad childhood. Both are big flashing neon signs pointing to the author’s lack of understanding of human nature.

          Unless, of course, it’s played for parody value.

        3. Eh, Batman and Spidey ARE pretty…far out there, although in a positive sense.

          I wonder if the ones for the more normal version just misunderstood the modesty angle of some subcultures– where if something is for charitable reasons, you give an excuse. IE, I give someone my coat, I’m not cold and the damned thing is getting heavy.
          Etc.

        4. Eric, I wonder if it’s because it is easier to write “bad experience => guilt or determination => does good things” for character development than it is to do “good kid from loving, happy family becomes good adult who uses power for good.”

          Granted, what the would-be gatekeepers of popular culture are trying to argue as “normal, happy family” is so skewed that “good kid grows up to be good person” seems to stand out like a giraffe in a hippo herd.

        5. IIRC, one of the iterations of The Flash (or at least his portrayal in the JL/JLU animated series) is like that. He might have a tragic backstory – one Flash’s father was framed for murdering his mother so he became a crime lab technician to try and find evidence to prove his dad was innocent, not sure if it’s the same guy – but he became a superhero because he genuinely enjoys helping people.

        6. Well, let’s see.

          Because it is dramatic.

          Because normal people tend to do their good in ways that involve less danger for them. (Also, the personality type of someone who will voluntarily take on a high danger job tends to limit your choices.)

          Because tragedy also helps clear the the decks to make it actually heroic. A man who neglects his family to stop crime on top of his day job is a man whose conduct deserves only a degree of approval.

          1. I’m not sure but I think he was bothered by the idea that only tragedy can lead to heroism, because he knows a lot of firefighters, EMTs, first responders and whatnot. And few if any of them had that sort of a background.

    2. Exactly my point. A three-quarter majority is damn near an overwhelming majority – it’s saying that most people can and do accept that shit happens and really bad shit happened to them but it doesn’t mean that the rest of their life has to be shit.

      Ultimately everyone chooses which way they take their lives. Maybe they don’t all have the best set of choices available to them, and maybe their experiences make it harder for them to make a good choice. But they don’t have to harm others. Deliberately causing harm is a choice. And in my opinion making that choice is a step in the wrong direction.

      1. A point that needs to be made, frequently.

        There’s a reason that it stuck in my memory to the point that I could find it in a few minutes– I’d never seen the point made so clearly, and it was something I could “feel” was off. But I didn’t have the words.

        And that is where stories are deeply needed. Giving us the words.

    3. I ought to finish up the novel where so many characters tell a woman that something that happened to her mother was a formative event for them — and no two took the same lesson.

        1. It’s just a running theme in the story — I have to get the rest up to snuff. But I’ve got a draft.

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