The Nature of Evil


Nothing Wicked This Way Comes...
Jun 9, 2020
I hang in the curtains and I sleep in your hat
We all know pure evil exists - you only have to look at the news or back through history to see this is true - but how do you handle it in your writing? Do you prefer a black-and-white good-versus-evil thing, or do you prefer to blur the lines? Do you like to offer redemption to your "bad guy" or even twist the morals of your "good guy" so that they end up doing "evil"? Does evil even exist as a concept in your work, or do your characters just do what they have to do to survive, which may involve doing things that might not be considered appropriate? Do you like to have a character go through the metamorphosis from one to the other? Is there always salvation or can some characters just not be saved? And have you ever written anything where evil actually triumphed at the end?
Off the top of my head, I usually treat "evil" as the presumption that one can treat other people and the world as one likes in order to serve one's own interests. That definition could encompass someone who likes to deliberately inflict pain, for example, but I tend to limit it to a more rational desire for increased power and comfort. The increase in power could be over others, but might be over existence itself, sometimes a desire for immortality.

Since everyone has interests that conflict with others, I treat it as a grey thing rather than black/white, and a character can change shade fairly regularly (though probably not dramatically; I guess I'm not that optimistic, or maybe pessimistic).
We all know pure evil exists - you only have to look at the news or back through history to see this is true - but how do you handle it in your writing?

Respectfully disagree. Not saying evil doesn't exist, but it's not at all clear to me what evil is (in a way that distinguishes itself from greed, cruelty, bigotry, etc.). I think it's pretty common these days to have fiction where everything is grey rather than black and white, but to me what grey represents is that this is a multidimensional thing. So even if you have a character who's all bad, they can be different from another all bad character. Not every villain needs to be a mustache-twirling madman, or whatever.
I understand. However I would wonder how you would categorise the likes of the usual suspects? Sure, both may have had their (somewhat warped) reasons for what they did, but surely murdering that amount of people has to be seen as inherently evil? I suppose you can find explanations/excuses for everything considered evil, but in the case of, say, serial killers, sometimes there is, or seems to be, no explanation. Some killers have even admitted they either don't know why they kill(ed) or that they do/did it because they like(d) it. Can that not be considered evil?

As for writing, of course there are few examples of true, dyed-in-the-wool evil, and if they are they tend to make a story quite one-dimensional, but then, not always. Sometimes an evil character, a truly evil one, can be very effective. What about Sauron? Darth Vader/Palpatine? The Master in Dr Who? Hannibal Lecter? I think the list is not as small as I perhaps had thought. And yet, personally, I would tend to create a character who had some chance of redemption or at least whose "evil" could be explained, rather than a cardboard cut-out painted black with a frowny face.
Some killers have even admitted they either don't know why they kill(ed) or that they do/did it because they like(d) it. Can that not be considered evil?

Sure; it depends how you define evil. But I'd still maintain it falls under the category of them fulfilling their "needs" at the expense of others, it's just that they themselves aren't sure what their needs are. In other words, their needs are subconscious. But light can be shed on them by pschological investigation (the Netflix series Mindhunter is interesting in this regard).

As a writer, though, the trouble with characters who just kill or destroy for the hell of it is that they're not very interesting apart from the fact that they're aberrations. They're basically children who haven't been socialised. They're failures. Their failure might be interesting from a sociological point of view, but I don't think the characters themselves are, except as objects of horror. Only characters who try to create (in a fairly wide sense: I would include Tolkien's Melkor/Morgoth in this) are interesting, in my view. Some writers have tried to create serial killers who fall into that bracket, but I don't think I've ever been very convinced by it.

Interesting topic anyway. (And I should probably try to find some synonyms for "interesting".)
If anyone's watched The Last Airbender TV series, one of the characters there makes for one of the best villains in fiction, by the nature of his tortured motivations and how he founds his own resolution to them. An excellent character development arc.
Every human being has his own internal code. It may not be the common social or legal code. We may have our own personal laws. People are different. A soldier"s code may allow him to kill, but not to kill non-combatants, or to shoot someone in the back. That would be against his code. A priest may not speak harshly. That would be against his code.

Someone who goes against his own personal code might become unpredictable and dangerous -- driven by whatever difficult circumstance.

But perhaps it is the one who has no personal code whatsoever who beomes truly 'bad'? That is the really scary person?
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What I find interesting is less how I define evil, but how my characters do. I strongly doubt that anyone wakes up in the morning, affixes their waxed mustache, dons their black cowboy hat and duster, and proceeds to go about the day seeking opportunities for evil ad nefariousness. Rather, I think most everyone thinks they are more or less good, but sometimes does what they believe is necessary to achieve their goals or what makes them feel good.

So, when I'm making a character, I like to figure out what their ethical philosophy is, and how they are both informed by it, what makes them skirt it, and how far they are willing to skirt it. If you're interested in some of the formal ethical positions out there and how they can be twisted, feel free to ask. But whether one borrows from a formal ethic or an improvised one, the means through which the characters justify their actions in their minds can be very interesting.
Respectfully, I think you should look at this issue from two aspects, the narrator and the environment of the story.
It's convenient to ask ourselves ¿who that narrator is? Especially if it's a first-person narrator. Because your narrator can be an alien, a lamp, a fish, let's know. Or even someone of the opposite sex. And in all examples you must be aware that, well, you're who writes the story, the boss. But your narrator is the one who tells that story, even if it's an omniscient narrator. I think having this clear will keep you from confusing yourself later.

Because what happens when the narrator is also the villain?

But we must also have this clear as readers. We must be aware at all times that the character of a story, even if it looks like a real-life person, is actually just a literary construct, one sema. Speaking in semantic terms, a character is a communication vehicle that carries meaning. He's not that person he looks like in the real world. Therefore, the narrator of your story can say that that character is either acting in an evil, silly, or ambitious way, and it doesn't mean that you, as a writer, are criticizing anyone in real life.
However, it's amazing how people get confused. And sometimes the confused one is also the writer.

The environment of story also influences how evil is perceived. So, I want to say it once again, it's good to consider at this in the outline. Or at least reflect a little on that. Especially in creating a different culture. This civilization it may or may not be human. But we have to look at what the differences are. Because what we may think is an aberration to them may be totally normal.
A simple example: in the time of the samurai it was considered a serious offense not to bow when they passed. So, chac. And this for them constituted a code of honor. But what, chac, for something like that would we find it atrocious, wouldn't we? So, already in a human world you have differences in how life is perceived. Then that also influences the perception of evil.
Chac, chac. All wicked.
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Unless I'm dealing with supernatural concepts of "pure evil", devils and so on, or otherwise unfathomable beings... I don't usually subscribe to the idea of it.

I try to remember that nobody likes flat, "cardboard" characters as much as flawed ones. Even psychopathic characters would have their own motivations and reasoning for acts of evil that they believe are for a good reason. They might do horrific things because they don't realize or parse the value of life like other characters do, and other people are just "in their way". Most people in the real world who do evil (especially politically) actually seem to think they're doing good and are the "good guys" in their own minds. It's very rare to find someone who does evil things bar say, a serial killer, that does them because they just want to do something evil. Even if they do, there's usually a pschological compulsion or a consuming need served by doing it.

So when I write antagonists, even if these characters do unspeakable things, I must give them a reasoning for doing it, at least in their own twisted heads. If I didn't, I fear they would fall into the 2D cutout villain box and be disappointing for it. I know my favourite villains in fiction have always been ones who I know have a good point and a good reason for what they do, and provide some thought-provoking conflict with our heroes, rather than just being mooks to defeat.
It also depends on the setting of your story. A lot of fantasy is derived from the works of Tolkien who had very definite idea about right and wrong, but throughout history different cultures have all had differing opinions of what is ethical.

I don't think true evil exactly exists... there is undoubtedly disgusting despicable acts committed on a daily basis, but again, it comes down to what society defines as evil.

In many ways this gives world builders a fantastic pool of possibilities to draw from. Is the protagonist actually the good guy because they share our current morality, or does their war of terror against the established ethics of the world make them the evil one?
>murdering that amount of people has to be seen as inherently evil
Another word that could be used is immoral. That is, it violates the customs or laws of humanity. Evil is a word I use to describe something more abstract. To put it in traditional terms, murder--even mass murder--falls in the realm of natural law whereas evil belongs in divine law. There's also customary law--a law that might read one way in this nation, another way in a different nation.

It's important for an author to be clear on the distinction. A story about evil ("pure" evil is a redundancy; evil is present or it is not; there's no such thing as "impure" evil) .... er, where was I? oh yeah ... a story about evil would naturally speak to themes like redemption and salvation. A story about moral choices is more human (imo). Individual humans are perfectly capable of being moral and immoral, sometimes simultaneously.
I'm currently working on a story in which the "hero" is more of an anti-villain. Someone who begins doing relatively cruel and callous acts as a matter of faith, only later to realize without the faith in what is good or evil to them, the acts themselves are meaningless and wasteful. How the character then deals with the changing definitions of "good" and "evil" in their world (as well as their own changing place in it as do-gooer or evildoer) is a good source of interesting conflict.
I generally give my bad guys likeable qualities. Roguishness and intelligence can be attractive and I give my heroes flaws, even weaknesses of character. It makes the chemistry much more interesting if the protagonist has to battle someone he likes or respects.
And there is that delicious point where you expect a clean confrontation the antagonist instead charms the protagonist and the outcome becomes touch and go, even a possible epiphany where the protagonist flips.
The problem of evil is one of the most fundamental and compelling theological and philosophical questions around. One way I appreciate seeing it addressed in stories is the recognition that it's almost unheard of for someone to believe themselves to be evil or their actions to be unjustified. Bringing the self-perception angle into the story can create round and well-written villians without minimizing the existence of evil or writing a relativistic worldview in to the story.
I believe pure evil is a rare phenomenon. When it does manifest itself it's when a person knows they're doing evil and are enjoying it.

When one looks at history one will find persons known for cruelty were acting on what they considered justifiable motives and if they did do (what we consider) evil and enjoyed it they believe that their victims were undeserving of mercy.
I suggest dropping any preconceptions about evil as being defined by religion or thinking that evil cannot be black and white in any universe. Those two thoughts need to be dropped and a worthy definition put down. As our Editor in Chief told us: "I want heroes that are heroic." What does that mean? The hero can be portrayed in many physical racial forms and be from any culture, but if you want to write fiction that sells you need to know your audience. Who are they? What do they look like? Can you relate to them?

If you know your audience you can write books that you find personally satisfying and which they will too.

Bad guys do bad things. Period. Those bad things need to be conveyed clearly. As the story develops, the villain's motivation is revealed. Whatever took him down this road will affect his future actions. Whether he knows it or not, he is trapped in this evil identity. If he begins to succeed, he may become more bold. He may cook up more plans to satisfy his desires. His look, the way he talks and even the places he goes to need to increase a sense of fear in the reader. Whatever the bad guy is doing hurts others and he must be stopped. Not always killed but his plans thwarted by someone who has the skill, the courage and the willingness to defeat him. Maybe not entirely. The evil villain may escape to fight another day.

Anti-heroes are so common now. I'm tired of them.
Bad guys do bad things. ...

Anti-heroes are so common now. I'm tired of them.
Intent and empathy can separate good from evil.

"Everybody does it." is lamer than "If I don't do it someone else will." as an antisocial personality disorder (APD) rationalization. It may be my imagination, but too many social structures seem to be controlled by APD people.