“Good versus evil” can be (and is) the formula for much well-regarded fiction. It is also the perfect formula for shallow storytelling, predictable rpg adventures, and two-dimensional entertainment.
I’ve thought this for quite a long time, ever since I read one-too-many bad books and poorly designed role-playing games that relied on white hats triumphing over black hats as the central conflict of their drama. Instead of creating thrilling tales of archetypal struggles, they too often produced only tired, shallow story lines with two-dimensional characters and a predictable plot.
I’m not saying that the dualistic tension between archetypal opposites should always be thrown overboard–it does serve a time-tested purpose, and there is a place for it (especially when it is well-executed).
But I do argue that framing good versus evil in a too-simplistic binary manner all too often leads to stereotyping and shallow motivation. This is turn results in disappointing stories, especially the more inexperienced a writer or game designer is.
Morals, Ethics, and Judgments
I think part of the underlying problem here is that good and evil are moral or ethical judgments and values. Even just labeling an act or person “good” or “evil” necessarily stems from a moral judgment about the act or the person’s character.
We don’t need to flog that philosophical horse here, but my point is this: when we focus on the archetype and judging where on the spectrum of good/evil a character falls, we unavoidably bring ethical judgment to the table. This means we frame character or action in terms of an ethical precept. This is an aspect of their “archetype-ness,” and it works especially well for archetype-heavy stories like comic book superheroes, fairy tales, and folklore. For other kinds of stories, though? Not so much.
The Shallowness Trap
In fairy tales, mythology, and similar narratives, a plain archetypal conflict is most clearly on display. I have no complaint with that. This dualistic struggle mirrors an archetypal formula that people resonate with and enjoy reading about. And that particular style of storytelling cleaves closely to the archetypal model anyway.
The problem comes when we tell more complex or wide-ranging tales.
Fiction patterned after a simple “good versus evil” dichotomy too often falls into a simplistic dualism that leads directly to shallow characters and predictable plots. How often have we read (or encountered, if you’re a gamer) shallow good guys and stupid villains? Their mantra is “I’m good, so I do Good Things; you’re evil, so you do Bad Things. And good must prevail, so you bad guys will always lose in the end.”
I think this comes from looking to the good/evil archetype and trying to use that as a one-size-fits-all template for narratives that need more nuance and layers than a fairy tale does. It is worst of all when the writer builds characters who act like the embodiment of these archetypes, when they are not, in fact, characters in folk lore or modern legend. (That is about the only place you can easily get away with such dualistic characters and set-ups).
If narratives unmindfully follow the binary logic of good/evil, it is all too easy to produce a simplistic treatment of heroes and villains. It reduces every contest to Dudley Dooright against Snidely Whiplash, or some facsimile thereof. Every plot feels boring, stereotyped, or predictable.
So how do we avoid this? I think we need to reframe how we think about good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains, in our storytelling.
Make It About Power Dynamics, Not Values
I propose we rethink the “good versus evil” dynamic from the ground up. First, let’s stop with the value judgments. Outside the realm of the Greek gods, Plato’s archeforms, and Jungian archetypes, in real life one man’s “good” can be another man’s “not so good” or outright “bad” or even “evil.”
Not to get into philosophical debate about the ethics of good and evil. Rather, my point here is that if we insist on focusing on “good” and “evil” as our guiding light for story infrastructure, we end up defining these values as a prescription of attributes, rules, or situational judgments. And if we are value-focused in this way, this is the quickest gateway to the cardboard characters and flat plots that wear white or black hats in fiction.
Simply put, a value construct alone is insufficient to support a tale that varies much from the close-to-archetype forms like the fairy story or myth.
A lot of mediocre fiction falls into this trap. Role playing games are at particular risk for this, for in this industry there seems to be a widespread assumption that diametrical opposites will naturally (magically, somehow) create good dramatic tension. Therefore, we must have The Villain and he is Evil; and there are The Heroes, and they are Good and must prevail.
But this value structure is just as likely (maybe even more likely) to produce something flat and trite instead of the rich tapestry the storytellers are hoping for. Unless we are replaying a mythic structure very closely, this premise (by itself) is not sufficiently deep to carry an effective narrative for the modern audience. Perhaps the fault lies less in the structure and more in how it is executed by the contemporary author, but the fact remains that writers often have trouble translating this pair of archetypal opposites into compelling narratives.
However, there is a solution close at hand, and it is this:
Let us think of Good and Evil not as archetypal poles (though they can be), but as the outworkings of a set of dynamic interactions. And let us further define that set as the dynamics of power. If we reframe narrative structures in this way, then our answer is simple:
“Good” and “evil” (however they are being valued) arise from the interaction of power dynamics. To create a story with nuanced characters, and rich–not stereotyped–plots, we need to let conflict grow organically from the fertile field of power dynamics.
In other words: Don’t take an archetype label and create characters and situations to fit that label (He’s a good guy! He does Good Deeds! He’s the cleric of an Evil God! He kills people randomly!) Instead, create a setting or situation rife with dynamic tension, and then see how things resolve or evolve in that setting.
The best framework to use for this process involves power. Therefore, set things a-simmering in a pot of Power Dynamics. Plenty of conflict and value judgments (including “good” and “evil,” among other things) will float to the top to become a natural part of the setting and narrative.
Power Struggles and Cheap Drama
It is possible to use the concept of “power dynamics” as a synonym for “power struggle” aka “good versus evil”–but to do so would be to short-change the mileage we can get out of properly exercised power dynamics.
Struggles between clearly opposed forces are only one of the many dynamics of power. There is also negotiation, cooperation, silent and internal calculations about benefits and trade-offs, the psychology of equity (real or perceived), and much more. In fact, power and its dynamics constitute a large field of study. There are entire sub-disciplines in sociology and political science dedicated to studying the efforts to get, maintain, and use power in social groups.
When the word “power” enters the picture, people often leap to conclusions about what that entails. It is assumed that where power is in play, there is also manipulation, deceit, secrecy, hidden agendas, selfishness, and a willingness to abuse that power and cause harm to those who oppose it.
This is the template of “power dynamics” as it is often represented in fiction. It is an image of power created expressly to promote conflict. It sets up the stage for an epic scene of struggle. It is a popular–even overused–trope in narrative storytelling.
But real life is much more nuanced than that. Power dynamics are rarely a contest between clearly good and clearly bad opposites. They are, instead, a mixture of shades of grey, with good and bad on both sides, and a wide variety of outcomes based on many variables. People’s attitudes and actions are part of a dynamic network of power. These dynamics frame and motivate what a person does.
Learning the Ropes of Power Dynamics
If we can gain an understanding of some basics about power dynamics, then this can be very instructional and helpful to us in our writing.
“Heroes” and “villains” may become less black and white, but as a trade-off they will feel more real (and less two-dimensional) because they grow out of authentic power interactions. They do not first don the archetype suit and then march around stiffly on the dramatic stage.
Writing beyond “good versus evil” stereotypes requires both greater knowledge of power dynamics, and a certain degree of skill in the writing craft.
The huge payoff for mastering these skills is that truly interesting power struggles and conflicts will fall out of a setting much more naturally and believably. It will also move the setting away from that feeling of being a contrived setup whose main purpose is to create “an epic battle between good and evil.” That’s a sure-fire way to kill a story or game dead with triteness before it even has a chance to come alive.
The “well-founded power dynamics” approach deftly avoids this problem. It has room for the struggle of opposites, but makes that struggle believable by allowing conflict and dramatic tensions to grow organically.
Even if you haven’t thought of good/bad in this way before, it’s not hard to get there. It takes setting up power dynamics in your fictional setting, and gaining an understanding about how some key factors interact. This is behind-the-scenes world-building work for the most part. The payoff will come when you consider the outcomes of some interactions, and determine how this impacts your characters and their world in narrative or adventure form.
In a future post in this series, I’ll outline some essential “power dynamics” to have in place in a fictional world. This will move a setting away from a simple “good/evil” premise and into a richer environment that better supports a robust narrative.