Monday, July 12, 2010

Down the (Not-So-Evil) Rat Hole

You know what's annoying? When questions lead to questions ...

Example. I'm working on a book on monsters right now—it's MG, a kid's book, and the main character is part-human, part-monster; his dad is a monsterologist. The last few books I've written, there has been this tipping point right about 15,000 words. I kind of monkey around and go slow, then I hit that point and I get into a groove and the book goes quick from there. Same thing here—it's been rolling out pretty well lately.

I was brainstorming recently, thinking about Sam's dad, the monsterologist. This time around, I've been writing all the characters in first person to get a sense of their voice and who they are, and I ran into an awkward question in my brainstorming.


What to do about Evil? When it comes to monsters, I think you can make a pretty good case that, say, zombies aren't really Evil. They're just zombies, doing what zombies do. When you reanimate a piece of dead flesh and give it a hunger for brains, it might not be pretty and it might even be life-threatening, but it's not necessarily Evil. I think the same thing applies to most "monsters." Dragons, werewolves, trolls, ogres, even most ghosts. Big Foot. The Lochness monster. These things aren't really capital-E evil as much as they are dangerous by nature.

It might be just me, but I think true Evil has to have a purpose. It has to have Evil agency. True Evil isn't a hungry animal or a weather pattern. True Evil is a deliberate choice made in the face of alternatives. Calling zombies Evil would be like saying the AIDS virus is Evil, or mosquitoes or Evil, or in a way, Glenn Beck is Evil (I'm kidding about that last one—he really is Evil).

But then in the world of monsters there are clearly some pretty Evil bastards out there. You can make a case for vampires, of course (although, again, they're parasites so it's back to mosquitoes once more). Demons are clearly evil. And unfortunately, people are frequently Evil.

So I'm sitting there with my notebook, pen poised over the page, and thinking, "Oh shit. Now what?" I have no interest in getting all wrapped up in a philosophical tar pit about the nature of evil and how it affects my little story. I just want to crack a few jokes. But then, the story is looking me in the face and nagging me: "Please, you HAVE to know this, or I'll lack any sort of authentic emotional depth. You've got to figure this out."

Grrr. When was the last time a purely philosophical question hung up your book? What'd you do?


Mark Terry said...

In my MG book Monster Seeker I more or less solved that by having a bad guy who recruited monsters to his army, whereas the Monster Seekers and everyone else at the Monster Seeker Academy trained and worked to either destroy monsters or recruit the recruitable monsters to their side.

Rick Riordan handles it in the Percy Jackson novels by having both a demigod go bad and also to have manipulation by one of the Titans.

Jon VanZile said...


I was thinking a little of Monster Seeker Academy when I was working on it this weekend. I'm about halfway through (I can only read Kindle books on my computer, so I'm reading during breaks) and liking it.

Natasha Fondren said...

I remember thinking, at one point last year, that philosophy would be a better major for writers than English lit or the like.

I'm world-building at the moment. It definitely seems as if every decision I make opens up a thousand more questions. It's starting to get on my nerves.

E. Flanigan said...

Hmm, this is an interesting issue. I agree with your rule that evil requires a deliberate choice in the face of alternatives. So then, I think the question with your monsters would be: which parts of their behavior do they have a choice over?

Might be different with different monsters .... certainly is different depending on the world of the book.

If a being has consciousness—the ability to make choices versus just acting on instinct—then it is capable of evil. At least in the areas in which it makes choices.

So you might be a werewolf, but you don't have to embezzle from your company during non-full moon hours.

Jon VanZile said...


I know the feeling exactly. You get all excited about a new bit of cool world-building, but then the plot can only expand so much to include all these interesting bits. Sometimes I solve that by telling myself I'll just write more than one book.

Jon VanZile said...


Ha ha! Embezzling werewolves! If he was wearing wool, he'd literally be a wolf in sheep's clothing ...