Evil in the Story

The other day I listened to a podcast in which several writers discuss death in fiction—or, more specifically, “killing” their characters. This reminded me of something I have thought about in the past, and it’s this:

Writers introduce all kinds of evil into their stories. They do this because they are imitating the real world, which contains all kinds of evil, and because they are part of the world, and sinful—and so they enjoy some types of evil, too (we all do). But the aim of any artist must be to make the creation good; sometimes that involves introducing evil. That’s kind of odd, but it’s true. It’s a fact, for instance, that stories would be uninteresting without conflict, without characters being unable to get what they want, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, without at least some small problem that can’t immediately be solved. They wouldn’t even really be stories; they would lack the shape that is necessary to make a story. Sometimes the good shape of a story does demand that a character die tragically. In this respect the artist is godlike in relation to her work; she can seen the shape of the whole, and how parts that are ugly in themselves contribute to the beauty of that shape.

It’s easy to come up with examples of tragedies where suffering and death produce a satisfyingly shaped story. I’m generally a fan of happy endings, but Hamlet has always been my favourite Shakespeare play. Even a well constructed murder mystery—especially the kind where the detective tracks down the murderer and then wishes he hadn’t—can have some of this quality. It’s also easy to think of examples of stories where the writer doesn’t pull this off, and instead ends up looking like a despotic and arbitrary god in relation to his created world. (I felt Tess of the D’Urbervilles was a prime example of this when I read it years ago.) Mostly I think this comes about because the author’s idea of a good shape is just different from yours. Or the author’s aim might be to communicate, through harsh and arbitrary events, the message that life is harsh and arbitrary. You can write a formless story deliberately, and you can do so as a deliberate reflection of a life that looks formless and without meaning. But if you do, it is likely that most people—whatever they believe about the shape of our actual story and the existence or benevolence of its Author—will hate it. People tend to like stories with a satisfying shape, because we can’t see the shape of our own; well, you wouldn’t expect one of the characters in the story to be able to.

Except of course that sometimes they do. That’s another great thing about fiction: not only can you see the shape of the whole from the outside, but the individual parts can have an awareness of that whole too. Historical characters can reflect presciently on their legacy or the importance of their actions; tragic characters can be resigned to their fates. And, in fact, there have been lots of real people who have lived with such an apparently clear sense of their own role and purpose that they have been able to risk and endure things that the average person would do anything to avoid.

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