Managing Evil in FictionApr 18, 2021
From the Desk of Polly Ho-Yen.
How do we ‘manage’ evil in the stories we are telling?
Writing for children means I often write with children. When I’m running writing workshops in schools, I have the pleasure of hearing the hugely inventive story ideas stewing in children’s heads, first hand. They’ll tell me their premise – a group of chickens take over the world, a scientist creates a formula that turns people into robots, a banana goes on a rampage - and I’ll ask why? Why do the chickens take over, why does the professor do this, why does a banana decide one day, enough is enough...? The typical response I’ll get, with an 'isn’t it obvious' shrug, is: ‘Because they’re evil.’
We feed children tales of good versus evil from an early age, through fairy tales and superhero stories. ‘The Baddie’ has become shorthand for evil, and children are incredibly familiar with the concept and more than confident to employ it in their own story writing. It’s us, adult writers, who hesitate when we turn our attention to the subject.
If we’re writing for children, should we encourage children to view characters, and therefore people, as evil? Is there a limit to the kind of evil that young readers can handle and how can you tell when evil is ‘necessary’ within your story for a reader of any age? How will evil be managed in a story and what’s the best way to approach ‘a baddie’ meeting their comeuppance? And, if you’re writing for adults, are the same considerations relevant?
When I wrote my debut middle-grade novel, ‘Boy in the Tower’ – my premise being ‘The Day of the Triffids’ for children – I unwittingly side-stepped a lot of issues around evil as the central driving force of the story. The building-destroying ‘blucher’ plants in my book, have no motivation other than to survive and reproduce. They’re not evil, they’re just plants. It just so happens that their presence is contrary to modern living – London is destroyed by the bluchers growing, spreading and taking hold.
But there’s a part of the story to which some of my young readers are drawn which touches on a darker example of the human experience. Children often want to know more about Ade’s mum. Ade, the young boy who narrates the story, describes how his mum is not like others because she’s not able to go outside. He ends up caring for her more than he should do at his tender age, and when the bluchers take over, he decides to stay with his mum in their tower block rather than leave, as everyone else is doing. My readers ask me what happened to her: how did Ade’s mum get into the position where leaving her home makes her so fearful, it feels impossible for her to do?
In my mind, Ade’s mum had been the victim of a random attack and this triggered an episode of poor mental health which led to her developing agoraphobia. I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to include the details of the attack and wondered if it was too dark, too close to elements of evil behaviour, for a middle-grade readership. It’s always worth cross-questioning yourself about any element of the plot: Is this important to the story that I want to tell?
I like to consider this question in two parts – first, is it essential to the plot? If the behaviour or event feels a shade ‘too evil’ for the readership, are there alternative routes that will still serve the plot? Second, is it important to the story that you want to tell?
This is when you, the author, have to dig into what your story means for you. It might be that killing this particular darling doesn’t alter the way that you feel about your story or it might be a sticking point. It’s worth asking yourself why it is a sticking point, if that’s where you end up. Sometimes by digging there, you discover what's foundational and what's more like a stud wall.
In ‘Boy in the Tower’, the storyline of the attack was something that personal to me as this kind of attack had happened to someone very close to me; a random assault, with no explanation for why it had happened. There was a part of me that wanted to write about it because it was a terrifying experience that had left an impact. But I also felt that it did a huge amount of critical work addressing character and why Ade and his mum become trapped in the tower when the bluchers take over. The more I interrogated the storyline, the more I felt sure this was the story that I wanted to tell.
In my first draft, I didn’t write in any clues about what had happened to Ade’s mum. I imagined the backstory off-page but was wary about how to deliver it. When my editor asked me to consider including a little more, I decided to write in a scene of Ade’s mum coming home injured and added in a conversation where she mentions it that Ade overhears. As I was telling the story entirely from Ade’s perspective, I was able to benefit from the bonus of a limited first-person narrative - that he doesn’t understand what’s happening to his mum and so the reader gets the same limited information. I purposefully wrote these additional scenes in sparse detail. I still wondered about including the additions but my editor and I judged that by giving just a hint of what happened, we’d leave the reader to make the decision about what they thought had occurred. When I talk to children about these scenes, I feel that this was the right decision. Some of them hit on it and we can then discuss what’s happening; while others read past it, they know they don’t want to linger there.
Though I was writing for children, I was reminded of the same technique when I read Meg Hunter’s cli-fi debut ‘The End We Start From’ - a story of a first-time mother who gives birth as floodwaters enclose around London. Interspersed with lyrical excerpts of early motherhood, the narrator relates disturbing events that unfold as life changes for everyone and the race for survival pushes people to their darker side. Hunter writes about this so sparingly that as the reader you sense that the protagonist can’t quite face the awfulness of what she’s experiencing:
‘Panic. Crush. G. Panicked. Crushed.’
‘I want to write about the checkpoint quickly. Get it over with.
I found that filling in these blanks, in my reading of this story, made me feel quite unnerved as I too didn’t want to fully imagine the reality of this.
So, if there’s a darker element of evil in play that you feel is doing important work, you can allow the reader to fill in the blanks by design; employ a limited first-person narrative or even a close third and keep details measured to handle difficult circumstances with sensitivity. Hand the power over to the reader to take it further - or not.
There was an additional factor at play that I believe helped ‘Boy in the Tower’ feel manageable for a child reader - the blucher plants. I was writing a world like our world but the blucher plants were the difference. This fantastical, sci-fi element flagged it firmly as fiction and so acted as a kind of safety shield for the portrayal of the dark events that unfold.
Look at some of the most famous antagonists, the all-time great forces of evil - Lord Voldemort of ‘Harry Potter’, the White Witch of ‘Narnia’, Sauron of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ – and note that they all appear through the lens of fantasy. This allows for a clear distancing from the reader’s real world; though these characters are frightening, you’re not going to meet them on your local high street. They’re otherworldly and the reader is therefore subconsciously protected from them. Only in the later Harry Potter books does Voldemort starts to cross over into the Muggle world and then the threat really starts to feel terrifying in a way that the earlier books where Voldemort was contained to Hogwarts and the wizarding world never did.
A further development in the later Harry Potter books is how much we learn about Voldemort. In the early books, he feels more of a one-dimensional ‘baddie’ but in the final books, we learn his story, we see him as a child and we come face to face with the events that led to him becoming the Dark Lord. We come to understand why he chose his path. Interestingly the new live-action Disney movie this year is not ‘The Hundred and One Dalmatians’ but ‘Cruella.’ It’s all about how a young, talented grifter named Estelle becomes the villainous Cruella de Vil. (Similarly, Joker, the movie, deals with the development of the baddie in Batman.)
The attackers in ‘Boy in the Tower’ don’t appear on the page and I don’t give any detail about why they did what they did. But, as with the real-life attack of my close friend, my mind wanders to fill in the blanks here too – I imagine what would lead someone to violence of that kind: what pressures were they under, what was their state of mind, their history? I’m not sure I’m actually a fan of creating straight-up antagonists in my middle-grade fiction but if there are characters who act upon their dark side, I’m interested in exploring what got them there as J.K. Rowling did for Voldemort. Returning to asking yourself ‘why?’ is the most useful exercise when you’re testing a story idea and/or a character for holes. OK, the chicken/ scientist/ banana is evil – but why are they evil? How did they get there?
Turning to an example of how evil behaviours are explored and explained in adult fiction, I’d like to consider my fellow tutor at The Novelry Harriet Tyce’s superb debut ‘Blood Orange’ – a gripping domestic noir thriller that’s sold over five hundred thousand copies to date. In ‘Blood Orange,’ we see how acting upon dark desires and impulses becomes a driving force for both the antagonist and the protagonist, Alison. From the first scene, the reader is questioning the ‘goodness’ of Alison. On a night out, she is unable to resist ‘one more drink,’ then the lure of an affair and is found by her husband and young daughter passed out in her desk chair at her office the next morning. I don’t want to give anything away but let me just say the reason behind her behaviours feel fully understandable as the truth behind what was happening to Alison is finally revealed.
The ‘reveal’ for many thrillers is often the unveiling of the identity of the antagonist and the reader needs to acclimatise evil with a character that until that point seemed perhaps beyond reproach. Again, without spoiling this read for you, ‘Blood Orange’ handles this masterfully not only by the tight plotting and rich characterisation but by Alison’s consideration of this metamorphosis:
“I never saw the shadow in him, not until it was too late. What I’ll never know is how long it was lurking before it started to take form and emerge from the darkness.”
I think there needs to be some consideration of why evil has risen up in a character to make a story stronger and plausible - even if, in my case with ‘Boy in the Tower,’ it happens off-page. As with any character that we create, understanding their motivations fully is what will make them feel truly real and understandable to a reader.
Isn't this, after all, how we process 'evil' as we mature? Can we lead our readers through the process and help the abhorrent become more manageable? Is that not, essentially and at heart, part of the larger purpose of fiction, to 'only connect'?
One final aspect of ‘Blood Orange’ I want to mention is the way that the antagonist meets their comeuppance. It’s entirely linked to what they were inflicting upon their victim and though it perhaps couldn’t be further away, genre-wise put me in mind of the brilliant denouement of the fantastic antagonists created by Roald Dahl. Dahl created characters that may have shades of caricature but who certainly could be real, possibly you could meet them on your high street, and it is through a combination of humour but ultimately their comeuppance that Dahl handles evil within his stories. Their undoing goes hand in hand with the evil we encounter from them. Call it perfect justice, the author gets to plays God.
The Twits in Roald Dahl are a vile pair who meet their end because they are fooled into doing a never-ending headstand – the treatment they were forcing upon the monkey family to make their upside-down circus. Miss. Trunchbull is made to feel the same level of fear which she inflicted upon all the children at her school. And note how in the stories that involve children being seriously injured or fatalities, fantasy looms again: The High Witch is turned into a mouse, the children-guzzling giants are imprisoned with only snozzcumbers to eat.
A satisfying punishment for an evil antagonist therefore often means exposing their weakness which they’ve previously been wielding as a weapon. For instance, in ‘The Hundred and One Dalmatians’, Cruella De Vil’s obsession for fur and her utter disregard for life drives her to steal dalmatians to make the ultimate fur coat. But by the end, the dogs escape and destroy every single fur she owns. She flees in search of a warmer climate; she is literally unable to find warmth anymore - anywhere or from anyone.
I’ll leave you with one more example: a Young Adult book, Kevin Brook’s devastating and deeply affecting ‘The Bunker Diary’ which breaks the mould on every front. It won the Carnegie Medal in 2014 and caused waves for the shocking nature of its story. I mention it here thinking about the upper limits of how evil is portrayed and how Brooks approaches this. In ‘The Bunker Diary,’ a group of six people, including a teenager and a nine-year-old are kidnapped and then trapped in a bunker. There are places where Brooks leans towards sparse detail in his writing to effect and it is written in first person but there’s no element of fantasy here. We never meet the person who’s inflicting the torture upon this group, let alone understand them and they do not meet any kind of reckoning at all. Clearly, this was the story that Brooks wanted to tell. It took him a decade to get published and he says of this journey: "I knew I could have got the book published years ago if I'd rewritten it - toned it down, changed the ending, explained a lot of unexplained things - but to me that would have meant writing a different book, a book that I didn't want to write."
As I turned the final pages of ‘The Bunker Diary’ and it became clear that an escape would not be likely, I was struck by how the kindness that the characters display towards each other felt more than poignant, it was powerful. Far more powerful in fact than the inherent evil in the actions of the faceless ‘Man Upstairs’ who had engineered the situation.
“Fairy tales do not tell children dragons exist. Children already know the dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.”
Without the presence of an element of evil within a story, we would also be without the transformative power of goodness. We’d be unable to explore how the qualities of selflessness, kindness and connection act as evil’s antidote. As in ‘The Bunker Diary’ this doesn’t mean something mawkish in the least – it’s at its most affecting when we are shown it simply, through the actions of characters towards one another in the face of, and in spite of, a great evil.
Perhaps it's Brooks gritty exploration of evil in ‘The Bunker Diary’ that demonstrates his strength as a writer and won him the Carnegie Medal.
Consider too this last thought about the management of evil in stories from one of our writers here at The Novelry, Kate Harvey:
“We all need to shine a light into our shadow side. It’s the only way to release ourselves from it, and stop acting from it. Bringing it into awareness it can be harnessed, rather than acted from - and put in books. It is often the supposed squeaky cleanest of us all that often end up the most perturbing: politicians, priests, police, lawyers - they want to maintain the good image to others and to themselves (or god) but sometimes at great cost to others as the shadow remains out of awareness. They are not whole but split. The unaddressed shadow side will still sneak out. I’m a therapist and the worst therapists are the ones who have not done work on their shadow side (although that's why they make us have lots of therapy!) I suspect it’s the same for writers.”
Facing up to our shadow sides through writing is an incredibly valuable tool for life. It might sometimes appear as a convenient plot device to drive story forwards (and it does!) but it also helps us to manage and face the evil tendencies that lie within us all.
Our handling of evil in stories gives us the opportunity to handle these behaviours in ourselves and others.
- Interrogate your plot by asking yourself: is this important to the story that I want to tell?
- Handle dark elements by employing techniques to allow readers to ‘fill in the blanks’: limited first person or close third-person narratives and giving purposefully spare detail
- Ask yourself how and why a character becomes ‘evil’
- Fantasy can be used as a safeguard to explore the actions of evil characters
- Consider how an evil antagonist might meet their undoing through their own design
- Address the balance – here’s the evil, so where’s the good?
Whether you're writing for children, young adults or adults, enjoy the wise advice and encouragement of our tutor Polly Ho-Yen when you work side by side on your story with an author at The Novelry.