The Case For Blurring the Lines Between Good and Evil
Deconstructing Bestselling Novels, One Doodle at a Time.
When I struggled to identify what made for a meaningful Good vs. Evil theme, I turned to The Dark Knight to deconstruct how Batman delivered his complex brand of ethics.
Now we are going to use what we learned as a framework for analyzing the same theme in Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone, Twilight, and The Hunger Games.
Let’s examine 5 ways these bestselling novels blur the lines between who’s a “good guy” and who’s a “bad guy” to make a more powerful theme.
Recap: Good & Evil Characters in The Dark Knight
|Main Character||Hero: Batman (vigilante)||Villain: The Joker (terrorist)|
|Main Character’s Helpers|
Wise one: Alfred
Mentor: Lucius Fox
|Henchmen: Unnamed, mentally unstable recruits|
|Authority Figures||Justice Authorities: Commissioner Gordon and DA Harvey Dent.||Criminal Authorities: Mob bosses (representing various groups of mobsters)|
|Enforcement||Good enforcement: low-level cops; Detective Ramirez||Criminal enforcement: low-level mobsters|
|Members of Society||Good Society: Rachel Dawes (love interest), batman-impersonators, and other civilians.||Bad Society: Blackmailer and inmates|
I organized the characters from Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone, The Hunger Games, and Twilight into the same categories of characters.
Good & Evil Characters in Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone
Just as we saw in The Dark Knight, there is conflict between these characters going horizontally across the chart and also vertically.
|Main Character||Harry Potter||Voldemort|
|Main Character’s Helpers||Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger||Professor Quirrell|
|Authority Figures||Albus Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall||Professor Snape; Filch|
|Enforcement||Hagrid||Draco Malfoy, Crabbe, Goyle|
|Members of Society||Gryffindor||Slytherin|
Good & Evil Characters in The Hunger Games
This theme is especially interesting in The Hunger Games, when being evil (killing other tributes) is a necessary and expected part of the game.
|Main Character||Katniss Everdeen||President Snow|
|Main Character’s Helpers||Peeta Mellark, Cinna||Cato|
|Authority Figures||Haymitch Abernathy; Effie Trinket||The Gamemakers|
|Enforcement||Allies or non-aggressive tributes (Rue, Thresh, Fox Face)||Career Tributes|
|Members of Society||The Districts; Gale; Prim||The Capitol; Caesar Flickerman|
Good & Evil Characters in Twilight
This structure was more difficult to apply to Twilight. The “villain” James doesn’t appear until the end of the book. I thought that the main antagonist slot should be filled by Edward, since he is Bella’s dangerous obsession for most of the novel.
|Main Character’s Helpers||Jacob||Alice, Jasper|
|Authority Figures||Chief Swan (Bella’s Dad)||James|
|Enforcement||Billy Black||Laurent; Victoria|
|Members of Society||Other students (Angela, Mike, Lauren, Jessica, Tyler); Bella’s mom||Other vampires (Dr. Cullen, Esme, Rosalie, Emmett)|
5 Ways to Blur the Lines Between Good & Evil
So what can we extract from these charts? The unifying theme between all these books is that the authors make rather messy boundaries between who is good and who is evil. Here are five key points that we can apply to our own novels.
1. The hero doesn’t know which characters to trust.
First, even if we as writers know very clearly who the “bad guys” are, it should take longer for the hero and the reader to figure it out. In The Dark Knight, there are many dirty cops who work both for the police force and the mob.
- Harry Potter assumes that Snape is evil, not Prof. Quirrell.
- Katniss assumes that Peeta is trying to kill her, even when they are working together.
- Bella explains that there is a part of Edward that thirsts for her blood (but she is not sure “how dominant that part might be”).
2. The hero clashes with good authority figures.
There aren’t just two sides in the hero’s battle. Instead, there are “tiers” of good characters– and these characters have different motivations. In The Dark Knight, we saw the conflict between Batman’s vigilante status and the traditional justice system.
- Even though Prof. McGonagall is good, she is still in charge of disciplining Harry Potter and the Gryffindors. Her motivation is to follow the school rules.
- Haymitch is in charge of mentoring Katniss, but they have their own conflicts, especially when Haymitch insults Katniss’s interview skills. His motivation is to keep the tributes alive (as long as it doesn’t interfere with his drinking).
- In Twilight, Billy Black is in charge of his tribe, which includes making sure that the vampires don’t break their pact and harm any humans. Billy Black conflicts with Bella when he is worried that Edward will turn her into a vampire. He is motivated to protect human life.
3. Other good characters conflict with each other.
It isn’t all about the hero! In The Dark Knight, Commissioner Gordon and DA Harvey Dent struggle with their relationship. Just like in real life, the hero is aware of conflict around him between the people in his life, even if he’s not directly involved.
- Hagrid accidentally betrays Dumbledore by telling a stranger how to get past the guard dog Fluffy.
- Effie Trinket is embarrassed and disgusted by Haymitch’s drunken behavior.
- Billy Black keeps a secret from his good friend Chief Swan by not tattling on Bella for dating a vampire.
4. The villain cannot control every bad guy.
In a perfectly evil world, the villain would have complete control over his henchmen, and no one else to worry about. But just as The Dark Knight‘s Joker has to deal with mafia goons, our villains struggle to keep all the bad guys in line. After all, it’s hard to keep an evil character perfectly loyal.
- The reader understands that President Snow is displeased by the Gamemakers when they allow both Peeta and Katniss to win The Hunger Games.
- Harry Potter overhears Prof. Quirrell crying due to his conflicting feelings about serving Voldemort.
- In Twilight, Laurent breaks away from his coven leader James. Laurent warns the Cullen family that James will hunt down Bella.
5. The hero hurts those closest to him, and society turns on the hero.
In an “all is lost” sort of moment, it seems like everyone has turned his back on the hero. Even though the outcome of his final battle will affect everyone, the hero must fight it alone.
- In Harry Potter, Gryffindor House as a group is angry with Harry for losing so many house points (after he got caught while helping with Hagrid’s dragon).
- In The Hunger Games, the reader understands that Gale will be hurt by Katniss after she acted in love with Peeta on TV.
- In Twilight, Bella must emotionally hurt her dad in order to protect him from the evil vampires.
Why it Works
A powerful theme of good and evil emerges when readers grapple with the moral issues themselves.
Is it okay that Katniss killed other tributes? Is it fine that Edward Cullen might take Bella’s mortality? Should Harry Potter just do what his teachers tell him to do?
The secret is not to shove good and evil down anyone’s throat– a strong theme comes from realism, and in real life people act within a spectrum of good and evil.
Let’s put five index cards in the master outline to remind us about our theme, but it really should be present in just about every chapter in some way. Head over to the master outline to check it out.
What do you think? Does your novel use a theme of good vs. evil?
More novels on Betternovelptoject
Collins, Suzanne (2009-09-01). The Hunger Games. Scholastic Inc. Kindle Edition. (“HG”).
Meyer, Stephenie (2007-07-18). Twilight (The Twilight Saga). Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Kindle Edition. (“TW”).
Rowling, J.K. (2012-03-27). Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Book 1). Pottermore Limited. Kindle Edition. (“HP”).
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