On Writing: Good vs Good

The best stories don’t come from “good vs. bad” but “good vs. good.”
~ Leo Tolstoy

One problem writers have is determining what thematic conflict to use in a story. Stories can universally be classified according to theme, the most common of which is good vs. bad. Since the inception of literature as an oral form, themes revolved around the hero, who eventually epitomized things a culture considered good, and the enemy or villain, who eventually represented what was bad or evil in a culture. Hence, the clansman who returned with a bear or a lion was the hero who brought home food to the clan while defeating the predatory, monstrous, man-killing beast, which came to represent evil. The hero could be the warrior who defeated the leader of an aggressive tribe or the mother who saved her child from the threatening rapids of a swollen river. It’s not difficult to see how attributes of good and evil can be assigned to the character elements involved. These characteristics were transferred to different characters, including the popular animal characters in fables.   Fast forward to contemporary literature of the 21st century. As early as the latter half of the 20th century, the term “hero” was replaced with “protagonist” and the “enemy” or “villain” was called the “antagonist”. This most likely had to do with the influence of a growing political correctness that demanded a greater sensitivity to the use of derogatory terms. It suited literature well because, quite often, the antagonist could not be defined because of the very familiar man vs nature conflict. Also, because the enemy might not be nature but also might not be human, what used to be man vs beast soon became man vs other, the “other” being anything from beast to monster to alien to technology, e.g., machines, robots, and computers. The rise of anti-heroes and reluctant heroes as very real characters also made it easier for literature to adopt the “protagonist” label—the central character in the story, around whom the plot develops. The concept of the anti-hero fits well with the idea that not all struggles or conflicts are between good and evil. This was a simplistic way of looking at the world proposed by religion: anyone who followed the church and its rules was good, anyone who did not was bad; by extension, any character who practiced the values espoused by religion was good. As such, characters were written with characteristics of what was considered good and righteous, or strove to achieve those traits. The moralistic tale Pilgrim’s Progress was just that: a Christian’s journey through temptations and tests that strengthen his Christian faith and values. Realistic literature later on dispensed with the notion that characters were either good or bad, instead revealing the inner workings of the human psyche. In truth, good people sometimes do bad things and bad people also do good things. That’s the reality: people are complex. So when complex people are portrayed facing complex situations that mimic real life and encounter other characters who are just as complex, literature suddenly becomes much more interesting and exciting. I still believe people are basically good. Those who are truly evil have mental and psychological aberrations as a result of some faulty wiring in their synapses that prevent them from deriving satisfaction of pleasure from positive experiences. The basically good ones are those who face reality, encounter other good people and don’t always agree in varying degrees. It’s those little conflicts from day to day heightened to literary proportions that give writers a bottomless reservoir to draw from.

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