Understanding Evil: Why a Writer Should Search for Good in a Bad Character

Charlottesville, Virginia.  Saturday August 12th, 2017.  

A white nationalist in a grey Dodge Charger rammed his car into a crowd of activists at a counter protest against the alt right movement, themselves protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, a prominent confederate general in the American Civil War.  One counter protester died after being struck by the car, and the driver was found and charged with second degree murder by the Charlottesville Police Department.  Anger flared in the wake of this tragedy and hate was met with hate on the streets of Charlottesville. 

Seeing the events unfold through the eyes of a writer, I wondered what could possess a person to kill another simply for standing for different principles.  I watched the news and created scenarios in my mind of the man behind the wheel.  Maybe he was abused and only knew violence as a child.  Maybe he was taught to hate the other from a young age.  Or maybe the man who struck the crowd in his car grew up in a loving home but fell in with the wrong crowd growing up.  I would never know, but that didn’t stop my mind from pacing between stories.

One of the hallmarks of bad writing is the creation of characters that are perfect archetypes, caricatures with no backstory or reason but to push plot by sticking to their simplistic script (i.e. the bad man with the moustache that ties the girl to the train tracks, or the perfect prince charming used to rescue the damsel in distress).  These crude narratives of absolute good and evil take away from the humanity of a character which is far more complex and demands story and reason for the creation of a monster.  People are rarely, if ever, simply born evil.  But how do you find good in a person that hates another simply for their ethnicity?  And more importantly, why would anyone choose to look to understand a monster? 

My mother taught me why*.

My parents faced a good deal of discrimination in Egypt because of their Coptic faith.  My mother once told me a story of her high school days in Egypt.  Sixteen years old at the time, her sister gave her a glass cross that sparkled and shined different colours as light hit it from various angles.  My mother thought it was beautiful, but it also singled her out in her school which had very few Christians.

Though most of her friends were Muslims and did not care what religion she belonged to, there were certain people within that school that did.  Her veiled history teacher was one of them.

Ms. Afaf did not have much respect for my mother.  My mother was a hard worker and very intelligent, but she consistently got bad grades in her course.  She didn’t bother stating her opinions in class because her history teacher would ridicule her words in front of her classmates.  Worst of all, whenever the history teacher taught of the exploits of the Crusaders during the first and second Crusade – their wholesale murder and pillaging of Egypt and the Middle East, the indulgences in heaven promised by priests to laymen, the church taking money to grant the forgiveness of sins etc. – she looked straight into the eyes of my mother as if to place the collective guilt of her religion’s past on her. 

“Still, I liked her,” my mother said as she relayed the story to me.

“Why?  She hated you for no reason.”

“Yes but I knew her story.  She was raising a little boy on her own after her husband died.  She was under a lot of stress.”

I really couldn’t see how the teacher’s hate for my mother because of her religion had anything to do with her dead husband, but I sat and listened.

One day as Ms. Afaf taught, a few girls sitting by the window spotted something on the streets.

“Teacher!” they yelled pointing to the road.  “Teacher!  A boy was just hit by a car!”

The teacher turned around and faced the window.

“Oh God don’t let it be my son!” she yelled as she scrambled towards the window.

“Don’t say that teacher!  God forbid!” my mother cried as she watched Ms. Afaf run.  My mother didn’t mean to say those words.  They jumped out of her mouth before she could think them through.  It was as if my mother absorbed her teacher’s fear as she watched her search for her boy, the only link she had to her deceased husband, through the window. 

Ms. Afaf looked outside, saw the boy was not her son, breathed and turned around.  She looked for the voice of the girl that cried to her in her panic and set her wide eyes on my mother, mouth agape as if processing something above her understanding.

“I’ll never forget her face,” my mother told me.  “She couldn’t believe it.”

The teacher never spoke to her about the incident after it happened, but it’s effects were immediately apparent.  My mother started receiving marks she didn’t deserve, her opinions were valued and applauded during class when she spoke, and above all, the teacher’s cold condemning tone changed.  The anger, resentment and deep-seated prejudice died, trampled on fertile ground, to make way for a blossoming respect and understanding.

I’d heard the saying love your enemies many times, but this was the first moment in my life I understood what that meant. 

True love is destructive. Like a sword, it’s blade slices through the sinew of our intolerance and pierces our prejudice and we find our old hate in pieces before us, dead with the person we once were and alive in ourselves a new creation.

This humanization of the other, even the one that hates you, is necessary both for writers and for the general public.  Searching to understand your created characters, even the very evil, gives them life and reason and an ability to change.  Otherwise, they become cold lifeless caricatures used as pawns to progress plot.  This makes for bad writing. 

Likewise, working to understand our enemies often breaks down our own hate first.  This is the beginning of true love, the kind that considers the other above ourselves.  If this love has its way, the result can and often spreads – the best kind of epidemic.



* A dramatized version of this story can be found in my book of short stories, A Face Like the Moon, out early 2018