Gobs by BrenochAdamsThe fantasy genre is constantly evolving, new trends spring up, new ideas are explored, and old ones are laid to rest in cliché rich ground. With the recent breed of darker, grittier novels that fill the bestseller charts, packed with morally complex protagonists and warring factions that come in every shade of grey, perhaps the notion of clear sides marked good and evil will be another convention to bite the dust. Given the popularity of such novels, it’s clear the contemporary fantasy reader is responding to the more developed and complicated style of fiction that makes you wonder who to support. But with this drive for a more mature sort of fiction, are we moving away from tradition, away from the typical fantasy convention of the hero and villain? In today’s fantasy genre, is such a simple concept as good and evil outdated?

It’s very difficult to separate the idea of good and evil from the fantasy genre, which can trace its ancestry in stories about brave heroes battling hideous monsters or cruel tyrants. The vast majority of these tales contain a clear good and bad side, be it the hero Beowulf and monster Grendel, or the noble Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. The fantasy genre as we know it began with Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, a series which set out the typical conventions of fantasy – the evil adversary of the dark lord and the band of courageous heroes that is seeking to stop him. The battle lines are clearly drawn between the ugly, vicious orcs as the “bad guys,” set against the handsome and brave alliance of elves and men. There is little doubt in the reader’s mind who they should be rooting for; Tolkien has practically stamped “evil” on the head of the relevant characters.

Mythic Heroes by DenmanRookeThis was a practice followed by a number of fantasy authors; writers like David Eddings and Terry Brooks clad their characters in black and white and let the fantasy ensue. Occasionally there were a few blips in the pattern with anti-hero characters like Moorcock’s cursed swordsman Elric or Wagner’s wandering immortal Kane – protagonists with a darker tone and plotlines veering from the hero’s quest formula. Even so, most fantasy novels kept the “them and us” mentality, and while they explored a number of ideas, the morality of the novels remained largely static.

But then things started to change, with the development of more mature characters came the development of fantasy worlds as a whole. In order to have the protagonists face complex moral choices, the story situation had to adjust. The enemies were humanised more, given motivations and a backstory that made them sympathetic. The reader started to see them as real people, rather than just generic foes to be cut down, they saw that the enemy had their own reasons for what they did, and that they may actually be in the right. One of the earliest examples I’ve found of this type of fiction is Glen Cook’s The Black Company, first published in 1984, where the main character Croaker is part of a mercenary company and very aware he is fighting on the side of evil:

“I am haunted by the Lady’s laughter. I am haunted by my suspicion that we are furthering the cause of something that deserves to be scrubbed from the face of the earth. I am haunted by the conviction that those bent upon the Lady’s eradication are little better than she.” (Cook, 1984, p193)

Cook made the two enemies as bad as each other in his book, but there are other methods that can be used to give the factions a more even footing. In his A Song of Ice and Fire series, Martin takes a different track. While at the start of the series you have the traditionally noble side of the Starks vs. the Lannisters, he is able to develop his characters to such a point where their natures and reasons have been explored enough for the reader to understand their side and avoid classifying them as evil. Martin has villainous characters, sure enough, he has a whole cast of varied personalities across the moral spectrum. But he makes them relatable and human enough that the reader sees them as people rather than stock enemies of “the bad side.”

*Spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire*

Invasion by ManiakSAn example would be his development of Jaime Lannister; in the first book we see Jaime throwing a young boy off a tower to protect the secret of his incest with Cersei, not to mention fighting against the more noble hero character of Eddard Stark. Yet after Caitlyn cuts off his sword hand and Jaime is given POV chapters, the reader comes to know the character more intimately at a time of strife. We get into the psyche of a character that had previously been seen as a monster. We learn about his past with Cersei, and how he felt driven to kill the mad king, thus saving many innocent lives. While the reader may still not choose to side with the character, Jaime becomes more than just a faceless adversary, but someone we can sympathise with.

Martin does this with other characters too, we are nudged towards liking Jaime’s brother Tyrion from the start of the series. This cynical, witty little man provides the only real honest side to the Lannisters in the beginning, and despite being on the “wrong side,” the reader comes to admire him. By populating all sides of his conflict with characters like this, Martin inspires us to support individual people, and stops us from forming biased opinions that one side is good or evil.

*End Spoiler*

It seems that a large portion of new fantasy fiction follows this trend, with authors trying to give their worlds greater moral depth, just take a look at the work of Abercrombie or Lawrence. But it does raise the question of why, have we simply grown tired of traditional convention, is it an outgrowth of our desire for more mature characters, or is there a deeper cultural root?

Eowyn and the Lord of the Nazgul by Donato GiancolaThe fantasy genre has often reflected the strong influences of the time. An example would be the Arthurian tales and other literature based around knights, which was heavily influenced by the church and Christian values. When Tolkien first established fantasy in The Lord of the Rings he was writing during WW2, at that time people had a clear enemy that they saw as “evil.” From their fiction they wanted the same, obvious enemies that twirled their moustaches, battling heroes with proud chins and great hair. There were even those who said that Middle-earth represented the east and west with Mordor and Gondor. Today things may be seen as less clear cut, with threats like terrorism that come from within a country, and concerns about corrupt governments that may diminish our faith in a clear “good side.” Perhaps because our world has grown more complex, less black and white, so too our fiction has evolved to reflect that.

Does that mean the end of our classic contests of good vs. evil? If we no longer have sides, what does that mean for the development of our moral views in how we see the world? Will even the timeless archetypes of the hero and villain be forgotten? It’ll be interesting to see how fantasy develops from here.

lord of valor by chrisnfy85Still, it would appear that the concept of good and evil is not dead yet, there are still some great books that have complex, well developed characters, and still follow the tradition. I recently read Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, the novel featured a brilliant villain, a believable, sympathetic heroine and a host of other fleshed out characters. While it’s slow to establish, the plot develops into a true good vs. evil scenario and the story loses nothing for following convention.

Now I’m a big fan of the new breed of darker fantasy, but Shadow and Bone renewed my faith that such books could still captivate me. And while there are still writers producing work of this quality, perhaps we’ll keep our heroes and villains, because maybe the battle’s not over yet.

Title image by Donato Giancola.


By Aaron Miles

After being told that supervillainy wasn’t an acceptable career path for a young man and that Geek wasn’t a job title, Aaron Miles chose the path of the author and now writes stories where the bad guys win. Having just completed a Masters degree, he is currently searching for a university where he can corrupt young minds, and possibly teach a bit of writing as well. An avid reader, you will likely find him clawing his way out from a literal pile of books because his shelves have buckled under the weight again. These painfully heavy tomes are usually a mix of fantasy, science fiction and horror. If he has managed to break free, odds are he’ll be working on his novel, a short story, or writing pretentiously about himself in the third person.

14 thoughts on “Are Good And Evil Outdated?”
  1. I’ve been immersed in Joe Abercrombie’s writing and I have to say that I very much like what he does with the concepts of good and evil. Everyone is flawed to some degree. Everyone does good and bad things. Certainly Abercrombie is “messing” with the traditional fantasy concepts of wizards and kings and unknown dark forces. It seems he does so with a bit of tongue-in-cheek. However, I do like what it brings to the reader — a very uncomfortable feeling when you find yourself rooting for someone who is a rather bad person.

  2. I don’t think having two sides that are as bad as one another means that Good and Evil don’t exist in a given story or setting; it just means that the attention is on the Evil, and the Less-Evil, and the Good-But-Kind-Of-An-Arsehole that most heroes end up being. Good and Evil was never just about sides, although that was often how it played out for simplicities sake.

    Nor does showing that a character you thought was pure evil is actually sympathetic – like Jaime- necessarily underline the idea, either. I’d contrast Jaime with his sister, Cersei- when we get Jaime’s POV, we realize that- while its a stretch to call him a “good guy”-, he isn’t as bad as we thought; when we get Cersei, however, many people get the impression that she might actually be WORSE than they thought, mostly because she’s not only every bit as bad but she’s also dangerously crazy and stupid.

    Basically, I think its less a case of things not being as simple as Good and Evil, and more a case of Good and Evil not being simple in the first place, even if some older works played it out that way.

    1. I don’t think so. People’s perceptions of good and evil may vary and blur, but good and evil are two distinct things. You also can’t just get rid of them, though I know you’re not saying that, as fantasy is pretty much the only genre where we can explore them in their purest forms. Though fantasy does need more four-dimensional characters rather than the wholly good or pure evil caricatures of days past. That doesn’t mean though that you can’t get interesting characters with a fair amount of depth to them, whom also always do what is right. One of the better examples is Michael Carpenter from the Dresden Files, who I think is a good character. Though too many of them can get quite irritating.

  3. The problem isn’t with “good and evil” as such, but with characters who are wholly good or wholly evil, which is unrealistic and boring. The best combination for stories is to have a sense of good and evil in principle, but with morally complicated characters and situations.

    Characters can only make complex moral choices if there is such thing as morality. If an author just shrugs their shoulders in a fit of postmodernism and tells a story where it’s all relative, all a matter of power and perspective, then personally I find that just as boring as black and white characters who are wholly good or wholly evil. Whether a character’s choices are good or bad, mixed or ambiguous, it’s having a framework of good and evil that makes those choices meaningful.

  4. Joe Abercrombie’s “the blade itself” also takes the concept of black & white values and knocks them into a cocked hat – many sacred cows are killed in this series but done in a very intelligent manner. The character of Glokta is quite dark, but like Tyrion, he becomes quite the hero and not so much a Villain. The character of Bayaz – the traditional wise wizard – turns out to be the most chilling. His reaction to the death and suffering caused by a terrible war is quite something to read.

    I think there is still a place for the older school of fantasy with its clear cut definitions of who and who is not the villain of the piece. It just has to have believable characters. I remember the 80’s for the deluge of “trilogies” that were very hard to get into. Not because the stories were similar – they often were – but you just could not believe the characters or their motivations

  5. Like Caleb, I think there are two issues here. I think we have largely outgrown the shining, noble hero and the cackling villain, but that doesn’t mean fantasy can’t represent better and worse, even if not absolute good and absolute evil. Moral greyness is certainly an interesting area to investigate, but so are flawed characters who overcome their flaws to do the right thing, and potentially decent characters who succumb to their flaws to be selfish and destructive. There’s no reason why fantasy MUST be one thing and never another, whatever that is. There’s room for a whole range of stories.

    Incidentally, I take issue with the tired old myth that fantasy “started with Lord of the Rings”. It didn’t. There were loads of fantasy authors in the first half of the 20th century. Tolkien drew on many of these traditions, but others represented very different approaches, such as Cabell’s anti-heroes. Fantasy is a lot more complex than you represent here.

    1. “I think we have largely outgrown the shining, noble hero and the cackling villain, but that doesn’t mean fantasy can’t represent better and worse, even if not absolute good and absolute evil. Moral greyness is certainly an interesting area to investigate, but so are flawed characters who overcome their flaws to do the right thing, and potentially decent characters who succumb to their flaws to be selfish and destructive. There’s no reason why fantasy MUST be one thing and never another, whatever that is. There’s room for a whole range of stories.”

      I completely agree with this.

      I’d also add that in my view, it’s not so much that fantasy has ‘outgrown’ good vs evil, so much as (to paraphrase an essay I read recently) fantasy is stomping around in its adolescence. Grimdark isn’t really any more sophisticated than what preceded it, it’s just viewed as ‘edgier’ because there is violence and everyone running around being arseholes.

      Complex characters who try and do the right thing without also being terrible people is different again. Hope and optimism aren’t weak things, but require a hell of a lot of strength of character to maintain. It’ll be interesting when fantasy and sci-fi swing back around to that kind of complexity.

  6. Morally ambiguous characters are as old as stories themselves. Glance sideways at pretty much any religion and you’ll find tricksters in there – could be good, could be evil, often treated as both, sometimes seen as neither. Look at Loki! He’s getting the other gods into trouble! What a villain! Oh wait! He’s getting them back out of trouble. That’s all right then. Hell, even Tolkien has a glance in that direction with Tom Bombadil.

    I also wonder about the idea of modern fantasy being more ‘mature’. If the suggestion is that iterative generations of fantasy writing are getting better and better, is that really true? I mean, there was some real dreck written in the 70’s and 80’s, I’ll agree, but there will always be dreck and there will always be the sublime: it feels like a conceit to intimate that writing in the past was in some way immature or undeveloped because it fails to reflect a modern fashion.

  7. I think that there is always going to be a line. Look at Riddick. He’s supposed to be a bad guy yet even he puts a limit on what he’ll do. He likes children and I doubt he’d hurt them.

    Also, I think authors and directors realize now that people aren’t always shining heroes, they’re humans with problems. They want to make them more realistic.

  8. I’ll admit here to skipping much of the article and comments to avoid the risk of running across spoilers (yes, I’m only three books into “Fire and Ice” and don’t want to ruin it). At the risk of repeating any other comments, I tend to believe that good and evil won’t die out as main themes in fantasy literature. Rather, I think that we’re seeing more complex themes due to the sheer number of novels that are published these days. You have a lot of authors who are more willing (and more free to) abandon convention to explore alternative ideas, blurred lines between antagonist and protagonist and different perceptions of what it means to be good or evil. Yes, real life is rendered in all possible shades of grey, but I can’t fathom a fantasy genre that doesn’t at least revisit good and evil, with the “dark lord” and “handsome hero” fairly often moving forward. It is, however, exciting to see these ideas at least challenged and it’s great when a novel or series works out without these classic elements in place.

  9. Great article! I wrote about the same subject on my blog a couple of months ago. Fantasy fiction is evolving, and the theme of good versus evil is evolving as well. That’s why we’re seeing the likes of Martin, Abercrombie and others mixing it up a bit. I think most readers, as we grow older, want to see more of a “realistic” portrayal of good and evil, because we know that it’s more complicated than the classic portrayal—which was neat when we were kids—but seems much more elementary after experiencing more in life.

    I don’t believe good and evil in and of itself will become outdated in the genre, but it will certainly morph into something a little more believable (or raw in some extreme cases).

  10. Like it or not, genre has always been about good and evil although the characters have become more complex. That’s part of the reason that genre is so popular. People want to believe that good, no matter how tarnished, can defeat the dark shit.

    In the Eighties, during the great rise of the horror novel, most authors tossed aside the belief that good will overcome evil. The evil characters were super powerful, and the force of evil was always present. The good characters had no force of good on their side, and they always failed despite their nobility.

    Beyond the glut of the market and the influx of really poor writers, this is the primary reason that horror failed to hold onto its dominance and disappeared for many years. The only exceptions were writers like King, Straub, and Koontz who were not only excellent writers, but also gave the good enough strength to be a worthy opponent to the dark and gave the good characters a small but significant victory.

    This is a lesson in readers and what they want that fantasy authors should pay attention to.

  11. I think the place of good and evil in fantasy often reflects the general “moral mood” in the present world. For Tolkien (as much as he denied an allegory in his work), his time had evil that was very visible and present in the persons of Hitler and Stalin and all the rest, war that was near to his own country, and people who had to band together to resist very real and threatening tyranny. In our time, wars are far off and ambiguous, what evil we see occurs in our own politicians and on our own streets. Moral ambiguity is brought home to us and we have no “evil empire” to point to as being a much darker alternative. That doesn’t mean that good and evil are outdated at all. I think there’s lots of room in fantasy for “moral” protagonists; in fact, I’m sure that soon someone will come along and write a fantastic novel set in a grim-dark world, following the exploits of a singularly moral individual as a deconstruction of current trends, and the cycle will begin anew – tends to happen in other genres as well.

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