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I feel I've been missing something lately... more evil!

A writer – and extensive reader – of modern fiction recently commented to me sadly about the absence of clarity they felt from reading novels that blurred the line between protagonist and antagonist.


They loved the sharpness of the edges between who is good and who is evil. That this fierce dichotomy added intensity to tales of love, friendship, daring, sacrifice and loss (let’s not forget betrayal) among those fighting on the side of the good.


Think of The Lord of the Rings (first in 1937), The Chronicles of Narnia (first in 1950), Harry Potter (first in 1997).


I’ll come back to this, but it’s well known that Harry Potter was a close-run thing: it was rejected by pretty much every British publisher, for reasons that range across too conventional, too long, too weird, too old-fashioned, too exclusive (the whole English boarding school thing).


One other thing these books have in common is that they were all very successful. 600 million Harry Potter books sold, the most of any work of fiction of all time. That’s close to as many copies sold as the Qu’ran, but lagging somewhat the Bible’s estimated 5 billion copies (the bible, of course, features a well-known evil-doer and his nemesis).

So, why aren’t there more modern books with a strong storyline around good and evil? I have a few thoughts on this.

That books like Lord of the Rings, Narnia and Harry Potter are for sophisticated readers who don’t understand the world isn’t black and white, good and evil – that the world is full of greys? I don’t think so at all, even if these are largely aimed at children. I love the Lord of the Rings and Narnia (don’t get me started on Harry Potter) and they’re not at all unsophisticated, with well-developed, if not brilliant, main characters.


That readers want more complex true-to-life characters who are a mixture of good, mistakenly well-intentioned, ill-intentioned and sometimes flat-out evil? Serial killers who are charming, evil geniuses with a tear-jerking backstory? That readers want internal conflict, they want reality. Is that perhaps what the publishers were thinking when they rejected Harry Potter for being too conventional and old-fashioned?


That the world’s already so full of horrors – we can easily doomscroll through terrible crimes against humans, equally awful crimes against our planet, the evils that come out of the blue – that we don’t want it around when we read for pleasure? (There was a recent news report about a man killed by a car while helping a duck cross a road – who they hell wants to read that! But isn’t writing about this, reading about this, a way of processing those horrors?)

Perhaps we don’t really see the evil around us, our eyes are closed? Narnia was grounded in the appalling experiences of the second world war, helped a generation understand those evils. It seems evil isn’t as stark and immediate today as it was back then. Maybe that’s our loss, as both writers and readers.


But don’t we want our eyes to be open? Don’t we want to be on the side of good? Don’t we want to fight evil?


If nothing else, as you conceptualize your next story, your next novel, think about good and evil. Think about the sharp relief between the two. Could that drive your storyline and the development of your main characters?


I know of at least one reader who’d appreciate that, and maybe you’ll be as fortunate as J.K. Rowling.

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