good story
Storytelling Content Creation

Is Evil Necessary for a Good Story?

8 Minute Read

Darth Vader, Lex Luthor, Lord Voldemort, Satan, Dr. Evil: these are among the most iconic, enduring, and popular characters ever to appear in literature, film, and television. It is difficult to imagine many of our favorite stories without these personifications of evil. But is evil a fundamental ingredient of a good story? To answer this, we first need to understand what we mean by the word evil.

Gustave Doré, illustration to Paradise Lost, book IX, 179–187

Supernatural Evil

The monsters of fiction celebrated at Halloween are paradigms of supernatural evil. Beings such as vampires, witches, demons, ghosts, and werewolves have unnatural abilities that defy explanation and are the stuff of nightmares. But many of us don’t believe in supernatural evil anymore. (For example, when George W. Bush described Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as an axis of evil, to many it seemed crass and inappropriate, rather than deeply terrifying or believable.)

Some stories rely on supernatural evil while others don’t—so supernatural evil is not essential for a good story. But this is not the only kind of evil. In the secular sense, evil can refer to something harmful or undesirable, anything from a bad smell to a nuclear war. So we need to be more specific. Where did the idea of good and evil come from?

Origins of Evil

Charles Darwin suggested that morality, a uniquely human trait, is a byproduct of natural selection. Studies in neuroscience support this, showing that we are born with morality. How could this be? The answer lies in our collaborative nature.

Humans cooperate in ways other apes do not. Psychologist Michael Tomasello said, “it is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.” Somewhere in our past, we began to see ourselves as part of a group. Behavior that promoted group survival became just as important to us as individual survival. This is the root of biological altruism. As Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, “a tribe including many members who…were always ready to give aid to each other and sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes.” It’s easy to imagine how, on the other hand, behaviors that harmed the group would become social taboos.

Importantly, our altruism is directed not indiscriminately, but to our kin. This is reflected in the shared stories of communities. So morality is a form of social control that defines good and evil acts within the group and divides the world between the group and the evil outsiders: the goodies and the baddies.

Thus Spake Zarathustra: It’s Goodies versus Baddies

The struggle between good and evil has been the backbone of many stories since the ancient world. In Bronze Age Persia, for example, Zarathustra had a vision of being taken up to heaven. The creator god charged him with the task of inviting all human beings to choose between him (good) and his opponent (evil). We see this cosmic struggle play out in Middle-earth, as well as in the Star Wars and Harry Potter universes. Other genres that often have clearly defined heroes and villains, however flawed, are action (James Bond), adventure (Indiana Jones), and historical drama (Braveheart). Animation and films for younger audiences often have a goodies-and-baddies approach—I’m thinking He-Man, Transformers, The Karate Kid, and Back to the Future (Yes, I’m a child of the 80s).


The goodies-and-baddies approach is also the mark of propaganda. Films such as Pearl Harbor and American Sniper use this good and evil duality for political purposes. Based on the exploits of Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL who described Iraqis as “savages” and believed all his victims to be evil, American Sniper is an attempt to demonize Iraqis, sanitize US war crimes, and whip up jingoism. In Mel Gibson’s The Patriot, the British Redcoats are seen rounding up a village of women and children, locking them in a church and setting them on fire. This did not happen in the Revolutionary War. The Nazis, however, were guilty of a similar atrocity in France; in this way Mel Gibson uses fiction to equate the British with the Nazis. (Come to think of it, many villains—Scar, the Emperor in Star Wars, Hannibal Lecter, Ming the Merciless—have British accents. Why is that?)

Replete with Nazi imagery, Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers satirizes propaganda films and wartime newsreels. In his film, the neofascist Terran Federation of Earth is at war with the Arachnids of Klendathu, a bug-like alien race. The protagonists are students, encouraged at school to enlist and fight the evil bugs, chanting “the only good bug is a dead bug.” On the surface, the film glorifies rampant militarism, but careful viewers will notice the reflection of US nationalism in recruitment efforts in events such as the Super Bowl.

Beyond the Goodies and the Baddies

The clash of clearly defined heroes and villains, goodies and baddies, creates the energy that drives many stories. More often than not, after many struggles against the forces of antagonism and a crisis, good finally triumphs over evil. But other genres, such as crime (with honorable criminals and dirty cops) and many (anti-)war films, are more sophisticated. They go beyond the goodies-and-baddies approach. Does that mean we rule out evil? Does evil play a part in those stories—and should we include it in content creation? Let’s go back to Genesis.

And Ye Shall Be as Gods

Adam and Eve, in the Garden, did not know good and evil. They were just two creatures, unaware of their nakedness. In the midst of the garden stood the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree “for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” The serpent tempted Eve, saying “your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” She and Adam ate the fruit, and so their eyes were opened and they saw that they were naked. God said, “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil.” God expelled Adam and Eve from paradise, and now we suffer the consequences.

There are many interpretations of this story, but to me it seems that it is a metaphor for the birth of free will and duality: male and female, good and evil, heaven and earth. It is a story of how we became conscious, moral beings—of how we became free. The myth of Pandora, the first woman according to Greek mythology, is strikingly similar: Pandora was given a jar (often mistranslated as box) which she was warned never to open under any circumstances. Inevitably, her curiosity got the better of her. Opening the jar, she released all the evils of the world.

It’s not unlike that scene in the original Ghostbusters:

Choice: The Mark of Freedom

Protagonists, as do all of us, make choices throughout our lives. But in a good story, the protagonist, up against the most profound forces of antagonism, faces a moment of crisis (and the ultimate dilemma): Eat the fruit or not? Open the jar or leave it closed? Some information has thrown these characters’ lives out of balance, and the decision they make will change the course of their stories.

Under the influence of temptation, Eve and Pandora made their choices, but they could have chosen otherwise. Jesus was tempted by Satan three times in the desert but he resisted. Buddha also overcame three temptations before he attained enlightenment. Charlie returned the Everlasting Gobstopper to Willy Wonka in Roald Dahl’s classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and won the ultimate prize. These choices are what defined these characters.

At those moments of crisis, sometimes a villain or antihero can find redemption. Tony Montana in Scarface decides not to blow up the journalist’s car when he sees that the intended victim is accompanied by his wife and children. Darth Vader, at the last possible moment, turns against his master and gives his life to save his son.

But sometimes, temptation is too powerful to resist. Anakin turned to the dark side. Faust could not resist the promise of unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. As Chuck Klosterman wrote in I Wear the Black Hat, “People are remembered for the sum of their accomplishments but defined by their singular failure.” And for villains—especially those in the fictional realm—this could not be more true.

Do Stories Need Evil?

Every human being is fraught with the desire to take that extra cookie, to exact revenge on our rivals, to eat some metaphorical forbidden fruit—but we also have another part that wants to do what’s right for our families, our kin, our nations, our species. Temptation is the manifestation of the conflict between our selfish and altruistic genes. We all experience it, and we all face moral dilemmas. But few of us face such decisions that, like Pandora, will destroy humanity and life as we know it.

For that reason, a story doesn’t necessarily need a high-stakes evil along the lines of Darth Vader to be good—but there does need to be a defining, inciting moment that changes the course of your protagonist’s life and forces them to have to make a decision. That decision, in the moment of crisis as defined above, is the true necessity for content creation. Something must always be at stake. Your protagonist’s crisis decision may be between good and evil, evil and a lesser evil, facing one’s fears or taking the easy way out, telling the truth or telling a lie, saving yourself or saving others. The possibilities are endless. What decision will your protagonist face?

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Michael Box is a professional business editor and writer with a background in storytelling and language teaching. As Content Marketing Specialist at Skyword, Michael writes about brand storytelling, marketing trends, creativity, technology, social media, consumer psychology, and advertising. Michael enjoys creative writing, reading, photography, chess, electronic music composition, and classical guitar.

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