“Great People talk about ideas, small people talk about other people.” Tobias S Gibson, paraphrasing an old saying attributed Eleanor Roosevelt (Ideas > Events > People) or maybe even Socrates.
The days when Fantasy fiction limited its portrayal of villains and heroes to purely black and white are long gone. While unfathomable evil still has its place, and we all love our elder gods and zombies, these are rarely the enemies that take centre stage in modern works. Instead we might focus on the high priest who dooms the world by re-awakening great Cthulhu or the compound of survivors who do unspeakable things to others after the undead uprising. Partly this is the maturation of the genre: the language has solidified to and extent that it no longer needs lengthy exposition (one barely needs to define what a zombie, and orc, or a spell are any more). Perhaps more importantly, modern entertainment is fixated on characters over story and setting, arguably more than ever before. We like complex, rich, interesting characters, and while the elder gods and zombies are awesome and very popular they do not have the greatest “voice” when thrust centre stage as main characters (though some books do just that).
Of course the best works of modern fantasy manage to layer a more complex set of ideology and commentary above the character level. The clash of ideas is truly elevating and interesting, and can work with almost any tale in the hand of a skilled writer. Of course, some writers have no desire to move beyond Jersey Shore Fantasy, focusing entirely on characters who have little meaning behind the interactions. Myself, I like putting characters in situations where grand, crumbling systems and powerful influences lurking behind the action act as the true villains. Evil still has a place in even the most down to earth Fantasy fiction, even if it is only a shade darker than the protagonist.
Here are a few of the better versions of evil in modern Fantasy and my thoughts on them:
- Evil is the unknowable outsider: It used to be that the outsider as evil was uncomfortably close to racism. Orcs, savages, and barbarians raiding civilized peoples occasionally strayed uncomfortably toward certain world views about closed borders and nationalism. Now the Orcs and Barbarians are more often the hero and the outsider is presented as something well beyond our understanding or ability to communicate with, such as zombies. The Zerg from Starcraft and the Tyranids from 40k, are other favoured examples of unknowable evils — these are forces more akin to sentient natural disasters than understandable beings. This trope works well, but as I noted above an evil that is unknowable is best used as a background element, since it is by definition hard to characterize in a compelling fashion. Its not a bad trope, as long as one does not stray into xenophobia.
- Evil is what is at the bottom of the slippery slope that begins with selfishness: Extreme selfishness, the hoarding of vital resources, the taking of what belongs to others, disregard for life and freedom, and so on harkens back to the a more traditional view of evil. This view of evil is fairly simplistic, but still capable of nuance. A thief that steals bread, for example, is far better than a rich man who takes food from others to control them. Again, if well done, this sort of evil can avoid entering mustache twirling land, but I think the author would have to work in some views of how the society and systems create the conditions for this kind of selfishness for it to catch my interest.
- Evil is the apathy/indifference of good men: Apathy is one of the great modern evils. In societies where everything is compartmentalized it is easy for everyone to deny personal responsibility. After all, if someone is being murdered, that is a matter for the police, right? Of course, the denial of responsibility was used as a defence for people who ran the death camps in the Holocaust. “Just following orders,” turned out to be a poor defence when complicit in genocide. This is one of my favourite evils, but understandably it is very, very hard to work this into a character driven fantasy narrative. For one, apathy and indifference are usually boring qualities for a protagonist and not exactly exiting as forces to fight against. More power to those who can actually make this idea of evil actually work in their novels.
- Evil is the purposeful promotion of ignorance: (rant warning) I despise Fox News and, to a lesser extent, the other 24 hour cable news shows. These channels purposefully promote large scale ignorance in order to simply push their ratings higher. In world of complex, fun, entertaining media from books to computer games it is really difficult to fill a channel with meaningful news 24/7 and get viewers to tune in. The truth of things is that beyond our areas of interest most of us are only interested in the news, beyond staying informed, when something important is happening. To compensate the 24 hour news channels overinflate the importance of almost everything. The worst of them purposefully obscure the facts or outright lie to get ratings. The same is true with climate change deniers funded by oil billionaires, men paying to obscure the facts so that they can continue to reap record profits. There are more examples everywhere, but the central idea here is that the people who promote great ignorance for their own ends are doing something evil. This is an idea I love seeing explored in genre fiction, because we can remove it from the hyper-politicization that characterizes modern discourse on most subjects, and examine the consequences of promotion of ignorance in an of itself.
In general, I think evil in modern Fantasy should remain on the idea level, influencing the actions of the characters. Characters who are evil personified are too simplistic for the most part, and readers who want complex characters are unsatisfied by that kind of characters, be they villain or hero.