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  1. #1
    Analyze That
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    What Makes A Character Evil?

    There was some interesting Kellhus discussion happening on another thread, so I decided to make a thread dedicated to the idea.

    To me, what makes a character evil is if he's willing to do anything (or almost anything) including hurting others physically or emotionally to get him or herself ahead. A while back there was a book club on "The Company" by KJ Parker, and I called General Kuneissan evil. I thought, ultimately, he was going to get his island whether his friends liked it or not. He basically gave his friends no option but to go along with it, as he spent basically all their war money on setting it up. He had justified it to death in his head, but no matter how you slicing, he was stepping on all their toes and forcing them out of the lives they had built for themselves so they could fulfill his fantasy.

    Kellhus is much more clear cut. He doesn't care who lives, who dies, who he betrays, as long as he gets where he wants to be. I don't see how one could see that as anything other than evil. 3rd I brought up the consult as evil, but truly, we don't know enough about them. Though, the fact that they almost destroyed the world with the No-God previously gives us a pretty good hint that they aren't quite Harry Potter.

  2. #2
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    Rape, paedophilia or genocide. Anything else is entirely acceptable.

  3. #3
    What Makes A Character Evil?

    I'd say the conscious unwillingness to acknowledge others' right to exist.

    I'm not that sure Kellhus could or should be labeled 'evil' - he is the product of a twisted upbringing, and reacts to his environment in a certain way - which could be labeled 'inhuman', 'cruel' or 'a-social', but not necessarily evil. Singularity of purpose (take for instance a Lord Foul or Sauron) also does not strike me as 'evil' as defined above - harmful, destructive, to-be-opposed, yes - but it's the conscious unwillingness part that i do not readily see. What they do fits in their view of the world.

    Characters that do strike me as 'evil' would include types such as Roose Bolton (aSoIaF) or Saruman (LotR); they are capable of reflecting on their own actions - and persist in their course even after doing so. In that sense a Bayaz (First Law) also "deserves" a place in this list - but he is a more balanced (or perhaps more 'real') character; displaying both evil and good traits - but a definite believer in "the end justifies the means" - which in itself is a good start towards real evil...

    Cheers,

    Sfinx.

    PS: not sure where I stand on Kallor (Malazan) - he has done unspeakable things - but somehow he also manages to come across as a vaguely decent human being...

  4. #4
    It never entered my mind algernoninc's Avatar
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    Premeditation : deliberately choosing the path that would result in harm to others. We hurt people mostly through neglicence or innattention, but there are others who set out from the start to break things apart. Exploring the background and the motivations of outcasts and serial killers seems a national pastime in some parts of the world.

    There was an interesting discussion on the C S Friedman Coldire book club entry whether Gerrald Tarrant is evil or the product of extreme circumstances.

  5. #5
    I know it when I see it.

  6. #6
    Registered User Gary XI's Avatar
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    I think evil may be discribed as carrying out an act that you know is wrong, even against your own beliefs.

    Many figures in history have performed what has been described as evil acts, but from their perspective they were doing the right thing.
    Last edited by Gary XI; February 8th, 2011 at 10:41 AM. Reason: typo

  7. #7
    the Thirsty thirstyVan's Avatar
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    Having a goatee or pointy mustache.


    /duh

  8. #8
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    Quote Originally Posted by TheEvilKing View Post
    Rape, paedophilia or genocide. Anything else is entirely acceptable.
    I didn't know you were a member here, Mr Goodkind!

  9. #9
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    A big, black moustache, an evil laugh, tying young women to railway tracks and calling them "my dear" and being in black and white, all to the backing of dramatic piano playing. Everything else is a pale imitation of this true evil

    *cough*

    On a more serious note, I'd say that evil is going out of your way to hurt anything (humans, other animals or plants, physically or mentally), or consciously hurting something that cannot understand there is any kind of reason for it to be harmed (so mostly non-humans and young children here, who have no understanding that them getting hurt is part of a "higher purpose" or plan) if there's a way around it.

    I doubt I'm doing a great job of explaining, so, for me;

    Evil is...

    Shooting at the swan on the pond because you're bored.
    Bullying that small child because you can.
    Hunting that stag because you want a set of antlers on your wall.

    Evil is not...

    Shooting that gunman rampaging down the highstreet.
    Hunting that stag because you're starving and have no choice.


    But in the end, for me, evil is...

    Purely contextual, and my definitions are also at times self-contradictory. There is no absolute.

    Now I think of it, my original description matches these criteria pretty well, so becomes the ultimate evil.

  10. #10
    On time and sober! BreakLater's Avatar
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    What is evil? Philosophers have debated that question for centuries. It is defined by culture. In some cultures, stealing is permissable. In others, cannibalism is allowed. There have been times in history when a person was considered evil if they had sex out of wedlock or attended a meeting about communism. Some people think such behaviors are evil in this day and age, right now!

    So, if you really think about it, 'evil' is really just an adjective describing a person or an act that falls way outside the median of acceptable behavior for a society.

    We have these standards of acceptable behavior for reasons we generally recognize as 'good.' We want to protect our children, for example. But standards change over time just as culture changes.

    But to seriously answer the OP's question: There are shades of grey in ethics. You found that character's actions more deplorable than some of your fellow readers. Everyone is different and their reactions are subjective.

  11. #11
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    Okay, I take back calling Kellhus evil. But he is still a sociopath.

  12. #12
    Quote Originally Posted by KatG View Post
    Okay, I take back calling Kellhus evil. But he is still a sociopath.
    I've only read halfway through TTT (and the ending of it), but...Why's that? What changed your mind? I can't think of a way in which he is NOT evil.

    As 3rdI wrote in another thread, it is not compulsion that moves Kellhus but philosophy. Now, were it compulsion, I could agree that he is not evil, for if that were the case then his actions would be dictated by the whims of others. The abuse and conditioning he suffered through as a child would make him damaged and misunderstood.

    However, I never got the impression that Kellhus was not acting of his own accord. Does it matter that his view of the world is flawed? Does it matter that he was an abused child if he actively chooses to ignore everything that points to the value of emotion and the value of human life? As I understand it, he does part ways with the Dunyain in some ways, and then reforms his understanding of the world based around his own preconceptions.

    If it is truly philosophy that drive Kellhus, then I count him as evil. He has the ability to make his own choices, and continually chooses the ones that subvert everyone he views as below him in order to further his own designs.

    Consider also his Logos and the Probability Trance, which he does not once use to examine his own place in the world. He does not question his motives. He does not question his actions. He does not question very many of his conclusions, and even when he does he finds a way to write it off.

    Sociopath? Yes, I'd say so. Evil? I'd say so, for even though he is the victim of abuse he still makes many of his own choices, even when he comprehends the alternatives.

    I don't think he's so much the "embodiment of evil" that the Dark Lord characters are, but his actions and his philosophy of the world, while right to him, go very much against what is right for nearly everyone else. I don't care if he thinks he's doing the right thing--in fact, I think that there can't be a believable evil character that doesn't believe he is doing the right thing.

    That last bit is, to me, what makes an evil character.

  13. #13
    Quote Originally Posted by BreakLater View Post
    What is evil? Philosophers have debated that question for centuries. It is defined by culture. In some cultures, stealing is permissable. In others, cannibalism is allowed. There have been times in history when a person was considered evil if they had sex out of wedlock or attended a meeting about communism. Some people think such behaviors are evil in this day and age, right now!

    So, if you really think about it, 'evil' is really just an adjective describing a person or an act that falls way outside the median of acceptable behavior for a society.

    We have these standards of acceptable behavior for reasons we generally recognize as 'good.' We want to protect our children, for example. But standards change over time just as culture changes.

    But to seriously answer the OP's question: There are shades of grey in ethics. You found that character's actions more deplorable than some of your fellow readers. Everyone is different and their reactions are subjective.
    Well said.

    Good and Evil are so easily interchangeable. What one society considers good another considers evil. Sometimes good people do bad things and bad people do good things. Most everything falls into some shade of gray. Morality is useless and breeds stagnancy. Any social system need only a basic code of ethics that works for that particular social group.

    Furthermore I do not think people are evil. I think what some people observe as evil is actual some flavor of mental illness. I do not think people choose to hurt others because they are evil rather I think people that have such behaviors are responding to bad wiring.

    As for Kellhus in particular I see nothing evil about the man. If he was truly sociopathic he would simply be arbitrarily killing. Kellhus has a strange sort of conscience. All people are children both intellectually and emotionally in his eyes and while he controls the movements of those around him there does seem to be some element of responsibility in his behavior. It is not an emotional response rather a function of the Logos and his Dunyain conditioning coupled with his own philosophical sensibilities.
    Last edited by 3rdI; February 9th, 2011 at 12:18 AM.

  14. #14
    Webmaster, Great SF&F owlcroft's Avatar
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    Vance is always pithy . . . .

    Many years ago, Jack Vance expressed it in a single terse sentence:

    What is an evil man? The man is evil who coerces obedience to his private ends, destroys beauty, produces pain, extinguishes life.
    (That in Rolf Gersen's posthumously read letter to his grandson Kirth in the first of the "Demon Princes" novels, Star King.)

    It seems hard to improve on.

  15. #15
    Analyze That
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    Morality is not useless. A person's morality is a huge part of what makes them unique and in some ways, defines who they are. That's all I have to say about that.

    Furthermore I do not think people are evil. I think what some people observe as evil is actual some flavor of mental illness. I do not think people choose to hurt others because they are evil rather I think people that have such behaviors are responding to bad wiring.
    Of course, evil doesn't describe the whole matter. I'm not saying someone is evil just because they are. It's not an inherent trait that some people are born with and others aren't. Just because there's a deeper reason into why a person is evil doesn't necessarily make the person not evil.

    And yes, evil is subjective. If it wasn't we wouldn't be having this discussion. This is a good medium for people to state their opinions.

    Trying to respond to everyone is difficult. Covered 3rd I (except for Kellhus, may get back to him in a future post), I agree with sdelu, covered Break Later to some extent.

    Aneurin: A person going out of their way to harm a plant is evil? So those pieces of grass I keep plucking out because I'm bored waiting for someone makes me evil. I suppose you can look at it that way.

    Gary and sfinx: To me, it doesn't have to be something you know is wrong. To me, it's consistently doing something that I think is wrong. So, I would call Kellhus evil because he's doing things that are reprehensible to me, even though he doesn't see any fault in it. I think very few people go against what they've set up as "their code," I think it's where the code is at that put's you on the side of evil or not.

    algernoninc: I think premeditation is an important aspect of this discussion as well. Emotions get the better of people. Is an evil act done under the influence of a strong emotion more or less evil than one done emotionless. By the definition of some, the non-premeditated act would be more evil because it's an action that person would normally think of as wrong, whereas this is seldom the case with premeditation. This doesn't quite sit right with me.

    EvilKing, if that is what makes someone evil, by calling yourself evil would you say you participated in these actions?

    Yeah, this post has gone on long enough. I'll get to Kellhus at some future point.

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