Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Why is evil easier to write than good?

with 2 comments

Mads Mikkelsen on Hannibal

On Saturday, I participated in a panel at the Printers Row Lit Fest on “The Lure of Noir,” moderated by the journalist and mystery writer Robert Goldsborough. I had a great time and really enjoyed meeting my fellow panelists, the authors Bryan Gruley, Brian D’Amato, and Libby Fischer Hellmann. (My wife and daughter were also there, although the latter chose to grow fussy at the exact moment the panel began, so they missed most of the discussion.) As always, the panel gave me a lot to think about, and I particularly enjoyed the questions at the end, one of which allowed me to go on at length about my love for The Third Man. The most interesting question, though, was one for which I didn’t have a ready answer. In essence, the question was this: as an author, how do you come back to yourself after writing in such detail about human evil? My intuitive response, which I gave, was that it’s actually much easier to write about evil than good, and I tend to struggle much more with the latter. Even as I said this, though, I found myself wondering why.

My favorite example from my own work is the novel City of Exiles, which was partially conceived as a confrontation between two moral extremes. On the one hand, you have Lasse Karvonen, my Finnish assassin, whom I deliberately designed to be as amoral and chilling a figure as possible: if the novel as a whole, as I’ve mentioned before, was something of an attempt to construct a thriller from first principles, I tried to do much the same thing with the central villain. Karvonen kills without remorse, usually on contract or to protect himself, and also because he’s simply good at it. And in laying out his backstory and inner life, I quietly incorporated many of the signs of a textbook sociopath, including setting fires and cruelty to animals. (As an aside, it’s interesting to note that Thomas Harris mentions “sadism to animals as a child” as one of Hannibal Lecter’s signs of sociopathy in Red Dragon, only to never mention it again in any of the sequels, probably because it didn’t work well for a character who increasingly became the hero of his own series. You can show your antihero committing murder with impunity, but the reader won’t forgive him if he hurts a cat.)

Norman Mailer

The result was a character who was paradoxically a real pleasure to write: in fact, I don’t think any other character has ever made such an easy transition from my head to the page. This wasn’t the case for Karonven’s opponent, Rachel Wolfe, who I’d conceived to be as principled and ethical as Karvonen was vicious. As I’ve noted elsewhere, Wolfe was raised as a devout Mormon—a detail that I introduced almost at random in The Icon Thief—and although she’s starting to question aspects of her faith as the story begins, it still informs many of her life choices. She doesn’t drink alcohol or coffee, she doesn’t believe in sex before marriage, and she starts every day with a prayer. These days, Mormonism is often used as a cultural punchline, so part of the challenge was to create a character who was unironically heroic, straightlaced, and admirable, and to have all these aspects of her personality arise from the same place. I think I succeeded, and Wolfe is one of my own favorite characters, but it took a long time to get it right. If Karvonen arose fully formed in the first draft, Wolfe was more the product of countless small revisions and adjustments until she began to resemble the ideal figure I’d imagined.

When I look back it now, though, I can see that it wasn’t Wolfe’s Mormonism that made her hard to write, but the fact that she was a stronger, more ethical person than I was. Norman Mailer, following Hemingway, has written about the difficulties involved in creating characters who are better than the author himself. In his candid, probing essay “The Last Draft of The Deer Park,” Mailer notes:

I had a horror of creating a voice which could be in any way bigger than myself…I was now creating a man who was bigger and stronger than me, and the more my new style succeeded, the more I was writing an implicit portrait of myself as well.

That’s been my experience, too. Ultimately, evil is easier to write because it only asks us to magnify our own worst qualities. I don’t think I have many sociopathic tendencies, but like every writer, I’ve had my share of petty, vindictive feelings, and there’s something clarifying and therapeutic about working them out in a fictional setting: if nothing else, I can take comfort in the fact that I’m not really much like Karvonen at all. With Wolfe, by contrast, I’m implicitly writing about my own limitations. I don’t have her integrity or sense of duty, as much as I wish I did. That, in a nutshell, is why writing about good is so hard: it’s easier to write honestly about the moral traps we’ve avoided—perhaps because of our own caution or timidity—than the higher standards we’re unable to meet. But as difficult as it may be, we still need to do both.

Written by nevalalee

June 11, 2013 at 8:58 am

2 Responses

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  1. I like your explanation: “Ultimately, evil is easier to write because it only asks us to magnify our own worst qualities.” I feel a fascination with evil characters, in part because I have met and worked with sociopaths who were in prison. My evil characters are actually not so evil, though, perhaps because of my experience; I try to humanize them, to find some explanation (but not excuse) for why they kill, why they seem devoid of feeling. It worries my husband that I enjoy writing about them so much, but they are challenging in the most enjoyable way.


    June 15, 2013 at 11:00 pm

  2. The real trick to writing evil characters is to remember that each one generally thinks of himself as the hero.


    June 16, 2013 at 2:00 pm

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