Should Evil Ever Win?

My friend Shawn Speakman over at the huge SFF blog Suvudu sometimes poses some Big Questions to authors in the genre. This past week, he included me. I am more than happy to have been able to join Terry Brooks, C.S. Friedman, newcomer Peter Orullian, and Dave Wolverton in answering “Why do you think evil never wins at the end of a story?  Wouldn’t it be refreshing if the antagonists won and the protagonists lost?  Has no one ever come up with the idea or do publishers just never publish such stories?”

But rather than steal his thunder, I’ll just post the link here. Please feel free to comment!

32 thoughts on “Should Evil Ever Win?

  1. Ashley E. says:

    I personally think it would be a more realistic story. I haven’t been a fan of happy endings since I was “knee-high to a grasshopper,” which is why I love stories that delve into “true” human nature(like Spawn or Dune, for instance), explore what a possibly morally unsound person would do in tough situations, and don’t allow an all-out victory/the bad guys win.

    How often is the truth twisted to make it seem like there was a happy ending in the news, and how often does one even know? In a battle where the “good” side is losing, and the antagonists show no mercy to achieve their goals, are the brilliant, brutal individuals not brought to the fore to stop the fighting? Then who becomes the “bad guy” in that situation?

    To be pragmatic, who is to say that another individual or group is wrong/evil? You can take that question to many things: animal sacrifice, value of human life, same-sex marriage, sodomy, treatment of children, raising of children, government, truth, etc., etc., etc. You, personally, may not agree with it, but I’m sure some of those people will look at you and be bewildered or angered at things that you see as a normal way of life.

    Entertainment that challenges beliefs (whether it’s simply the belief that good ALWAYS triumphs) are not as widely acclaimed. Whereas you take stories like LOTR, Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, Twilight, etc., and people gobble them up.

    A classic example to this question would be the movie Hero, about the creation of China. Who is the hero? Who is wrong? Is anyone? Is the emperor wrong for bringing bloodshed to “innocents” in order to unite the divided and bring peace? Does that make him evil, as some surely seem as such? Does it make the premier assassin wrong for letting him live when he could’ve killed him? Is it wrong to kill the assassin in order to prevent further bloodshed, because the Emperor cannot be seen as weak and therefore cannot let him live?

    The power of denial is very strong, however. People want to believe that good always triumphs over evil, hence why I think there are so many mixed reviews of the Watchmen (in my experience), in example. Depending upon the purpose of the individual’s reading, that would change the perception, delight, and standing of that book. If a person picks up a novel to escape from their world, and they’re looking for what I deem a “dessert novel” (quick, happy ending), and they pick up Xenocide, they are more than likely NOT going to appreciate that novel and throw it away in disgust.

    I could go on, but in short: Yes, sometimes there are necessary evils. Yes, a LOT of the time, what people deem as “evil” prevails. Would it make a fabulous story? I certainly believe so.

    1. Brian says:

      That link is a book in which the villains are the heroes trying to restore balance in a world where the typical goody two shoes party rules the world.

      Second I love your way of shadows series rereading it again, and based a D&D game of the concept. The party which has logan, kylar, and Azoth (kylar duelist brass noble and Azoth blints assassin yes I made them into two people to run a game better) are trying to save cenaria from the God Kings Aethlings. Not knowing one of them is their friend the bard..

  2. Eli says:

    I don’t really care as long as the ending is a fitting one.

    That being said, I have to admit that I’m tired of reading about saint-like protagonist. I got my fill of that as a young girl reading my dad’s Louis L’Amour’s Western novels; which were great reads, by all means. It’s just that I find that now I enjoy reading a story where the protagonist are more like the rest of us, with all the shortcomings and faults most of us have. It’s why I enjoyed the Night Angel trilogy so much and The Black Prism.

    It seems to me that authors like you, Abercrombie, Lynch, etc are very popular these days. Your heroes aren’t perfect. They aren’t decidedly good and forever honest and gallant.They make mistakes, they are selfish, they get jealous, they steal, kill and scheme to get what they want. If anything It makes them more believable.

    What is good, or bad and who is right, or wrong depends on whose eyes are seeing. There are always two sides in a war, but it’s the victorious one who writes history…

    1. bar1scorpio says:

      If you’re looking for a book series with a nice, non-angelic good guy. Just about anything by Bernard Cornwell.

  3. Martin says:

    Ashley, great post. In terms of movies, most audiences don’t like seeing evil prevail, its more entertaining watching the good guy beat the bad guys and save the day. Its a formula that has worked for a very long time. Look at the ending to the movie Dodgeball, Ben Stillers character at the end of the movie totally explains why the bad guy never wins.

    When it comes to books, I’ve yet to read one where the evil guy wins. I read that Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series takes the idea of what if evil won and how the world is shaped. I haven’t read the series so I can’t really have any real opinion on that, but the idea is intriguing.

    1. Ashley E. says:

      Thank you 🙂 That was better put than mine lol. I haven’t watched Dodgeball in ages! I will most definitely check it out now, thanks!

      I just discovered Mistborn and can’t wait to read it! Have you read the Sword of Truth series? That’s a better understanding, to me, of what would happen should evil prevail, if only that they prevail for a time.

      To me, it all comes down to the balance of all things. Everything is balanced out, somehow. The fires going on now, along with the other wild physical occurrences in the world, is a part of that.

      1. Martin says:

        I haven’t read the Sword of Truth series. I’ll put it on my to read pile. Currently reading Gardens of the Moon. That whole book is in the gray area. No idea who’s good and who’s bad, each character has their own goals.

      2. Dj says:

        I love your way of thinking, and I love Sword of Truth. Those books were pretty good, and I loved how the “bad guys” won some and lost some, it put a much better turn to the story. “Good” can’t always win, and “Bad” can’t always lose. In theory, the “bad guys’ would win more often, as they would be able to do things that the “good guys” couldn’t do in order to prevail.

        Either way, bad and good isn’t always different. If someone is doing something that someone else thinks is wrong, they would deem them bad, or evil, for doing that thing. Though that action could have been seen as morally correct and right in the person’s eyes. A good quote to explain this, I forget where it comes from and I am in no way saying that it is my own, would be : “A man will defend his actions because he believed those actions to be the best he could do.”

        Also, I have been writing short stories, and have been trying to come up with an idea for a full novel, and where the “bad guys” win is definatly a tempting thought.

  4. Kayex says:

    Two very good responses. I cant help but think of japanese horror films, the grudge comes to mind very for books; a long time ago I read a (translated might I add) book by a japanese author involving Samurai and war where evil did prevail. Unfortunately the title and authors name escapes me for now. I will get back to you.

    1. bar1scorpio says:

      But part of the argument is right there. You’re mentioning horror works, which are allowed to be a bit more nihilistic due to the nature of the genre: one that is designed to express and play up on primal fears of mortality.

  5. Stuart says:

    I think that most people prefer a happy ending to an ending where evil has won is because you fall in love with the good characters and the bad guys are most of the time made out to be cruel and completely corrupt.

    But I somethimes think that having an ending where evil wins would be quite an interest idea because noone will be expecting it and when i’m reading a book i’m always drawn into the story more when something unexpected happens (like most people).

    It would be nice to see a change in the ideals of villans and what their true intentions are not the usual lust for power or domination something that would keep a reader hooked.

  6. Tim says:

    I think a more interesting question and concept would be more along the lines of “can you have a good fantasy story without this good vs. evil binary?” Where there is no clearly morally superior party, there’s just this side and that side. In the real world, it’s not always clear who’s right and who’s wrong. The Scavenger trilogy by KJ Parker looks promising on that front, but I’m yet to read the final book, Memory, so I’m not sure. You could take things a step further, and make even the victor seem ambiguous. One non-fantasy story I can think of that achieved this was “Kane and Abel” by Jeffrey Archer. Or the sides could be ambiguous. Are there really any true sides, or are they just perceptions and labels we apply to try and make sense of things? I think that there are many questions such a story could raise and address.

    1. Ashley E. says:

      That was kind of the point I was trying to make 🙂 lol I’ll have to check those books out, they sound interesting.

  7. Patrick says:

    People only do things that they think are justified.
    There is no true good and evil, they are just used as extremes.
    Whenever you give characters such labels it makes them too plain.
    A well written character is not bound by such labels.
    Labels just constrict development.
    Just like in reality with politics or religion once you are given a label people will only assume things within that boundary.

    But there are some characters which most people will find reprehensible and if that type of character succeeds then it may not please the audience.
    The important part is to finish the main conflict in the story.
    Lots of stories use a villain or event caused by a villain as the main conflict.
    If the villain succeeded then the conflict would not be resolved so the author would have to find a way around that.

    1. Dj says:

      That is the basic idea that I was trying to get to with my reply. There are no good and evil people, as people act to what they believe is the right thing to do. People don’t think of themselves as evil, at least, a partly sane person doesn’t.

      Which gets into the public veiws on good and evil. People want to see the good prevail over evil, as it usually helps people strive to be better themselves. People don’t want to see themselves as bad, or evil, and can’t see themselves as that, so in a story that is true to how people act, many readers and to-be readers would be discouraged about that story, as most people don’t want to have to chose between who is good and evil, and would rather let the story play out, with themselves in the role of the hero.

  8. sulleneyes says:

    Ok, I hate to jump in with the seemingly main-stream answer, but George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series has one of the best portrayals of the gray-on-gray morality that I have ever had the pleasure of reading. To quote Martin from his “what I’m reading” section – “Someone once said that the villain is the hero of the other side, a maxim that l long ago took to heart in my own fiction”. I remember one distinct moment where a paragraph completely changed my perspective on one of the main protagonists. I’m still deciding who I like and why – Martin’s characters constantly challenge the questions of “what makes someone good? evil? Why? Do circumstances justify otherwise seemingly good/evil actions?”
    I would also argue that the gray areas make both the action and the characters more compelling. Who didn’t feel for Kylar when he chose to give Eline two black eyes to make her look like a plausible victim, instead of killing her like he should have? Even worse is a selfish, seemingly harmless decision now that turns into an “oh shit” moment of repercussion revelations later. Evil? Maybe. Good storytelling? Almost always.

    1. Dj says:

      I agree with you on A Song of Ice and Fire. The whole book is revolving around the grayness of the characters. Martin wants the readers to question their previous thoughts about good vs. evil and wants to show that people act for what they think is a worthy goal, and if other people think that their action are evil, then there will always be actions that will be seen as good.

      I love to read these kinds of books that make you question the good vs. evil because it shows how people truly are, gray.

  9. Stuart says:

    An example of where evil dosn’t really seem evil is in the manga series called Naruto.

    The villans main objective throughout the entire series is to bring about a lasting peace by casting a genjutsu that will reflect off of the moon to create an illusion affecting the entire world.

    Those in the organisation he controls who are all considered the villans arn’t working with him because they help him not for the usual reasons like fame or power.

    Even though it isn’t considered a book in some places I think it is a good example of no real good vs evil just two different ideas on how to get to the same goal.

  10. Boudreaux says:

    It may indeed be a more realistic tale, given that at least in the short run evil does have its victories. But fundamentally people have traditionally preferred the victory of good over evil for a variety of reasons: it gives us hope that the evils we face today will be vanquished, it leaves a good feeling that justice was meted out, and so on. Evil winning as the conclusion of a narrative seems to have an unsettling effect, as though the real-world evils will win.

    The rise in popularity of the morally ambiguous story, the anti-hero, the grey morality, in literature is in step with the ascendancy of a morally relative view of the world, in which killing and theft and lying became not wrong in and of themselves, but only wrong from different perspectives (Ashley illustrates this mind set in her post well, with the whose the hero, whose the villain? comment). Historically this is a new movement in ethics – for most of Western history a view called Virtue Ethics prevailed. In it right and wrong were defined primarily in relation to the actor. The character of the actor is the most important thing, with consequences or rules secondary. Logan Gyre and Count Drake both show tendencies toward this system, though Gyre may be more deontoligically motivated (as it has an emphasis on duty, deon).

    In the so-called Enlightenment period two new systems of ethics arose. The Kantian view of Deontology, which emphasized the act itself as the primarily ethical decider – the act that conformed to the categorical imperative is good. Motive is important, consequence is devalued (as good results can come from accidents), and duty lauded. The other major view,which Kant preempted, was Utilitarianism. The end justifies the means, in common terms. Wanhope, seems to operate more and more off this principle as he embraces the Godkingship. Use of the vir and krull justified because of its consequences.

    The unfortunate fourth view that is with us in this postmodern age, ethics are relative, is born of the cynicism and morally nihilistic worldview that arose after the horrors of WWI. From a philosophical view, I’d say that a final ending in which evil wins is a bad ending because of the message it sends and the philosophical underpinnings it implies (whether or not the author actually means such things – another fun fact of postmodern thought is that the author determines the meaning of a story, the author’s intents or motives is irrelevant). The same for the emphasis of relative ethics. The idea that right and wrong are mere matters of societal norms, or shifting perspectives, is ultimately damning and leads to actions like that of Garuth Ursuul (to keep up illustrations from Weeks books). It can be used to justify any act, as long as you twist the perspective around enough. Order is needed in Khalidor, so the Godkings rule with a brutal hand. Generally those who argue for gray, or relative, ethics flinch at the extremes – killing innocents, mass murder, etc – but give in the small things – lying, stealing, maybe the killing of ‘bad’ people (which itself is hypocrisy since bad doesn’t really exist but is a matter of perspective) – which is fundamentally contradictory.

    1. Tim says:

      Ha. I just finished a unit in Ethics this semester, and your comment basically summarised and explained every approach to ethics we looked at, while actually making it meaningful and presenting an opinion on them (which, by the way, I pretty well completely agreed with, especially the last paragraph).

      1. Boudreaux says:

        Thanks Tim! I learned most of that in Intro to Ethics, then had it fleshed out in Greek World, Roman World, and Modern World. I’m a humanities guy. It gives context to pretty much anything and everything. Also, it’s good to see another person who recognizes the dangers of a relative morality!

        1. Tim says:

          Yeah. Relativity is dangerous at best.

          I’m mainly humanities (particularly literature), but I’ve always done well in maths and enjoyed physics in high school too, so go figure.

    2. Dj says:

      This is exactly what my thoughts on the subject are, though in a much more simple way of putting this : A person’s beliefs and ethics are what create the good and evil sides in a person’s mind. You can think to the extremes, or base your opinion on the middle-ground, though what it usually comes down to between good and evil, is “The end justifies the means.”

      Though it is true that people want to see good prevail as a way to believe that their thoughts on what is good can prevail today after seeing the destruction that WWI and WWII caused.

      Another thought, to good and evil in a story, is how it is much easier to write a story in which the good guys can relate to the readers, and defeat evil. Sorry, a bit off subject, but i had to get it in.

  11. Brian says:

    Also the original comic of “Wanted” not the Angelina version was about a world where the bad super villains won so completely the good guys are all wiped out or can’t remember the were heroes, and the villains raid other universes for fun destroying those worlds supers.

  12. Jack says:

    I’m actually currently working on a book. I’m still in the planning stage, but I decided early on that I was going to have evil win, because I’m tired of books that tend to be predictable. A lot of the time, readers can just reassure themselves that good will prevail, no matter the impossible odds.

  13. Shay says:

    Joe Abercrombie’s books often end with the “good” characters surviving but the “evil” characters winning or controlling the eventual outcome.

    I think in George RR Martins books good will eventually win out, but in 6 out of the 7 written Ice & Fire books you will find the good guys get severely beaten.

  14. Connor says:

    Where the finite light shines brightest, the shadows grow darkest, and when that light finally give out, the shadows are lost to the eternal darkness that is.

    If evil is betrayed as the dark, and good the light, then the light can never win, light requires energy, and it can only survive for a time. Once that time is up, darkness exists as it is the absent of light, and will always be.

  15. Michael says:

    While I understand the desire for the niche readers who eat up every piece of fiction they can get their hands on to want something ‘fresh’, I absolutely would hate to read a book where the bad guys win and there’s not happy ending. Now, I’m not saying I want roses and puppy dogs coming out of the woodworks but what keeps my going is Hope. Hope that if the protagonist (or myself) do good in the world you will be rewarded for choosing the more difficult path.

    Ask yourself this, do you really want to see the rapist win? Would you really like to read about the psychotic murderer breaking free from jail and killing the children and babies of the hero, then killing the hero’s wife in front of him before finally skinning the hero alive? Really? It may be ‘fresh’ but not fun and if it is then perhaps you need to look inward a bit more.

    Being evil is easy. Most people who take the easy route aren’t winners but looking for a cheap and quick answer. Winners work hard. Being good takes a lot of work. Who would really want to see the lazy jerk who doesn’t deserve it end up being rewarded?

    This is why the Night Angel trilogy is one of my favorite series of all time. Evil looks to be winning at all turns. Not until the very end is the protagonist and ‘heroes’ rewarded for all their sacrifice and hard work in being good. The journey proved worth it and Brent gave us an ending worth all that suffering (/tear Dollgirl).

    Ultimately, if Brent had let evil prevail I am 100,000 times certain I would NEVER pick up another book from him and would let everyone I knew that reading that set of books would only waste their time. Boy would I have been pissed. As it stands, good won and I, along with my entire family and firends, are drooling for another Midcyru book.

    1. Dj says:

      In this post, you are looking to the extremes of what society believes is evil. Nobody wants to see the rapist, murderer, etc. win, but you can’t always have the person who is good win everything, it just wouldn’t have a bit of realism to it. And anyway, those who are thought to be evil always just a bit of good, juste un peu. Also, the whole “jailed rapist escapes and murders babies and skins good people alive is the complete archtype of evil. Who wants a story that is that predictable? “Story starts with bad guy laughing menacingly over the dead body of little girl, next chapter good guy is fighting big bad guy’s thugs and killing all of them, trying to save little children, this goes on every chapter until at the end: Good guy meets bad guy, good guy blasts bad guy away with superholyflowerypuppydivinelight and evil bad guys dissolves, screaming, into darkness and poofs into a cloud of bats and fire.”

      When you say
      “Being evil is easy. Most people who take the easy route aren’t winners but looking for a cheap and quick answer. Winners work hard. Being good takes a lot of work. Who would really want to see the lazy jerk who doesn’t deserve it end up being rewarded? ”
      Who says that evil is easy? If evil is evil, and therefore the person performing these evil acts must think themselves evil, it would be more difficult than anything someone that would think themselves good would do.
      Like I said in many replies before this, evil and good is just a person’s beliefs, and there is no evil or good at all, no light and dark, just gray.

      Would you tell me that you have never done things you thought were bad? Of course not, everyone does bad things, but would that meant hat everyone is evil?

  16. bar1scorpio says:

    Not a fan of the concept of Evil winning in escapist fiction (Nor of moral relativism when it comes to matters of Good Versus Evil.). At least in sci-fi/fantasy, it’s hard to follow a protagonist that long, and then have the goals of Good not met. It’s really hard to make that palatable, by and large, and probably for good reason most people are reading to escape a world where even if they bad guys don’t win, the damage they did persists long after the white hats have shown up. Not sure if I’d want to spend that much time writing a book for people who’d want to see Evil win the day, just because they don’t like a cliche’d Hero. I’d rather write a more dynamic group of Good Guys.

    Likewise, there’s a difference between Good Versus Evil and Protagonist(s) Versus Antagonist(s). Hell, in a good PvA story, part of the drama and tragedy can be that neither character was Evil. Just on opposing sides of history.

  17. bar1scorpio says:

    Just thought of something to add…

    Evil doesn’t really win in real life, anyways. Not in the long run.

    “Evil” is typically associated with a series of behaviors that destabilize the individual, or community, engaging in them.

    That’s kinda how they got recognized as such. Wayyyy back when, before people understood how the brain worked, and people were generally a bit too busy on their subsistence agriculture to develop psychology and the masses were, in general, too short-sighted to understand the repercussions of their actions (no matter how slowly you explained it to them), a bunch of priests said to each other, “Hey, have you guys (They were a kinda casual lot, these ancient priests. If you’d majored in ancient history, you’d have known that.) noticed that every time a bunch of our followers engaged in certain behaviors, they all died of famine, violence, and venereal disease? Shouldn’t we come up with a few ways to curtail those behaviors so there’s someone besides us to make the beer and cheese?”

    To solve the “mass death” problem, the people had it explained to them that engaging in all those behaviors was now Evil, and thus, bad. Or at least, ill-advised if you were interested in the concept of long term self-preservation.

    To solve the Beer & Cheese problem, the Priests gathered themselves in a nice little monastery, and became Trappists.

  18. TheAceOfSkulls says:

    I’m reminded of Villains By Necessity here.
    It took the concept of those worlds where evil has taken over, resulting in the world growing dark and corrupt (everyone probably has an example of one of these worlds), and looks into what happens if good wins. What ends up happening is that things become too pure, with the night growing entirely too short (sort of how when evil wins the night is made longer with the ever present clouds), criminals are slowly vanishing (either by being “reformed” by magic or just being put out of a job), and dark and neutral races and mages are disappearing. Therefore, the last villains must come together to pull the old collect the McGruffins quest for the force of evil. Technically, it’s a quest to restore balance, but it’s all about evil trying to win. As such, you still get the same sort of story you’d get from the forces of good going on this quest with similar sorts of results, but it’s all about evil triumphing. It’s a nice change of pace.

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