What is it about the human race that makes some people amazingly generous while others become sickeningly depraved? It’s a question we’ve all contemplated in some form or another. What drives the person who helps out at a soup kitchen every week? What is it that drives the person who throws cherry bombs at mailboxes just for kicks? How can one species have this much variation in terms of evil and altruism?
As an erotica/romance writer, and a writer in general, I have to contemplate these questions more than most. In every story I write, whether it’s a sexy love story like “Holiday Heat” or an erotic thriller like “The Escort and the Gigolo,” I need to understand on some levels what makes people tick, for better and for worse.
Questions about evil aren’t new. In fact, they’re among the oldest questions that we, as a species, have asked ourselves. It’s right up there with questions about why aliens haven’t landed yet and why some insist on using anal probes. It’s an existential question as much as it is a scientific question. It’s one of the few questions that both science and religion work hard to answer, albeit with different methods.
In western religious traditions, which primarily involve the big three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, there are certain assumptions about human nature that are intrinsically tied to the faith. In this tradition, human nature is believed to be inherently evil and in need of redemption. Anyone who spends more than two hours watching reality TV will probably find some merit to that argument.
Then, there are other traditions like Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism that don’t make the same assumptions. In these traditions, there are other forces that make human beings good or evil that aren’t necessarily innate. To be evil by nature is too simplistic in these traditions. There’s a whole host of factors, divine and otherwise, that contribute to someone’s capacity for either.
Neither tradition can be completely right, but that doesn’t mean both are wrong. Scientific studies on human nature are quite varied, but come to some intriguing conclusions. According to a Scientific America article from 2012, the current body of research suggests that humans are innately good and evil is more of an aberration.
That doesn’t mean that we humans should be thumbing our noses at the rest of the animal kingdom though. This research, like all scientific research, is incomplete and subject to change. New research could emerge tomorrow that concludes that every human being has a depraved, psychotic asshole lurking within and we’re doing just enough to keep it at bay.
These are very difficult questions to answer and many of those questions don’t have clear answers. I look at the concept of good and evil the same way I look at what makes something sexy. The line is not clear and constantly shifting. In the same way we find strange things sexy for stranger reasons, we see the line between good and evil as an exceedingly obscure sea of gray.
Everybody has their opinions on what makes someone good, but I’ve noticed that people have stronger opinions on what makes someone evil. It happens every time there’s a heinous crime, like a mass shooting. Everybody has their theories as to why someone does something so evil.
Some claim it’s bad parenting. Some claim it’s a product of poverty. Some claim it’s a product of abuse. Some say it’s genetic. Some say it’s a learned behavior from someone’s environment. Some just claim that some peoples’ brains are wired poorly.
The most frustrating part of this issue is that to some degree, every one of those theories might be right. Some people become evil due to bad parenting or a rough environment. Some become evil through severe mental illness that makes it difficult for them to make sense of right and wrong. Human beings are erratic, diverse creatures. We’re never content to just have one reason for doing something.
This becomes even more pronounced when you apply it to fiction. As an admitted comic book fan, the distinction between superheroes and supervillains is a cornerstone of the genre. Most people can pick up a comic and know who’s who. You see a comic with Superman and you know he’s the hero. You see a comic with Dr. Doom and you know he’s the asshole who will make people miserable.
However, recent years have given more emphasis to the villains, as opposed to the heroes. I like to think of it as the Walter White effect. We now expect our villains to be more complex and multi-dimensional. It has lead to developments like Dr. Doom becoming Iron Man and Lex Luthor becoming Superman. It’s as crazy a concept as it sounds, but believe it or not, it works.
It’s a strange era with respect to our understanding of evil. On one hand, our most cherished traditions say we’re intrinsically evil. On the other, science says we’re intrinsically good. What do we make of this? That’s a question nobody, especially not an aspiring erotica/romance writer, is equipped to answer in a single blog post.
It’s still a question that I find myself contemplating more as I prepare my next round of projects. In every major story, there are protagonists and antagonists. It’s not too hard to put a lot of energy into what makes a protagonist tick. They are, after all, the lens through which the story is told. The antagonists, on the other hand, present a different challenge.
For the most part, I haven’t had a chance to flesh out complex antagonists. The two most notable examples I’ve had, to date, are Warren Irvine in “Skin Deep” and Madam Felicity in “The Escort and the Gigolo.” In both cases, I made a concerted effort to give layers to these characters. I think I did the most with what I could, but I do feel there’s room for improvement.
For me, this means seeking a greater understanding of evil and what makes evil people tick. It’s a potentially scary subject, but I survived high school and puberty so I think I have the stomach for it. If it means being able to write more complex, well-rounded characters, I’ll gladly take that chance.