Redemption Within The Good-Evil Binary.

The role of redemption in the story of humanity is foundational. It goes back to original sin and before. Humanity is inherently flawed. Nobody is perfect. In post-lapsarian man all are sinners. Redemptive struggle is the constant drive to better ones self, to realize that ones life is imperfect and existence is defined by a constant quest to do better.

Yet, too often this nuance is thrown aside for the easy binary of good versus evil. This is seen constantly in fantasy and supernatural fiction. The vampires or demons are simply evil at their core. They have no chance of redemption. Their very existence itself is evil and should be snuffed out without remorse.  In this model, the villain does not need to actually commit any evil act.  On Buffy, The Vampire Slayer the vampires have no soul and are simply evil.  Buffy destroys vampires who have simply risen from the grave, before they have even pulled themselves out of the ground.

This is a simplistic way to place the human (good) character in a place of righteousness in doling out violence. It removes any moral responsibility from the human protagonist to actually understand the “other.” The vampire has no soul, nothing more needs to be understood.  It is simply their “nature” to do evil.

So how does man’s ability for redemption come into play when man commits evil. If man is not by “nature” evil, but is evaluated on the acts he commits how is he allowed redemption. The vampire has no moral choice in committing evil (in the binary good versus evil paradigm). The human who commits an evil act does so with full command over his decision. Yet, we allow for redemption in man. We strive to see those who have made mistakes repent their actions and attempt to atone for their sins. This is the complex, nuanced struggle of man for over a millennia.

It seems to me that, too often, fantasy (Sauron is simply evil) and urban fantasy/supernatural (vampires are simply evil) not only removes any possibility for redemption, but actually removes any responsibility for evil from the moral decision making of such villains. They are shallow, flat villains without complex motivations. Their decisions need not be evaluated or understood. The protagonist human is by definition good, regardless of motives simply because he is the binary opposite of evil.

Yet man is not the binary good. Man is fallen, he is flawed, he is constantly seeking redemption. His motivations are encircled by greed, lust, anger and pride. By placing man against a binary evil it places man as the binary good and too often removes any reflection on humanity through this clean delineation. It diminishes the breadth of story telling by removing the constant redemptive struggle of humanity. It denies any reflective evaluation of humanity and the moral agency within which evil acts occur.

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3 Responses to Redemption Within The Good-Evil Binary.

  1. I think you are overthinking it. Although that is an interesting point.

  2. Ronny says:

    Yea, it is almost purposefully over thought in attempting to get a handle on a problem I often see in fantasy / supernatural story telling. It is this constant simplicity of what evil is and a detachment from understanding any cause of evil or evil actions. Genre stories too often (but not always, this point is generic and there are myriad exceptions) become simple action stories where the bad guy is evil simply because he is evil and the good guy simply has to kill him. This can be fun (hell, I love Buffy), but it seems a bit more effort can make more powerful story telling (such as in Buffy, where the exploration of the impact on Buffy of her violent life or the desire for Spike, even before his re-souling, to live a better life because of his love for Buffy).

    Thanks for the comments and you are right, this was more of a starting point to get the mind thinking, though it is a much larger topic than can be addressed in a short post.

  3. dreygeaux says:

    Hmm. One of the other common aspects of that moral binary idea is the thought that somehow “Pure” Evil is somehow worse than your average, run of the mill evil. Sauron is a great example of that . Sauron is an overwhelming force, something that can be delayed, but not prevented. He’s SO powerful, in fact, that a direct attack is useless against him. The ONLY way to get him is to destroy the One Ring.

    Think about this. How often do we see “Pure” Good? In most cases I’m familiar with, Good hangs back, never directly entering into the conflict. It is up to man to provide that one line of defense. Many times this is because Good is sworn to some sort of pact, preventing it acting directly. (Evil is too, of course, but hey, they’re evil! A pact just means they need to get creative.)

    Then you get the very rare version where Evil and Good are so polarized they are difficult to tell apart. Evil kills because its fun. Good kills because its necessary. If I’m the one in the middle, I don’t care who wins. The most notable example of that is in Blizzard Entertainment’s Diablo universe.

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