Trope Me This: Good vs. Evil

Tropes are everywhere, as I discussed in my last post. They can be very useful tools to build a world that readers can settle into easily, but they can also be crutches that leave your story totally crippled. 

So, how does one use a trope effectively so that the story is enhanced? 

I want to spend some time looking at common tropes, how they can be used badly, and how they can be used effectively. 

Let’s start with probably the most common trope in fantasy-land: Good vs. Evil (GvE for short).

The good vs. evil is probably the easiest way to bring conflict into a novel. The ultimate evil goes up against the Chosen One hero/ine who turns into the ultimate good, vanquishing the terrible evil for all time, restoring perfect balance to the world, and so on.

As I researched for this post, I came across a very interesting article giving a theory about the origins of the GvE battle. It made me think about the ways that GvE can be used badly, and I think the primary way it’s used badly is oversimplification.

The bad guys are ALL BAD and the good guys are ALL GOOD, there is no middle ground. There is no concession that good guys are sometimes bad and bad guys are sometimes good – the complexity of character is limited because the character needs to fit into his or her good guy/bad guy slot.

Our culture loves this simplicity, though.

Thor is good, Loki is evil, even though Thor disobeys his father and starts a war and Loki actually does love his family and uses his slick tongue to try to preserve it. So why is Thor good and Loki bad? (I’m not going to answer this question, just so you know)

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s LOtR, Sauron is all bad, totally bad, nothing good, which leaves Frodo, Gandalf, and company in the simple land of being good. Frodo only acts bad because of the influence of Sauron through the ring.

This simplicity, though it makes writing easier and gives readers a nice comfort of knowing who to cheer for is heavily unrealistic, and I think that we’ve explored this simplicity of good guys and bad guys for a very long time now. Perhaps the time has come to add more gray into our worlds and our works.

So, if we’re adding gray, does that negate the trope? Should it be thrown out?

I don’t think so. And I’m certainly not the first to ask or explore this question.

I still think that GvE is a perfectly fine trope to mess around with because it helps us develop the conflict, which ultimately is the driving force of our story. Without conflict, the story is, well, boring. Nothing happens except a recounting of non-events. It is precisely the conflict that brings readers to the story.

I think in all fiction, there is a draw of this base conflict, whether it’s on a global scale or a personal scale. Morality and its definition is a major component of our society and I think we’re all still exploring it. I do believe the question has evolved to asking “What IS good and What IS evil?”

In stories such as George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, GvE is explored, but it’s much less clear cut than, say, Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. In Martin’s work, we explore the good and evil inside the individual people and houses, and watch it play out in a larger scale, whereas in Goodkind’s work, we’re still exploring the evil empire vs. the newly NOT evil land, and this global conflict influences people on an individual level. It’s essentially the opposite work happening.

In it all, though, is still this exploration of good and evil.

In my own work, this is a theme I explore. The search for vengeance which then reveals The Great Evil is the plot that moves forward, but so much more is focused on the characters and how they respond to their interaction with the main character and her drive to her end goal. There are some global things happening (that I haven’t figured out at all), but I don’t have purely good guys or purely bad guys. As George R. R. Martin tells us “every villain is a hero in his own story.”

So, overall, I believe GvE is a very useful and versatile trope that has massive potential to bring conflict on either a global scale or a personal scale.

What are your thoughts on GvE?



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6 thoughts on “Trope Me This: Good vs. Evil

  1. Most “superheroes” are a mix because (IMO) people want a certain level of good but they like the bad thrown in there because it tends to be a scapegoat for our wishywashy ways. Kind of a reflection if you will… it gets old quick. Either be good or bad. Yes there are struggles, but ultimately make a decision!

    Good post!


  2. The whole idea of good versus evil is an easy way to present conflict in a story, to be sure. But I think that in order for the story to have depth the idea of GvE can’t be so black and white. Stories with characters and factions separated into clearly good and clearly evil are predictable. Adding various shades of gray, however, helps to subvert this trope, especially when we look at the antagonist of a story, and from their POV. If the antagonist is a character readers can sympathize with then it forces them (the readers) to really consider who is truly good and evil, if at all.



    1. Exactly, and I think that’s a definite trend today. In LoTR, for example, it was very black and white, but GoT is very gray. It’s an interesting shift, to be sure.

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