Does Reading About Evil Make You Evil?

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I love dark fiction. I’ve always been fascinated by the problem of evil, and literature that grapples with diabolical themes gives me an opportunity to explore this very difficult subject in all of its many facets. I get to enter into the minds and souls of those who do evil, and am able to witness first hand the torment and destruction wrought by their wicked hands.  Is there something wrong with me? Is my fascination with evil the sign of a disturbed and demented mind?

Critics of dark fiction argue that stories which address sinister themes outside of a strictly didactic context necessarily glorify evil, and conclude that the act of reading such literature is, by extension, also evil. Conversely, proponents of dark fiction argue that evil is an inescapable part of life, and that we should not be afraid to tell the truth about it in literature. Which of these two voices should we listen to?

A distinction must be made.

Critics of dark fiction make the mistake of conflating two separate and distinct desires. They argue that because one hungers for an understanding of evil, that they must therefore hunger for evil itself. This is a non sequitur. Is a police officer evil for his fascination with the criminal mind, regardless of the fact that his motivation stems from a desire to prevent further criminal activity? To the contrary, his desire to know evil is rooted in a desire to do good.

FIctional characters enable us to know the mind of evil without becoming evil.

A desire to understand is an inextricable component of our human nature. We don’t just want to know what people do. We want to know why. What motivates someone to make certain choices? Why does one man decide to save a life while another decides to commit murder?

By entering the mind of a fictional character, we can discover answers to these questions. We are privy to their thoughts, their emotions, they’re motivations. We aren’t just exposed to the evil deeds they commit. We’re exposed to the rationale behind those evil deeds. This is very important, because only when we understand the causes of evil can we ever be in a position to do something about it.

Learning about evil teaches us how to be good.

One of the most potent ways to learn is by example. When we see a person act a certain way and observe the result, we take that experience with us as if it were our own. When a person’s actions have a positive outcome, we’re conditioned to emulate their behavior. Conversely, when a person’s actions have a negative outcome, we learn to avoid it.

An accurate portrayal of evil will necessarily showcase the consequences of bad behavior. Sometimes, these consequences will be practical in nature. A bank robber, for example, might slip up during a heist and leave behind clues that eventually lead to his arrest. Sometimes, the consequences will be more spiritual or psychological. A character in a novel might, for example, get away with murder. But if the author has a firm grasp of the human psyche, he will, simply by knowing his character well, reveal the terrible transformation that takes place inside his mind, now irrevocably tainted. From this devastating case study, we are given an opportunity to reflect on what evil can do to us if we allow it into our own hearts.

And, we witness first hand the pain and suffering that evil inflicts on others. We see lives reduced to ruin by greed and malice. We feel a deep sense of desolation and loss. We walk through a desert of despair, barren of all things good, and our hearts howl from their deepest depths for something better. Prolonged exposure to darkness makes the most miniscule act of kindness blaze like the sun. It makes us more sensitive to a right way of living.

In short, reading about evil makes us better people.

Encountering evil in stories reminds us that evil exists outside of stories.

It’s easy to drift through life, comfortable, complacent, apathetic to the suffering of others. Unless we’ve experienced hardship personally, it’s difficult for us to sympathize with those who have.

But when we encounter terrorists, thieves and murderers in fiction, we are reminded that these same criminals also exist in the real world. We are forced to confront an uncomfortable truth that we would otherwise prefer to brush aside. We are forced to watch as innocent characters weep and wail and gnash their teeth in unending agony at the hands of evildoers, and we are reminded that the same thing happens to real people. This awareness breeds empathy, which in turn breeds a genuine love for the rest of our human family and a desire to act against the injustices that afflict them.

Refusing to acknowledge evil is untruthful.

The world is not all pink fluffy bunnies, sunshine and rainbows. Art that intentionally ignores or attempts to sugar coat the darker realities of human life is a distortion, a twisted half-truth that is not only deceitful but dangerous. A selective view of the world through rose colored glasses enables us to look away as innocent people suffer. It allows us to pretend that the world is better than it is, that it’s ok for us to withdraw into ourselves and ignore the plights of others who are less fortunate.

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with art that zeroes in on goodness and innocence, any more than there is something wrong with art that doesn’t. A balanced outlook is essential to a healthy understanding of the world, and we need also to be reminded of all the things that are good and right. But we must never turn a blind eye to evil. We must be willing to stare it down, to meet its malignant eyes gaze for gaze.

There is tragic beauty in dark literature.

When characters suffer, we cry for them. When an evildoer gets away with murder, we flush with anger and outrage. A good balance of light and dark allows us to explore the full spectrum of human emotions, which in turn leads us to a better understanding of ourselves. This is why the ancients devised great epics that dealt regularly with death and loss, as well as why great tragedies like Romeo and Juliet resonate so strongly and continue to persist throughout the ages.

Conclusion

Critics of dark fiction misunderstand us. They perceive a great multitude of maligned individuals prancing through the streets, approving of and even praising evil deeds. But nothing could be further from the truth. As lovers of dark fiction, we are those who are most sensitive to the devastating effects of evil. We are those who are most profoundly disturbed by its manifestation in the world. We are those who recognize more than anything else the terrible evil within ourselves. We are the ones who desire most of all to be better than we are.

We can respond to evil in one of two ways. We can bury our heads in the sand, sing Kumbaya and foolishly hope that evil will someday pass us over, that we can somehow wish it away, conquer it simply by refusing to acknowledge that it exists. Or we can face it, study it, try to understand our adversary so that we can better prepare for the task of striking it down. Which will you choose?

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2 Ways That Characters Are More Intimate Than Best Friends, Husbands and Wives

If you’re like me, reading fiction usually involves an endless string of love affairs and heart breaks. It’s always the same. I meet someone new. I fall in love. I’m on an emotional roller coaster. I burst with joy when my character is happy. My heart aches when my character is hurt. I’ll invest hours of my time into the relationship, only for it to come to a sudden abrupt end when there are no pages left to turn.

The relationship between Reader and Character is intense and intimate. What follows are two ways in which this relationship is more intimate than those we share with our closest friends and spouses.

1. You, Along With the Author, Are a Character’s Co-creator.

In real life, when you meet another person, what follows is purely a process of discovery. Who that person is has already been fully defined, independent of you. A real person always exists outside your mind. You may be lead to believe certain things about who that person is based on your own observations and biases, but whether or not those beliefs are correct has nothing to do with you.

By contrast, while the author might provide you with certain details regarding what a character looks like, what he thinks about or what happens to him throughout the story, he’s only partially defined. It’s up to you to provide the missing pieces. Unlike a real person, your character only has the fullness of his existence inside your mind. As a result, it’s as much a process of creation as it is one of discovery. Together, with the author, you give life to this other person.

The unique role that you have as a character’s co-creator is what allows you to understand him so intimately. Who he is depends in part on who you are. Because of this, you know this person more completely than you could know anyone else.

2. The Relationship Between Reader and Character Has No Boundaries.

In your relationships with real people, there are always boundaries. Between husbands, wives and best friends, there are always secrets. When dealing with real people, you can only completely know yourself. What your friends and spouses experience in their own minds you can only experience imperfectly through what they choose to reveal.

In your relationships with fictional people, this is not the case. In fiction, a character’s innermost thoughts, desires and motivations are all laid bare before you. You can peer directly into a character’s mind and soul. You can know a character better than he knows himself.

Conclusion

There’s a reason we connect so profoundly with well written characters. It’s basic human nature to crave love and intimacy. We strive to know others, for it’s in knowing that we can love. The fictional characters we encounter in stories might not be real, but the love that we have for them most certainly is. It’s a very unique kind of love, one that, in some ways at least, exceeds that which we have even for those real people who we hold closest of all.

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How Your Imagination Is Like a Mirror

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I’ve always been fascinated by reflections.

On the surface, a reflection is so ordinary, so mundane, so uninteresting. And why not? We see them everywhere we go. We look at our twin in the mirror every morning. We catch glimpses of upside down skies in puddles left behind by rainstorms every Spring. And we know — have known since early childhood — that they’re nothing more than reflected rays of light. How can something so simple and so common possibly be interesting?

But what if a reflection were something more? What if, whenever you looked in the mirror, you glimpsed the doings of another world, parallel in every way to our own? Perhaps these are not merely rays of light reflected back from our universe, but rays of light projected from another. Maybe, this other universe is populated with its own people, each gazing into their own reflections, worlds stacked upon worlds. And perhaps some of them are gazing back at us.

Suddenly, by the incredible power of the imagination, something ordinary has been transformed into something extraordinary. Your vision has been forever altered. For the rest of your life, when you look in the mirror, a part of you, if only a very small part, will wonder if the man or the woman you see every morning is really just a reflection.

And that’s not all.

The sense of mystery and childlike wonder that you experience in your imagination, it bounces back. It’s reflected, like light off a mirror. You begin to see ordinary things in this new light, and you suddenly realize that they’re not so mundane and uninteresting after all.

In the case of a simple reflection, you might ponder the nature of light. You might wonder what makes it bounce from one surface to the next. Eventually, you’ll feel the need to search for answers. And when you do, you’ll discover just how surreal and otherworldly reality actually is.

Once you do, neither you nor the world around you will ever be the same.

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