Hi! I’m new around here. The founding bloggers have graciously given me a spot here on Seeking New Earth. I’ll be joining the fun in earnest at the end of this week, but for now, I thought I’d share some ruminations I had this weekend on badguys and monsters.
I love monsters. They tickle the imagination. They tend to have a higher sense of personality and motivation than wild animals. They give the protagonist something to smite that is unambiguously evil or unacceptably dangerous.
But there’s a trouble with monsters. The trouble is… they’re monsters.
What does this mean?
By and large, monsters lack what you could call “moral agency.” In other words, monsters are wholly and intrinsically evil. They cannot choose between good actions and evil actions. They must do evil actions. Since they have no choice, there is a sense that they can’t really be blamed for their actions. We can dread them and despise them, but we can’t really blame monsters for being bad any more than we can blame a lion for eating a gazelle. It’s what lions do. It’s what monsters do.
It’s the difference between Grendel and Gollum.
Grendel, in Beowulf, is a monster. He eats humans. There is no dialogue with Grendel. There is no way to try and reason with him. Beowulf just knows he has to go kill him. The story of Beowulf wouldn’t be all that different if Grendel were a humungous wolf rather than a hulking monster.
Gollum, on the other hand, made a choice. He could have realized what the One Ring was doing to him. He could have avoided it. He could have abandoned it. Bilbo did, to a degree. So did Frodo. Bilbo and Frodo chose good. Gollum chose evil. Even more interesting, Gollum struggles with a desire between good and evil. Gollum becomes a complex character of both pity and revulsion specifically because he has “moral agency.” Unlike Grendel, you can’t plug a senseless animal into Gollum’s role.
There’s another important reason to include a badguy with moral agency in your stories. If all you have is monsters, it tends to flatten your protagonists’ morality. The brave and daring knight can always feel morally superior to the depraved and evil monsters. But when the big bad has moral agency, then the knight may have to do some soul-searching. “Who or what determined that I should be on the side of good and not in league with this evil fellow? Is there some wicked part of me that isn’t all too different from my nemesis?” Perhaps most interesting of all, “Am I really justified in destroying my nemesis, or is there the possibility of redemption for him?”
All of this shouldn’t dissuade you from using monsters. Monsters are still cool. It’s good to have monsters in your story. Just remember: your really compelling badguys are the ones who chose to be bad. And maybe, just maybe, they won’t always make that choice.