Inspiration

Five Dualities That Can Replace Good and Evil

In the 100, Clarke discovers their enemy has every reason to be angry.

Let’s face it, fights between pure good and absolute evil are getting old. Black and white morality doesn’t lend itself to nuanced characters, and it rarely feels realistic anymore. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have epic battles that determine the fate of the world. Just paint your story with these colorful dualities.

1. Freedom vs Safety

In the film Minority Report, people are thrown in jail when the system predicts that they'll commit future crimes. In the film Minority Report, people are thrown in jail when the system predicts they’ll commit future crimes.

Freedom allows us to find happiness. But the freedom to drive a vehicle is the opportunity to crash through windows. The freedom to wield a weapon is the opportunity to kill a neighbor. Occasionally, freedom isn’t meaningful enough to justify lost lives and money. Particularly in times of strife, strict regulation could keep terrorists from infiltrating defenses or a deadly virus from breaking out. But just as restrictions might be necessary, a fictional threat could be used to control everyone.

Example

For a decade, the allied nations have stared across a field of barbed wire and hidden mines to where the enemy waits. The opposition appears silent, motionless, yet their drone strikes and surprise gunfire disrupt weddings and lay waste to public parks. Spotlights pierce the fog after curfew, seeking the spies who betray the alliance and the smugglers who covet rationed resources. Suspects vanish. After years of government overreach, the people have become discontented. Rebellion brews underground, threatening to boil over. The hero must choose: give the enemy a critical opportunity by coordinating widespread upheaval, or expose rebel leaders to their oppressive governments.

2. Success vs Selflessness

In Mad Max: Fury Road, Max will sabotage anyone to survive until he comes across Furiosa, who is risking her life to free a group of women from sexual slavery. In Mad Max: Fury Road, Max will sabotage anyone to survive. That is, until he meets Furiosa, who is risking her life to free a group of women from sexual slavery.

Wealth, happiness, and even survival can come at a price – a price paid by someone else. Is it moral to exploit the resources of a weaker nation when the lives of your citizens are at stake? Is it acceptable to make your grandchildren solve a problem you created, because defeating it now would come at great cost? When resources are scarce and people are suffering, selflessness can be an unaffordable luxury. When a society refuses to give aid, the needy may take it it by force.

Example

The cosmos hurl massive meteors at the shadowed half of the world, turning it into craters and dust. Cities become burning rubble; the injured wail over the loved ones who’ve gone still. The fortunate kingdoms reluctantly give way to begging and pleading, offering their assistance. But those that accept it are pressed into indentured servitude. Many refugees refuse, even though their demise is at hand. Instead they coalesce into vicious bands, pilfering prosperous cities, terrorizing civilians. A hero rises from the chaos, but will that hero capture the bandits or force aid from the wealthy?

3. Progress vs Preservation

In Toy Story 3, Woody gets mad at the other toys for abandoning their owner Andy, who has grown up and no longer plays with them. In Toy Story 3, Woody gets mad at the other toys for abandoning their owner Andy, because Andy has grown up and no longer plays with them.

No society can remain in stasis. Whether it’s from new contact with outsiders, advances in technology, or a shift in the natural environment, all civilizations must change. But the more a society undergoes rapid change, the more people will attempt to preserve the status quo. After all, change isn’t always good, and even when it is, it could come with a cost. Gathering resources for a new device could mean the destruction of sacred spaces. Prosperity from an advancing economy could mean forgetting honored traditions. Survival could require such a daunting transformation that characters are forced to wonder: is it merely change, or is it death?

Example

For thousands of years, great mystics have preformed rituals to snuff incoming plagues and nurture feeble crops. But the populace has become educated and irreverent. To replace the mystics, they devise a way to wrench energy from fractures in the land. The mystics witness, aghast, as the great shaking of the earth shatters their devices and opens cracks in their walls. Every day, their achievements crumble further. But the innovators refuse to cease their discordant methods. The mystics remind everyone of their power, promising to use it against the ungrateful. Frightened, the populace calls out for a hero, but will that hero prevent the mystics from doing harm or sabotage the birth of industry?

4. Individuality vs Community

In the film Snowpiercer, the last of humanity survives aboard a train. Passengers are told that to preserve the delicate balance of life, they must know their place. In the film Snowpiercer, the last of humanity survives aboard a train. Passengers are told that to preserve the delicate balance of life, they must know their place.

If everyone put the needs of the community above their own, we could create a utopia with no hunger, homelessness, or crime. In doing so, however, responsibility to society would replace personal fulfillment. If everyone pursued success independently, many would create new innovations in their drive to compete with others, bringing them wealth and fulfillment. But some would fail, living a short life of malnutrition and unhappiness. The innovations gained through competition might only benefit the already successful, unaffordable to anyone else. Is it better for us to fail on our own terms or succeed under others’?

Example

For generations, humans have endured in a single ship, guarding against the cold vacuum of space. Once born, each person is fitted with a telepathic receiver, conveying the suffering of others and compelling them to complete their responsibilities to the ship. Now, an unknown doctor is disabling the receivers. As people anonymously drop from the system, duties are neglected and fights break out. The independents that are caught refuse to plug back in; they’ve never felt so complete. With each passing week, life on the ship deteriorates for every passenger. A hero is needed. But will the hero locate the doctor and repair the receivers, or destroy the telepathic network?

5. Privacy vs Transparency

In the tv show The 100, teenagers that are sent away defiantly remove the wristbands put on them as a way of tracking their vital signs. In the TV show The 100, teenagers that are sent away defiantly remove the wristbands that track and transmit their vital signs.

Without reliable knowledge, it’s impossible to make sound decisions. The ignorant will harm themselves and others. Unfortunately, revealing the truth can be equally disastrous. If a closeted politician persecutes their fellows, is it okay to out them, even though they’ll be punished for who they are? Does using privacy to evade unfair laws enable those laws to continue? Anonymity is used for unethical practices, but without it, people might be too afraid to speak against injustice. Would society improve if we were completely open with each other, or would it simply allow bullies to target the downtrodden?

Example

The physical world has long been abandoned for the instantaneous connections of technology, but divisions still stand between users of the global cybernet. The corporate nations accept only those with verified identification, but between them lie the dark crevices where denizens chat in evolving codes and name themselves what they please. The dwellers of the darknet are as varied as their names. Some trade blackmail. Others flee corporate punishment. Now, a new hacker claims to have the identity of every user across the globe and will give it to the highest bidder. Little does the hacker know their own identify has been revealed to the hero. Will that hero force them to release the information to everyone, give it to some, or destroy it?

Once you try an epic battle between orange and blue, you’ll find it’s great for your story. It provides more opportunity for disagreement among allies, creates a deeper and more nuanced picture, and allows a variety of endings. Your hero can help one side pummel the other, foster balance between the two, choose one at great sacrifice, or even find a solution that works perfectly for all parties. After that, black and white will never do.

Want pointers on your story? We’re available for hire.

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Comments

  1. Alverant

    An interesting post except
    1) You may alienate readers by casting the side they support as the antagonists giving the impression the author thinks they’re wrong. “Atlas Shrugged” comes to mind in your second example, a book where teachers are called parasites and gleefully killed for not being selfish enough.

    2) Nearly every extreme winds up being bad. Compromise is often needed in a situation. Setting up a duality can lead to a situation where the other side is always wrong which is just as unrealistic as the good/evil duality.

    • Chris Winkle

      Very true; these issues can be somewhat contentious, and it’s impossible to protect any story idea from being implemented poorly.

      I’m not sure stories can have a meaningful discussion without alienating a few people. If no one disagreed, it wouldn’t be such a worthwhile topic. And choosing good and evil doesn’t protect you from alienating people anyway – the characteristics you present as evil and the ones you present as good could clash with the reader’s ideology.

      A scale might be a better way to present these themes than a duality, but if they’re generating conflict in the story, it will create a similar effect. I think you could make one side wrong realistically by having moderates vs extremists in your story, but that sorta defeats the point of using themes like these.

      • Alverant

        Well I’ll give you an example. Marvel’s Civil War was freedom vs accountability. Basically any superhero(ine) had to register with the government and get licensed like a doctor. (Yes, I am was in favor of registration.) But that was the side quickly became the “bad guys” as pro-registration heroes started acting out of character and mercilessly hounded the pro-freedom heroes. Heroes that didn’t comply were put in a prison so horrible at least one hero killed himself rather than stay. There wasn’t an attempt to show both sides had a point. The public and the Marvel writers pretty much took the, “If you think superpowered beings need to prove they have the basic skills police officers have then you’re EVIL!” attitude. The story could have been so much better if they did.

        The case has been made Civil War saved Marvel financially. I was already quitting comics right before this happened and this kept me from coming back any serious way. If Marvel can’t do one of these right, what hope does anyone else?

        • Cay Reet

          My problem with the idea of registering every superhero is a practical one, actually. And it’s why I’m adverse to that idea. If there is a central organisation, be it SHIELD, a government, or something created only for this, there will be one place where there’s a list with the real identities of all superheroes of earth.
          Marvel not only has a lot of strong heroes, they also have equally strong villains. If one of the can get their hands on the list, be it through a hacker, through bribery, or other means, they can not only threaten every superhero (those could deal with that), but also every superhero’s family, friends, or lovers … people who usually are not ‘supers’ themselves and not fit to protect themselves from superpowered villains.
          As long as the true identitiy of the superheroes remains hidden, the people around them are in much less of a risk.

      • Chris Winkle

        Marvel has created some strong stories, but I wouldn’t call them the pinnacle of storytelling. For one thing, even though companies with big budgets can bring on great writers, they still are patching together the work of many writers, which can be tricky to keep consistent. Budgetary and marketing concerns can also override the best story choices.

        I don’t know why Marvel decided to make a one-sided battle and put beloved heroes on the wrong side of it – clearly a questionable move as far as character consistency goes – but there are many stories that pull off a gray morality well, Minority Report and the 100 come to mind. And many more than are one-sided, but make the wrong side understandable, such as in Snowpiercer.

        But the biggest reason why there’s hope for anyone else is that you personally noticed the problems with the Marvel Civil War. A problem that can be identified is a problem that can be solved. Perhaps you’re not a pro writer, but I don’t think you’d make the mistake Marvel did.

        • Bronze Dog

          I’ve watched a lot of Linkara’s Atop the Fourth Wall, and one thing I’ve learned is that a lot of bad stories, nonsensical plot twists, and out-of-character actions are the result of executive meddling. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an executive mandate to cast the pro-registration side as the villains simply because the higher-ups were convinced secret identities are a necessary part of the superhero genre.

          Frankly, given how often I see gross police misconduct in real life, I think I’d lean pro-registration in principle, even if it’s just soft pressure. “Hey, I know you want to fight crime, but it’s really important that you get registered so the criminals can actually get convicted. Without it, you risk tainted evidence and mistrials because they can’t be sure you’ll follow proper procedure.”

      • Alverant

        I don’t know why Marvel did what they did with Civil War. It was a big seller, but there didn’t seem to be any long-term consequences of it. I’m wondering what they’re going to do with the movie. Limitations of the medium aside, this could have been great. I think Marvel has made complicated characters that don’t quite fit into the good/evil dichotomy, but they’re usually in the cosmic arena.

        Personally I’m not sure if this is a story I would even attempt to do out of risk of messing it up. I’m still very much a “good vs evil” style writer. I think trying to use other dualities is a big risk because it’s too easy to slip back into a “good vs evil” mentality. People want to root for the winning side and if their side loses they may interpret that as being told they’re wrong. It takes a mature person to seek out entertainment like that.

      • Chris Winkle

        It’s really disappointing when you can see the potential of something, but it doesn’t live up to that potential. I feel your pain there.

        You’re right that good vs evil is often easier. If nothing else, it’s simpler. If you don’t feel up to trying gray vs gray morality, I might suggest making your villains a little more sympathetic, and your heroes a little more flawed. You don’t have to go all the way to gray vs gray to add a little nuance to your story.

  2. markofthepixie

    I found in RPGs a good duality was “Personal honour vs Local Law”. The most obvious example would the duels in the Three Musketeers. These where a core part of the characters personal honour but were illegal. It can easily be used in the wild west, samurai japan, and similar genres. It could be applied to renaisance medical doctors who illegaly exhumed bodies to devlope new treatments. Another example may be character facing the choice of a legal but personally objectionable decision. I suppose it could be seen as a sub-set of “Individuality vs Community”, but worth seperating as the law does not always live up to the ideal of benifiting the community.

    • Chris Winkle

      That sounds like a great duality if your PCs actually care about the law, some are only too happy to subvert it. But I imagine if you had a game where the PCs were cops or another duty-bound group (like samurai, as you mentioned), that would create a great dilemma.

    • Alverant

      This can also be an “ends justify the means” conflict. Batman put himself above the law to enforce it. It doesn’t have to be a superhero either. Chris mentioned cops who skirt the law to catch the bad guy. It can start simple, bending a law here and there for someone who is obviously guilty. Then they make a mistake, either they bent things so much they break or the person is actually innocent and now the cop has to make it right. The problem is confessing to what s/he has done would mean all those other guilty people might be released.

  3. Tomi

    Brilliant post! Great job!

  4. Helyn

    Read a book years ago (David Eddings series) and this passage always stayed in my head – although this is a paraphrase- : the boy-becoming-hero says to his grandfather (the sage of the series) “so it’s a fight between Good and Evil”. The reply : “That’s a bit complicated. I prefer ‘Them and Us'”

  5. Void de Rien

    While watching the Force Awakens again last night, this very issue was something I found myself dwelling upon after the credits. In my fiction, I tend to deal with a protagonist facing unknown and impersonal horrors and encountering phenomena that undermines their worldview. Typical cosmic horror/weird fiction stuff. I want the reader to come away asking themselves hard questions with answers they may not like. For example: maybe perseverance isn’t always the right idea, maybe morality is objective but it is the rogue AI/Alien Invaders/Great Old Ones that are morally justified in wiping us out, etc…

    As you can imagine, this is an exceedingly difficult tight rope to walk. It is a nonstop struggle to find a way to engage a reader in a way that they will grant me the leeway to show them things that will attack their worldview.

    Star Wars intrigues me due to the audiences willingness to grant agency to an abstraction like the Force without anthropomorphizing it. Unfortunately for me, I’m not sure an audience is willing to be charitable to ideas that aren’t designed to evoke life-affirming warm fuzziness.

    The duality runs through most of my fiction is being vs. void. But true to grey vs. grey, I tend towards undermining the idea that existing/living is inherently good and negation/death is inherently bad. I struggle with finding the proper way to get an audience to grant me the conception of Life, absent Death, as monstrous. I’d like to evoke a grey/grey world of impersonal primordial forces working through characters in a grand cosmic conflict. Either side winning would be bad news, and human life as we know it only survives in the no-man’s land between absolute nothingness, and boundless mindless consumption and an excess without end.

    I am still refining my voice so as to get best effect. I know my themes will always be niche, but I still would like write something that does reach that sliver who are willing to play with the ideas. I’d love to reach the point of having enough goodwill that the audience will be charitable to Abyssal Jedis vs Golden Sith of Life, but I not sure how to build enough goodwill without first compromising the very principles which compel me to write.

    • Chris Winkle

      That’s a really interesting challenge. Do you have a central character that learns the value of death during the story? In my experience, if you create a character that the audience really likes, and put them carefully through the strange experience you want the audience to have, many will follow along. I’m not sure exactly what you’ve run into though, and what you don’t want to compromise on.

    • Jaime

      ” It is a nonstop struggle to find a way to engage a reader in a way that they will grant me the leeway to show them things that will attack their worldview.”

      This is my writing as well, though I approach it from a very different angle than you do. My goal is always to cause confusion in the reader, because at least in my own case, confusion leads to an urge to discover more, which leads to fascination with the concept and the story. So long as you can pull your ideas together in a coherent enough manner by the end — so that the reader doesn’t feel you’re tugging them blindly behind you through a pitch-black wood — they will like that feeling of discovery. That’s why they opened the book.

  6. Lib

    Very interesting article! But I think that a good example can be the main theme of The 100. Its centered on “The sacrifice of the few for a greater good”. And this idea seen from a general perspective, can seem like a fair predicament, but it actually has a lot of moral implications. It’s interesting how the show presents different situations which make their characters take decisions and there’s never a correct answer. Every decision has it’s good and bad results and they can affect many people, even if it seemed the best chioce.

    Although, it’s pretty sad how this show had a great story writing but failed completely on season 3 because it has many plot holes in order to achieve a bigger plot no one cares about. It’s such a shame…

    • Chris Winkle

      Yeah, the 100 has many themes but “The sacrifice of the few for a greater good” is a pretty good way to sum it up. Actually, I really like the AI plot. But I agree Season 3 has plenty of issues.

  7. Bronze Dog

    For my Changeling chronicle:

    Freedom vs. Security and Privacy vs. Transparency seem like the biggest conflicts in the setting. Every Changeling wants to be safe from recapture, but loss of freedom caused by Wyrd-enforced pledges is also terrifying. It overlaps with privacy vs. transparency in that a common frailty Changelings develop are taboos and compulsions that can destroy their freedom if they become widely known. Transparency would hypothetically make it easier for Changelings to work around each other’s frailties and understand odd or seemingly traitorous behaviors, but naturally, it’d be exploited by less scrupulous members, and if a frailty’s widely known in the freehold, that means their enemies outside the freehold could easily find out.

  8. Tumblingxelian

    Great insights, these are very useful & make me think of some other options as well.

  9. Reader

    This was a very interesting read! But I’m surprised this article didn’t mention delving deeper into the Good vs. Evil duality to tackle the “Grey vs. Gray” duality (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/GreyAndGrayMorality).

    I agree that having a plot solely rely on “purely good vs. purely evil” isn’t realistic, but it can provide a great springboard into questioning whether each side in a conflict is truly in the wrong or truly in the right. One popular TV shows that tackled this well was Avatar: The Last Airbender. As the story went on, it made a point to showcase the many facets a viewer may find when examining the different sides of a century long war—a corrupt government hiding under a seemingly “good” facade, a nation brainwashed by propaganda and hardships, how both redemption and corruption are lost and/or obtained, etc. These reasons, and more, are why the show received so many accolades in the first place. The same can be said with its sequel, which delves more into this duality.

    I see the Good vs. Evil duality as a familiar lens that writers can use as a guide before switching things up and questioning their readers through various situations and characters. To me, it’s a tried and true method for exploration and questioning if executed well.

  10. Snowplow

    No matter what your duality is, it always turns into good versus evil. The very idea of duality requires one thing be identified as good and another as evil. I like the idea of the article, but no battle can be without good or evil.

    Even real life events are divided between good and evil. In WWII and the American Civil War, and probably every other countries’ civil wars, one side went down in history as evil and the other good. In WWII the Axis powers were defined as evil and the Allied forces were defined as good. In the American Civil War, the Union side that won was defined as good and the Confederates as evil.

    Still today, people who believe certain things to be true are considered evil and people who believe other things to be true are called good. Mankind cannot understand the world without definitions of good and evil.

  11. TGGeko

    I think you sell the concept of good and evil short. I think in fiction, the concept of good and evil are more symbolic than moral judgments. The creator is saying “avoid this, and go to this” when they set up their dichotomy. If the hero fights for freedom over privacy, say, the creators are saying that one is evil and is trying to impart the message that we should avoid it.

    Consider Sauron in LotR. He’s evil insofar as to show us the corrupting nature of power, so that we as the audience know that the ring should be destroyed.

    Even if you set up two sides that are morally grey, the conflict isn’t between the two sides, but with how the hero deals with a complex situation. If the hero tries to find a compromise, you’re tell us that understanding is good and ostracism is evil.

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