TRUTH, EVIL, & DARK PLACES
Truth, Evil, and Dark Places. I do believe the mark of great storytelling is Truth. That the stories you tell — no matter how fanciful - are embedded with emotional, psychological, intellectual Truth. But, in practice this does mean that writers often have to go to dark places...
In a recent lecture at the AFTRS, writer Tony Ayres observed that “storytelling is a compassionate act. In order for me to write a character whose opinion I disagree with, I have to understand them, and the more I understand then, the less I hate them.”
This compassionate act is really one of finding complexity; of embracing the detail over the simplistic - of uncovering the caveats, exceptions, and mitigating circumstances behind a character we may not otherwise like.
And it’s from this that I find myself thinking about Evil…
It’s not a word I’ve ever liked as it seemed altogether too blunt; that by calling something evil we seem to throw up our hands and declare it incapable of being understood. And the moment we do that is the moment forfeit any chance we might have of preventing it.
For example, calling Hitler ‘Evil’ is easy, but it doesn’t go any way to understanding how Hitler came to power - the complex social, political, and cultural forces that generated ‘Hitler’. The risk is that the more we use the label Evil the more we refuse to see the causes of Evil. This week, as I work through complex dark story ideas and try and solve narrative challenges, I’m struck by the need for complexity in the darkness.
I’ve often been asked what books on screenwriting I recommend? The answer is, I don’t… Which is not to say there aren’t good ones out there, but rather that a book on writing shouldn’t be the first port of call for a writer. It seems to be jumping to the execution not the substance, the end mechanics not the things that make stories worth telling. The avoidance of big ideas in favour of devices.
Instead I tend to say read history books, philosophy books, books on folklore and sociology and science. From this (and without wanting to make too much of the comparison between the label of Evil and the act of Writing) I fear sometimes we miss the complexity of what makes ideas compelling.
But if I was to pick a book, I might choose Howard Suber’s ‘The Power of Film’. It’s not a ‘how to’, it’s not an instruction book, it’s sure as hell not another vacuous remix of white-male-hero-3-act structure. Instead Suber’s book is an alphabetical glossary of powerful idea words, teased open by short succinct extrapolation - usually delving into both history and etymology. Four of my favourites from his book are Chaos, Decisions, Paradox, and Evil…
On Evil, Super writes - “For the ancient Greeks, a Daemon was some sort of divine presence, often located within one-self, and associated with one’s lot or fortune in life. In Christianity, Demons became exclusively Evil - a force ‘out there’ rather than within oneself.”
There’s something very telling about how story-cultures (ie religions) evolve ideas and have changed the nature of the word ‘Demon’ from an internal Presence to an external Force. And once you begin to unpack ideas like that into their complex differences you give yourself powerful tools to think about character and story by coming to a more nuanced idea of what a ‘Demon’, as a source of evil, is. On one hand something that wants to do harm, and on the other something within me that I struggle to keep from harming.
To me, as a writer, there’s already more useful and exciting narrative complexity in that observation than most screenwriting books I’ve ever read. But it also gives me a path to follow... And that path lead to Aeon magazine, and an article entitled ‘How evil happens’.
The essay reflects upon the nature of Evil and how it might be defined using the obvious reference point of Hitler and Nazi Germany. If I’m going to write about Evil, I need to commit the compassionate act of trying to understand it. And for this, the essay refers to neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried and his paper entitled ‘Syndrome E’.
With Syndrome E, Fried identified a cluster of 10 neuropsychological symptoms that are often present when evil acts are committed. The 10 neuropsychological symptoms are:
1. Repetition: the aggression is repeated compulsively.
2. Obsessive ideation: the perpetrators are obsessed with ideas that justify their aggression.
3. Perseveration: circumstances have no impact on the perpetrator’s behaviour, who perseveres even if the action is self-destructive.
4. Diminished affective reactivity: the perpetrator has no emotional affect.
5. Hyperarousal: the elation experienced by the perpetrator is a high induced by repetition, and a function of the number of victims.
6. Intact language, memory and problem-solving skills: the syndrome has no impact on higher cognitive abilities.
7. Rapid habituation: the perpetrator becomes desensitised to the violence.
8. Compartmentalisation: the violence can take place in parallel to an ordinary, affectionate family life.
9. Environmental dependency: the context, especially identification with a group and obedience to an authority, determines what actions are possible.
10. Group contagion: belonging to the group enables the action, each member mapping his behaviour on the other.
When trying to create evil characters who are also truthful there is much about this list that is very useful, especially the ideas above of Compartmentalisation, Group Contagion, and Ideation. These we might extrapolate out to an ‘Evil’ character who is able to keep their evil acts and their humanity wholly separate, that they respond and are empowered by the group they are in, and that they constantly seek to justify their actions with philosophical ideas.
No longer just a character doing bad things, the insight from this mix of history and psychology gives a pathway to find a more complex paradigm; a better Truth.
Thinking this through is a reminder to myself, if no one else, of the power of complexity and of looking into dark places with a torch beam to find something authentic. It’s not always easy but great stories never came simplistic answers.