In the laws of nature, everything happens because of polarity. At every level of existence, action is occurring, atoms are moving, molecules arranging because of a difference of polarity. An entity with less attractive forces being drawn to a more attractive force. Even electricity only flows from a point of lesser potential (-) to a greater potential (+). This difference of potential creates energy, and energy makes all things happen, on the atomic, magnetic, thermal, electrical, human behavioral, and literary level.
The greatest difference of potential in literature is that between good and evil. These diametrically opposed forces create the tension by which all the action happens. Think of a violin or guitar string: without tension, there is no sound, no music. Even soothing lullabies derive from tension. In anything that’s ever written to be compelling or engaging, be it drama or comedy, it’s always about the potential between these ends of the human behavioral spectrum. Mankind has spent centuries debating: What is truly good and what is truly evil?
Thousands of famous and not so famous authors have wrestled with this question as well. In the end, each author settles (reluctantly or proactively) on the definition that works for them; they build their story world accordingly. They imbue bias and prejudice; they support or defend their characters, their story, against that standard – against their own internal standard. And then they release it to the rest of humanity, to their readers, hoping the audience finds resonance within.
So is a classic a classic because, irrespective of its time and culture, the societal norms and the language, the words the author composes spring from essential human truths? And, if you find those quintessential elements, have you written a classic? Have you created something that will endure?
For me (and you knew we were going here) the theory that works best is that good and evil are the range between selfish and selfless. The definition of a bad person, to me, is one who is selfish. It’s all about them. They steal, they kill, they take, they betray to further their own position. They’re full of greed, as well as the rest of the seven sins. It’s all about them. That, to me, is the ultimate bad and the essence of evil.
Conversely, on the other side of the potential, is the good. I see it as selfless. The actions the person is doing are not actions that they benefit from, but that others – the environment, the culture, or society – benefit from. That, to me, makes a hero. That, to me, makes someone with positive traits that are desirable and emulatable.
Back on the dark side… to me, the beauty of selfishness as a flawed character trait is that we all understand it, because selfishness resides in all of us. We may not have killed somebody or stolen anything, or betrayed confidences, but we’ve all been selfish. It then becomes a matter of degree. If your selfishness became large enough, would you kill another person to get what they have?
It’s a tantalizing proposition. Absurd to most, but the jails and the death rows are filled with people who answered that question in a manner differently than you. Was Hitler a selfish person? Was it all about him, regardless of who he killed? Is a war hero selfish? No matter how many enemies he killed?
It’s a slippery slope here, and it all comes down to intent. And the way I can walk away whistling, is if the intention and resulting action is selfless: good guy. If it’s selfish: bad guy.
End of story.