“Good is good,” I read on the crown my son had cut out. “Let us battul [sic]” he finished. I asked my husband what exactly my son meant by these things, and my husband told me it was a battle of Good against Evil, and that the words were Good’s slogan— “Good is good.”
As writers and creatives, we often hear the instruction to show, not tell. Clearly my seven-year-old son has not encountered this advice yet, as his slogan was a little overt and tautological. He could have equated Good with many things—bravery, heroism, kindness, generosity, love—but he chose the self-evident statement he did. He told us that Good is in fact right and true and worthy to and all the things that Goodness is, all wrapped up in the simple word, “good.”
As we get older, what is good becomes less obvious at times. Matters become complicated by mixed motives and far-reaching consequences. In many a narrative, whether in a book or in a movie, the villain is driven by seemingly good motives but forgets or disregards the collateral damage to achieving his or her goals. That is what makes villains compelling—we can relate to them on a small point, however much we would like to deny it. Yet we have this deep-seated desire for Good to win, for what is right to triumph. So how do we writers reconcile that to the fact that we, as humans, often do wrong?
The Clear Division Between Good and Evil
In some stories, the distinction between good and evil is more evident. Though perhaps at the beginning we are unaware of what evil is at play and why, throughout the story we discover that there is indeed something nefarious going on beneath the surface and that the heroes and heroines must battle it. Oftentimes, the face-off between good forces and evil forces is the climax of the story, the event to which everything else has been leading.
By the time of the showdown, everything has become clear—or clearer, at least—concerning which side represents “good” and which is “evil.” By this point in these types of stories, we know who we’re rooting for, and the resolution and catharsis lie in the victory of Good.
Yet as I mentioned earlier, we as humans are not “Good.” We commit wrongs and make mistakes. At the same time, we would like to equate ourselves with the winning side. How can we justify us winning? That is where internal conflict and character growth come in. Our main characters, who are most often the ones we are siding with, often come face to face with a part of themselves that is less than pleasant, sometimes downright despicable. Whether it is with fear or pride or misplaced priorities or anger or vengefulness, these characters end up battling themselves as much as they battle the external enemy. Only by defeating both the internal and external foes can they claim ultimate victory. That is the triumph of Good—inward and outward.
There is another approach to speaking about Goodness that storytellers often take—to leave ambiguity. These types of stories might ask the same question as the previous stories, but they leave the answer vague. How can we root for Good and so often do wrong? These stories respond to that question with uncertainty. They might imply that we don’t know what Good is or maybe that it doesn’t matter what Good is. Sometimes the authors of these stories don’t believe that Good can be attained, and other times they feel that there is no clearly defined Good to be attained.
The issue I take with these stories is that sometimes we can us them to justify evil. Of course, they can be done well, but often the ambiguity lets the characters get away with wrong simply because it’s “understandable.” In the name of empathy and compassion, we justify wrong deeds of the character, and in doing so we lower the standard for ourselves. It is like when we find that kindred soul who has the same vices we do—somehow, because someone else comprehends why we commit our wrong acts, those acts become more acceptable. Yet this is a slippery slope. There are reasons behind why anyone does evil, but those don’t make it right. Just because we understand someone’s motives and intentions doesn’t make lying or gossip or pride or anything else better.
Stories of ambiguous Good often leave us hanging with a sense of cognitive dissonance. These stories don’t give us hope that true Good will ever come about, and they don’t call us to anything more but instead leave us in an empathetic moral stagnation.
Why I Want Good to Triumph
But what if I don’t want to be stuck in empathetic moral stagnation? What if I want to aspire to a higher standard, even if I don’t meet it? What is it they say—shoot for the moon and even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars? I want to live among the stars.
Stories that more clearly define Evil and Good help me to envision what I’m aiming for. They are stories of both external and internal conflict, and in them I learn how to fight. I know we are flawed—that I am flawed—and my hope lies not in attaining perfection but in experiencing redemption. What I so desperately long for is the hope and expectation of something better for myself and for those I love.
The beauty of Goodness is that the imperfect can in fact participate in Good, can become good, and in this happening, Goodness wins. That is the narrative that strikes true in my soul. That is the trope that carries me away to new heights every time. I want to be able to say with my son, “Good is good; let us battle!” and mean it to the core of my being. I want Good to win, and I want to be part of that victory.