It might be that it’s the beginning of a brand spanking new year, full of promise and unlimited possibilities. It might just be that my fictional characters have been invading my dreams recently, which usually means that I need to stop and pay attention to what they have to say. No matter which reason, it struck me today that I am fascinated with the concept of good versus evil. But in my life, and in my fiction, it’s not really good versus evil. It’s more good versus bad. Super-ego versus id. Conscientious versus careless. Right versus wrong.
So many of my favorite books explore this theme, including my own, The Secret Remains. Three very prominent, albeit widely varied, works of fiction come to mind. You’ll have to bear with me, as my tastes are nothing if not eclectic (see my playlist under the “About” tab if you don’t believe me). I’ll list them in order and then delve lightly into how the concept plays out. One of my favorite books ever is John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Another, and I’ll always be grateful to my friend Rocsana for turning me on to it, is Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. The third isn’t a book at all, but a movie: Disney’s Frozen.
Let’s work backwards. If you haven’t seen Frozen yet, you should. I don’t care how young or old you are, or if you enjoy Disney movies or princess movies or not. The movie has everything: magic, comedy, romance, suspense. What I noticed the second time my kids made me take them to see it is that there is a permeating underlying theme of good sister versus bad sister. This really should have hit me the first time around, but I must have been too dazzled by the goofy snowman and talking reindeer. Elsa is the older, standoffish sister burdened with a terrible secret that drives a wedge between her and her younger sister Anna. Anna is the classic sweet, naïve, faltering younger sister who only seeks the approval of her older sibling. After ninety some minutes of (don’t worry, no spoilers here) struggle, anger, fear, remorse, and finally love, the two sisters realize that neither is quite what the other one had thought. Elsa learns that the tools she needs to break down the walls keeping her apart from Anna lie within her, not in her capacity for fearful magic and power, but in the simple ability to love. At the same time, Anna discovers that her own bravery and strength are more than enough to save the sister she has always strived to be like.
In Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, good versus evil isn't only a theme, it’s the foundation the book is built upon. Set in 1939 Nazi Germany, Zusak’s characters are real and heartbreaking. Death is a character in and of itself, and death is neither good nor evil, but impartial. The evil, or bad, in the book is apparent, and rarely even actually named; we feel it on every page, in every thought that crosses protagonist Liesel’s troubled mind. The good is in Liesel and in the lives she touches: her adoptive parents (both abrasive and loving), smitten best friend Rudy, tormented, heroic survivor Max. We hope (cautiously) throughout the story for the triumph of good over evil. We know the real life outcome, of course, but my fear and hope for the people that I came to love in this book kept me turning the pages into the middle of the night. And it’s not lost on me that even when good wins a few of the battles, evil isn't cancelled out. It’s still there, a part of life, an inescapable presence lurking in dark corners, waiting.
I know this has gotten wordy, and I apologize. One goal I have for the new year is to improve at brevity. I’m working on it, I really am! East of Eden by John Steinbeck is a powerful tale that follows the struggles of two sets of brothers. Parallels between East of Eden and the biblical Cain and Abel are abundant and well documented, which really serves to highlight how basic and longstanding the idea of good versus evil/right versus wrong is. I've read East of Eden twice. Once about fifteen years ago, and again more recently. The genius of Steinbeck is that he knows there is no light without darkness; no goodness without strife. His characters, the first two brothers Adam and Charles, and later, Aron and Caleb, are not just good or just evil. While it’s true that Steinbeck paints each man slanted obviously more toward one side than the other, we see the good and decency within the troubled sinner, and the gross misdeeds within the moral man. I can’t think of any other tales that illustrate the beauty and failings of the human condition quite the way this one does.
Which brings me to my own work. I humbly admit that I am no Steinbeck. Not even close. But I do believe that compelling fiction does one thing above all others: it gives us someone to root for, even as we question their choices, grow frustrated with their missteps, and cheer them on when they make that big gesture that defines which side they are really on. I do know that my work is written on a canvas that is already colored with both good and bad, right and wrong. Many times the good and the bad lie within the same character. This is the case with The Secret Remains protagonist Nicole Murdock. She is conflicted, the product of a violent upbringing, the victim of her own weaknesses, but she is also hopeful, resilient, driven and smart. Nicole must overcome her own history to uncover the person she wishes to be, the woman she knows she was meant to be. She has to realize that she is better than her father, stronger than her mother, and that the secrets of the past do not control her future. Satisfying fiction should leave us with the thrill of knowing we picked the right team, and the lasting taste on our tongue of that team’s triumph of good over evil.