I ran into an interesting post the other day that asks whether or not the Nazi’s are forgivable.

The post is up and over too quickly to really chew on the question but it raises some thoughts to mind about how a story portrays good and evil. It sure seems to me that growing up and going to school was a long walk with anti-heros and deeply flawed protagonists in more or less every medium I encountered. Whether it was Frank Miller’s deeply broken Dark Knight, Lestat or Angelus – it just seems in my memory like everybody has been actively deconstructing the lines between good and evil for a long time.

The ethical questions that surround the practice aside for a moment, it presents some real issues for story-telling as well. If The Race seeks to be a kind of High Fantasy story, I think one of the most characteristic aspects of that genre is the way most everybody wears a plainly colored hat. Of course that still allows for surprises like Sauruman and characters changing sides and such, but by and large the whole structure rests on a basic premise that the lines are pretty clear. The villains tend to be genuinely evil as opposed to simply misunderstood and the heroes tend to be (gasp!) actually heroic.

I’m currently reading a very old Arthurian poem about Sir Gawain and The Green Knight  and the clarity of the tale is both simplistic and wonderfully refreshing. Gawain is a good guy, the most virtuous of Arthur’s knights, and while we see him tempted to vice there is no sense of excuse if he falls. If Gawain succumbs to temptation he would then be seen as plainly human, which is to say imperfect and flawed, and that’s just fine – but he would cease to be a hero at that point. He would no longer be something special or somebody worth telling a big story about. It is his ability to rise above his ‘humanity’ so to speak that makes him an inspirational figure. In a word, Gawain is held up as an image of Good and the reader is expected to find something uplifting in his/her own very human struggles.

OK, let me get back to the Nazis…kinda. The same kind of concept applies to the villains as well as the heroes. A fantasy villain should be plainly evil and probably beyond any offer of redemption. And the infinite wisdom of Wikipedia seems to agree with my understanding of high fantasy and how it works. The problem here is to create a story that can untangle some of the complexity of  real-life without creating something so flat and monochromatic that it plot gets stunted.

For a good while now, Nazis have been the only real world group that we feel safe to call villainous. They stand out to me as a kind of caricature that storytellers of all cuts can use in a kind of ‘insert antagonist here’ sot of way. Ok…I am so rambling now…time to sign off.


  1. I’m a novelist by profession, so the becoming of a hero of villain has always intrigued me greatly. Eventually, I wrote a story in which a falling kingdom must turn to a villain for aid. That villain becomes main character and hero and deconstructs the becoming of villains, from finish to start.
    As for the nazis, their story is very telling if you look at it literally. Are you Familiar with Hitler Youth? It was a Nazi program that mimicked Boy Scouts. These Youth, for example, went to Poland and helped Germans moved into the new homes. They’d been told horrible things about The Polish people and thought, in fact, that the Germans were the heroes of the Human race. Many Nazis were just misguided.
    I’ve begun breaking down a lot of the basic causes/types of villainy. Most of the time, members from this long list will coexist with causes/types of heroism.
    However, one thing in always constant in a villain; they always want something that conflicts with the interests of every other character. If you construct a story properly, you could ever write a story in which the villain is actually the one last decent man left on the planet.
    I agree that everyone must wear a plainly-colored hat. When we were children, we were TAUGHT to see villains and heroes as black and white, so we wouldn’t be tempted to step into the black. As we get older, we realize that complacency is creating room for villainy inside of ourselves. That is also why (when we read the stories we read from when we were younger) we recognize how cheap the portrayal of evil really was.
    However, suffice it to say; most struggles (even world wars) don’t require villains. Who thinks that Robert E. Lee was evil? Most real-life struggles don’t require evil at all. They only requires two forces that disagree.
    Sometimes, there is a small disagreement, when neither side can make a concession. They begin to realize that neither of them can acquiesce, even a little. And even though they are brothers, or they love each other, both sides pick up guns because they believe they must make a sacrifice and fight for a belief that cannot be compromised.

  2. I was just talking about Nazis in this context this morning, believe it or not. The thought that occurred to me is that the Nazis are a known evil, and one that no one can identify with (at least with how they are portrayed in modern fiction). There is a sense that they are so totally separate from our own experience as to be completely unsympathetic. I think it’s this sense of universal antipathy that allows Nazis to be the ubiquitous villains. Perhaps the only other entity to be so universally reviled (and perhaps even more so) would be zombies, which are entirely impossible to empathize with – the clearly unnatural origin of the zombie is recognized as wrong on an instinctive level.

    While the same reasoning could be applied to aliens (the “otherness”, if you will), they have been portrayed as both good and evil for so long in popular culture that they are little more than another people group.

    On a side note – combining groups of “others” seems to be almost a sure-fire recipe for success when creating a villain. Examples are the Flood from the Halo series (zombie-aliens) and the Nazi-Zombies from Call of Duty: World at War. Someone just needs to create some Nazi aliens and we’ll have the trifecta.

  3. Have you seen the film? I think it provides a great framework to discuss the issue. It’s interesting to see the cinema owner’s response once she finds out the Nazis want to hold an event at her cinema.

    Maybe I shouldn’t continue if you haven’t seen it yet, though…

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