Which is better in fantasy: evil, or complex characters who make mistakes?

Several months ago, I was working on the draft for Book One in the Chanmyr Series. Hunter was the character who got the ball rolling. In the first part of the book, he is a bit arrogant and uppity- feeling like he is smarter than everyone else. OK, so most of the time he is. But Hunter definitely carries a sense of being better than everyone.  And he also has his own issues, and in his determination to make a name for himself- and be “important,” he steals something.

I had originally written him to be, essentially, the proverbial bad-guy. Shallow, superficial, driven by greed/ambition etc.  But over time, the book has had a chance to sit on the back burner for a while. I know writers always advise this. I can appreciate the importance of this now, in ways I never could as a non-fiction writer. Over the last six months, I have written several short stories and a prequel novel/novella.

My Chanmyr universe has evolved significantly- including a whole ancient-history prequel series that I will be co-writing with someone. But that’s a whole ‘nother story:)

what I did find in this interlude, was that Hunter had a chance to evolve as a character. I had time to think about who he is and different aspects of his life and development. What drives him, internally and externally.

the change in starting perception also created a different set of options to develop in book two. I see him now as a lot less “evil,” and more self-serving, and essentially, flawed.

Does flawed work in epic fantasy?  When I think of epic fantasy, books like the Hobbit/ Lord of the Rings come to mind immediately. Sauron was just plain bad. Evil.  There was no complexity, no delving into character or motivation. Evil is evil, and generally one dimensional, isn’t it?

Of course, it is crucial to understand the time when Tolkien was writing- post world war.  Many of his races and characters were archetypal, representing aspects of the events that he had experienced all around him in Europe. The elves are very Nordic; hobbits the adorable every-day Englishman. The orcs, it is argued, were modeled after the German soldiers, etc.

Don’t get me wrong.  I adore the books.  they are some of the most compelling literature, let alone genre-writing, of our age. But, I think as we are evolving, as a global community, we are becoming aware that it is never as simple as black and white.  I think it is imperative to understand “other,’ in a world where races, cultures and religions tend to overlap. Saddam Hussein was not a good guy- but, there is a lot of complexity behind that whole aspect- politically and culturally.  Much too much to delve into, besides, that would stray very far off-topic;)

The point though, is whether it is Saddam Hussein, Adolph Hitler, or Kaiser Wilhelm-it is far too easy to say someone or something is evil- and then dismiss it, demonize it, or demolish it.

Does Hunter need to be “evil” in order to do things that cause far-reaching ramifications? all too often, ignorance is far more dangerous than anything else. I think that can be an aspect worth developing as a plot device.  OR, just the conflict of characters and goals. Nothing is worse than a man, or woman, with strong convictions.

So- what do you think about antagonists in genre writing? What are some of your favourites, and why?

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