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Beguiling stories

Good becomes boring and evil becomes romantic in 'hot' fiction

Issue: "Pro-baby," Jan. 30, 2010

Those hoping the vampire trend in popular culture will soon pass may need to collect their souls in patience a while longer: All signs are that the "paranormal" will be riding high for a while. But if vampires wear thin other phenomena can pinch-hit, such as zombies, ghosts, and angels. Not, however, nice bumbling angels like Clarence in It's a Wonderful Life. The wings you hear beating on the sultry air come from another place.

For instance: Lauren Kate's young-adult novel Fallen is about a distressed teenage girl gone wild over a mysterious young man who displays unusual strength and longevity, minus the pointed fangs. He is, in fact, an angel-not the kind who dwells among the cherubim and sings "Holy, holy, holy" without ceasing, but the kind who got kicked out of heaven. They used to be known as demons-"hot" in more ways than one.

Fallen has been optioned for film production, but viewers hungry for an angel flick can sooner see Legion. Its trailer includes a line about when "God lost faith in man. . . ." The title refers to an avenging horde led by Gabriel, whose mission to destroy humanity is thwarted by the archangel Michael and a small band of mortals at a truck stop. One of the mortals is expecting a baby who will be the second coming of Christ . . . or something like that. Of course, God never had faith in mankind-it's supposed to be the other way around-and the two heavenly beings mentioned are on the same side, biblically speaking. Apparently, Michael is now a fallen angel, because some special-effects guys in the industry think the whole angel thing is deep and mysterious and archetypal and really cool. Besides, the plot includes vampires and zombies and big guns.

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Legion doesn't pretend to be anything but an action-horror flick, but there's no denying the fascination darkness and rebellion hold for us in stories-much more than in real life, though it's well-known that "bad boys" have their appeal for otherwise-sensible women and girls. Memorable villains usually pop to mind ahead of memorable heroes, unless the heroes are of the conflicted kind. In general, the more purely "good" the character, the less interesting. "Imaginary evil is romantic and varied, full of charm," wrote Simone Weil; "imaginary good is tiresome and flat. Real evil, however, is dreary, monotonous, barren. Real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating."

Why the disconnect in perception? Partly a matter of function: In stories, it's usually the villain or antagonist who moves the plot. The typical story begins with a status quo that abruptly changes, and in the process of getting back to normal the hero (protagonist) undergoes trials which will transform him as much as his situation. Brave or resourceful as he may be, he mostly reacts to the antagonist's action; the villain is the dynamic element. My sister once used the film version of Othello in a literature class for juvenile offenders, who were fascinated by the character of Iago-surely one of the most thoroughgoing villains ever created. It was his manipulation of the decent characters that awed them: "Wow! I can't believe he just did that!"

But here, in conventional story structure, art reverses reality.

We generally portray good as the absence of evil. But evil, as Augustine proposed, is absence, period. In other words, negation. Evil can only manifest itself by perverting the good. Fallen angels, at least since Milton, have been portrayed romantically as those who assert themselves rather than slavishly obey the Master. But there is no self to assert. The ultimate rebel (Satan) is defined by what he rebels against: life, light, being. Ultimately he becomes the opposite of all those things: death, darkness, nothing.

If goodness bores us, it's because we don't know what real goodness is. Rather than romanticizing rebellion, we should study how to portray the good-not just in our art, but in ourselves.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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