Let us strive to be fully human and there will be no longer a place for evil.
Let’s revisit Mother Teresa’s quote, “on the day I discovered I had a Hitler inside me.” This is a profound understanding of the Golden Theme, to be able to see the monster in oneself. In order to be good storytellers, we must recognize that monsters are nothing but the worst versions of ourselves. Monsters in both the story world and the living world are only manifestations of us.
This is a hard pill to swallow because we do not want to
58see the monster in us, but it is always there waiting for a moment to break free.I once wrote a story where one of the characters was a slaveholder in the American south.
To find this character’s humanity was a challenge for me, as I am a descendant of slaves. But I had to imagine myself in the circumstances of my character’s world—I had to find the part of him that was like me. I had to understand that the people of the past were made of the same flesh and bone and had all the same feelings and thoughts. In short, they were just like me.
These people who were slaveholders grew up in a world where this was the system. They would usually be given a slave playmate as a child, so that both slave and future master knew their places in society. Now imagine that to give up this system would mean abject poverty for you. Put it in today’s terms, would you give up all you own if it meant that factories around the world would stop using child labor? Would you do that if it meant you would lose everything?
Most of us would not.
Let’s look at the violence of the slave system. This was a system of fear. Imagine that your life was the only thing that stood between you and the freedom of one hundred and fifty men, women, and children.
I remember when I was a child and my mother told me for the first time that black people were once slaves. This is a hard thing for a child to grasp. My mother explained it by saying that not only did it mean working for free, but that it also meant that she, my brother, my sister, or I could be sold away from each other—that one day one of us might go away forever. That I understood.
Imagine that you were a slaveholder and had broken up families. How well would you sleep knowing that there were grieving mothers and angry fathers just outside your door?
Imagine their hatred for you.
Even though you deny the Golden Theme, you know it to be true. It is the only way to imagine how your slaves would feel. You know on some level that they are just like you. You know that what hurts you hurts them. But you suppress it because it is too much to bear.
George Washington freed his slaves in his will, effective upon the death of his wife Martha. The idea that she was the sole reason these people were still slaves made her fear for her life. She freed the slaves herself while she lived. She knew how she would feel in the same situation as the people she owned.
It was this kind of fear that made people violent and cruel to their slaves. It was the only way to control so many
60people. Both slave and slaveholder lived in constant fear. No matter what it looked like, both were slaves.Imagine that you were born into that world instead of ours. Imagine being told from your earliest years that this was the way it was and should be. Imagine who this would make you. Find the thing that would make you behave as the cruelest of slaveholders and you will have found his humanity and your own. Remember, these were just people. Just like you.
This is when it becomes a challenge to believe in the Golden Theme: when you must confront the monster inside, but it is there.
Playwright August Wilson said, “To live it [life] as an artist is to be willing to face the deepest parts of yourself. To wrestle with your demons until your spirit becomes larger and larger and your demons smaller and smaller.”
To that end, please answer this list of questions as honestly as possible:
Have you ever, as a child or adult, been cruel to anyone?
Have you ever, as a child or adult, been selfish?
Have you ever, as a child or adult, not stood up for something you know is right?
Have you ever, as a child or adult, gone with the crowd to be accepted?
Have you ever, as a child or adult, believed yourself to be better in some way than those around you?
Have you ever, as a child or adult, lied about yourself to impress others?
Have you ever been driven by an obsession or addiction of any kind?
Have you ever, as a child or adult, lied to yourself?
Have you ever, as a child or adult, let your fear control you?
Do you harbor a secret shame?
Have you ever, as a child or adult, let any negative emotions or attitudes, such as depression, anger, jealousy, fear, or arrogance, get the best of you?
Have you ever, as a child or adult, ignored the suffering of others?
Have you ever, as a child or adult, been envious of someone else’s abilities, looks, money, or status?
Have you ever, as a child or adult, abused a position of power, even a little bit?
Have you ever been mean to someone you saw as a romantic rival?
Have you ever, as a child or adult, helped spread a nasty rumor about someone?
Have you ever, as a child or adult, wished someone harm?
Have you ever, as a child or adult, taken more than your share of something?
Have you ever, as a child or adult, taken/stolen anything you felt you deserved?
Is there anything that you could do that would make your life better that you are too afraid to do?
If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, congratulations, you are a human being. Remember that villains are not inhuman; they are humans who are ruled by these baser feelings and thoughts. All monsters in the living world and the story world are manifestations of these emotions. This includes trolls, dragons, witches, vampires, invaders from space, and evil kings. It includes Iago, Cinderella’s wicked stepmother, Captain Ahab, the serpent in the Garden of Eden, Little Red Riding Hood’s wolf, Captain Hook, Darth Vader, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Ebenezer Scrooge, Professor Moriarty, Lex Luthor, Lady
63MacBeth, and Beelzebub himself. But it also includes Tomàs de Torquemada, Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin, Idi Amin, Heinrich Himmler, Caligula, Josef Mengele, Countess Elizabeth Bàthory, Benito Mussolini, and the Rev. Jim Jones.I’m not saying that there is no difference between villains who actually lived and murdered people and those who exist only in the world of story. What I am saying is that there is no difference in the traits they possess and that therefore the lesson for the audience is the same: do not behave as these people do, and watch out for these people in life.
In the case of villains, the Golden Theme is defined by its absence. Villains put themselves first at all times—they allow their baser instincts to take them over.
It is important for us storytellers to understand that if we create characters that are inhuman monsters, then we create two-dimensional caricatures that no one can relate to. No one views themselves as a monster, so there is no reason for the audience to look inside themselves and confront the Hitler there if they do not, on some level, identify with the villain of the story.
Mother Teresa’s battle is one we all fight. The reason we are elated to see the hero win over evil is because the hero’s struggle is our struggle.
As storytellers, we must also be careful not to make the hero too good. We all want to see ourselves as the hero, but if the hero of a story is too perfect, we cannot identify. The audience must be able to see that the hero has doubts and fears just as they do, and that the hero overcomes them. This is the Gorgon we must all defeat.
A hero or heroine must understand the Golden Theme and put her own or his own life in a secondary position to a greater good, just as the Hutu pastor who hid the women in his bathroom did.
Whenever possible, a storyteller should draw a parallel between the hero’s weakness and the villain’s. That way the audience can measure the triumph of the hero against the failure of the villain with a direct comparison.
When there is victory over evil in a story we are invested in, there is a sense of catharsis.
This catharsis can also come with a tragic ending. But connecting with another person on an emotional level, a level beyond words, is transcendent. The ancient Greeks believed that this feeling was medicinal. It is the feeling we get when we understand the Golden Theme.
As storytellers we must find the part of villains that is like ourselves, as this will give them depth.