I'm conceptualising (amongst my many other ideas) a story involving two heroes who go on an epic journey and return bitter rivals etc. etc. and form their own forces in a sort of civil war.

My issue is that I want them to both be on the "good" side. How can this be explained using politics and leadership?

In effect, I want to somehow make the characters each beleive the other is evil, despite either of them being evil.

Side note: I've looked into real world examples such as the world wars and other historical wars and there is always (in my opinion) one of two catalysts for war:

1: Some sort of unrest, leading to mutual hostility.

2: An attacking side waging war on a defending side.

Maybe I can work one of these in?

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    $\begingroup$ every war has no good or evil side, there are just winners who say they were good and loser who can't be around to defend themselves. $\endgroup$ Jul 28 '17 at 16:58
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    $\begingroup$ Were the Vietnamese leaders in 1955 objectively evil? How about US leaders? Would your answers to these questions change if you are, respectively, someone living in some country not involved in the conflict, someone living in the United States, and someone living in Vietnam? What about someone in China, USSR, Brazil, or the Phillipines? Year for year between 1955 and 1976, would any of the answers change? (Note: This is a rhetorical question, so you don't actually have to answer. It's fine if you just think it through all to yourself.) $\endgroup$
    – user
    Jul 28 '17 at 17:00
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    $\begingroup$ As written it looks like you are asking about how to write a story that doesn't label it's characters as good and evil. This seems like more of a writing problem than a worldbuilding one. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Jul 28 '17 at 17:02
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf You are the result of a century of propaganda against communism and fascism. The people who fought for those regimes truly believed they were in the right and if they won, their citizens would have undoubtedly say that capitalism is built on greed and evil. $\endgroup$ Jul 28 '17 at 17:12
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    $\begingroup$ To round that off, because I ran out of space in the margin: I'm sure a similar argument could be made that capitalism is evil. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Jul 28 '17 at 17:12

"Good" and "Evil" are, almost always, very relative terms.

While wars are invariably (if there's some counter-example I cannot think of it right away) fought for economic reasons fighters are usually driven by some compelling inner moral reason.

[I know I'm oversimplifying, but otherwise this answer would become a long treatise.]

Your "heroes" fall, most likely, in the "fighters" category and thus they are motivated by sentiment more than pure greed.

This makes very easy to achieve what you ask; there are very many different "views of the World" that are irreconcilable even with the best intentions.

One example for all: dichotomy between "freedom" and "security". Both are seen as "good things", but different persons will give precedence to one or the other. When it comes to a situation where the two things come to conflict each of us will side according to his/her inclination, but there's no "evil" or "good" side (even if participants would think otherwise).

In this framework each of your heroes could become champion of one of these "world views", perhaps one advocating individual freedom (roaming freely in the prairie hunting wild animals and hoarding cattle) while the other tries to build a more organized and secure country (perhaps with a guild/caste system... and barbed wires limiting the prairie).


It's actually not an issue because "history is written by the victors", who often use their dominance to codify the evil of the vanquished. The vanquished may have been evil, but evil is a relative concept based on social mores, (despite what deolators would assert), and so, even engaging in acts that would be considered evil, it's a safe bet that most of the actors did not consider such actions evil.

But the depiction of the vanquished as evil is in no way universal. Certainly this was not the case in the Iliad of Homer.

In the Iliad, the Trojans are not presented as evil. Conversely, they are depicted as noble adversaries, with the subversive element that their dignity is greater than that of the Greeks, certainly Agamemnon, Menelaus and Odysseus. It's not insignificant that the epic ends with the line "And thus was the funeral of Hector, breaker of horses." Hector unquestionably possessed the greatest dignity of all of the heroes of the epic, Greek or Trojan. He neither instigated the war nor desired it, but must fight in it regardless. He is blameless and esteemed, and makes the greatest sacrifice for his country.

I'd say that books where the bad guys are evil is a type of shorthand, a technique that allows the author not to have fully explicate their point of view in simplistic narrative.

Another way to contextualize this is per the advice of skilled actors in portraying villains, and may be condensed into:

Everyone is the hero of their own story

Actors who don't use this technique generally deliver one-dimensional performances.

I'd also use postmodernism in presenting the conflict. The Trojan war is generally held to be a result of the "abduction" of Helen by Paris. The reality is that Troy held an incredibly powerful strategic position, and dominated trade between the Euxine (Black) Sea and the Aegean. If the Trojan war actually occurred, it was almost certainly about economic control of the region.

Even the pretext of Helen is illuminating. WWI has been cast by respected historians as a war fought for no real reason, other than Europe has become a power keg in the wake of the success of Fredrick of Prussia's regimental system. (Critiques of Keegan rely on a romanticized view of warfare as an "extension of politics by other means", but should more properly be cast as an "extension of economic and political hegemony by other means.")

WWI can be viewed as an unfortunate outcome of inciting event in which actors in the war were obligated by treaty to take part.


So maybe during their quest, each of the heroes has earned the right to rule the kingdom through equal acts of valor, risk and sacrifice. Maybe each has seen in their rival, some fatal flaw that they themselves are free from. Hero A is generous to a fault and will quickly bankrupt the kingdom. Hero B is too conservative and will strangle innovation by cutting off all crown-sponsored aid programs. Neither is really fit to rule despite the fact the each has earned the right to do so.

There is no blatant evil in the coming conflict; just a pair of flawed people risking their lives to defend the kingdom from each other's faults.


The same as in the USA and many other countries IRL: Fundamentally different belief systems.

By "fundamentally" I mean there are core values each side believes in, the beliefs are technically unprovable as right or wrong, and part of their belief system is that global ramifications exist if their system of belief is not adhered to.

For a current example (and it is just an example, I wouldn't use it in a story) consider climate change: Many believe in it absolutely, they buy into the science and trust the scientists. Of course they have not examined the data themselves, or done the calculations themselves, or bothered to check the claimed chemistry themselves. They don't know how, they don't have the time, and they don't believe a fraud of that scale could be committed. But it is something they (not the scientists, the non-scientific believers) are taking on faith, or simple belief.

On the other side are many people with a different flavor of pure faith and belief: A belief that God would not ever allow Man to destroy the Earth, would not abandon the children he loves, and a pure faith that the scientists must be wrong or intentional frauds seeking money for their worthless studies, because their God truly loves them and will simply not allow the Earth and billions of innocent people to die.

Which means, all taxes, restrictions, laws or whatever else aimed at preventing climate change or global warming is really theft and slavery they will not tolerate.

A similar dynamic plays out between people in favor of regulating business, and those that believe free markets should reign. Neither belief is provable and the logic on both sides is rife with problems, laughably bad statistics and idiotic economic math (I am a mathematician and statistician btw). Or between socialists and libertarians.

All of these are systems of faith sprung from different fundamental beliefs on how the world works, how economies work, how politics should work, what is moral and what is not, and different religions (or rejection of religion).

Two heroes can go in search of treasure for different reasons: Alex goes because it is his chance to help the poor in his village, Baron believes in the merit system and believes anything he gets should be his, he worked for it, and although he has a moral system, it does not obligate him to help anybody without some kind of incentive for him to do so. He has a deal with Alex to split what they find 50/50 and he will honor it and if necessary demand by force of arms that Alex honor it too: A contract is a contract for Baron, whether good or bad, in retrospect, and he truly holds himself to that standard. Baron believes the down-trodden are on their own. Alex truly believes he, and everybody (including Baron) has a moral responsibility to help others that need it.

Together, they can go treasure hunting: Alex will risk his life to save Baron because it is the moral and right thing to do, without a single thought toward their contract; in fact he sees Baron as his friend and brother in arms.

Baron will risk his life to save Alex because he sees it as being part of his partnership contract with Alex; nothing more. He does not regard Alex as a friend or brother, it is all business, and without that handshake agreement to honor, he would not risk his life and would instead watch Alex drown in the river.

Both men are honorable, neither is a cheat, but their belief systems are so different that eventually, once the treasure is secured, Alex may feel betrayed by his "friend" and "brother" Baron. But Baron is innocent; he feels their business contract was successfully concluded when they split up the treasure and went their separate ways. He owes Alex nothing and Alex owes him nothing. His refusal, say, to come help defend Alex's tribe from invaders is just business, Alex offered him nothing. So now Alex's wife and children are slaughtered and he blames Baron. Baron tells Alex "Blame yourself, you fool! If you hadn't given your money away, then like me, you could have built a castle to protect your wife and children! They were gutted because you, Alex, do not know how life works!"

Rivalry ensues.

  • $\begingroup$ I like your examples $\endgroup$
    – Aric
    Jul 28 '17 at 19:30

I would look for a compelling moral condundrum that serves as the climax to the epic journey, and the very core of the schism between the two.

For example, Hero A meets and falls in love with Love Interest Z. At some point, Love Interest Z becomes a host for Demon/Parasite/Entity Y, which has the power to destroy the world. Both Hero A and Hero B realise this. Being an objective outsider, Hero B acts to kill Love Interest Z, nullifying Entity Y and preventing the destruction of the world. Hero A now hates Hero B, believing their must have been a non-fatal solution.

That's probably too narrow a scale, but it might get you thinking. If Love Interest Z is a beloved public figure, than perhaps that's enough to escalate to a civil war. If not, maybe consider Love Interest Z as an entire city of people - quarantined and annihilated for the greater good. Metrocide (is that a thing?) seems pretty evil, but if it's the alternative to omnicide? Well...

All you really need is an act with no clear right/wrong, and I tend to think that something that can be split according to the logical solution and the emotional solution should resonate.


You use "designated heroes and villains" to speak in TVTropes. The "good" side of the war may fight for freedom and tolerence, but they are almost all made up of jerks and thugs. Meanwhile, the "bad side" are sympathetic in so far as why they got into the war... but their actions are horrifying.

I highly recomend Animorphs in which the Racist Xenophobic Military Junta Alien Race were the "Good Aliens" and the Democratic Anti-Autocratic Xenophillic (technically speaking) Alien race were the "Bad Aliens". Of course, you have to realize that the later case, their government permits slavery (brain parasites), but they still enjoy diversity among their population and rank did not correlate to which bodies they could infest. In the former case, the do have a point in that brain puppeting is not right.

Another good exploration is in Deep Space 9, specifically the episode Rocks And Shoals. Here, the physical threat and the intellectual threat are not the same source. The enemy soldiers are a physical threat, but in a situation where they must cooperate, Captain Sisko trusts them more then there political officer, who holds the command of the rest of the troops (Kivan, who is quite open to Sisko that he intends to betray his troops to further his own end). In the society of the enemy, the soldiers are devoutly loyal to the political officers and even though the commanding officer of the troops is well aware Kivan is marching him to his death, he is still going to go through with it because of his loyalty. This culminates in a situation where Sisko's men and the enemy troops are facing off, but the episode takes pains to show that Sisko is not a hero and the enemy troops are not villains... they are both opposing forces in a war that are forced to kill or be killed.

Another good dynamic to look at is the one between Dinobot and Rattrap in Transformers: Beast Wars. Dinobot betrays the Predicons because Megatron was incompetent in his leadership and dishonorable in handling that accusation and goes to the Maximals. Rattrap, probably the most commited member of the team to the Maximals, immediatly suspects that Dinobot is up to something and this informs a great deal of their interaction. The crux of this relies on both having fundamentally opposing ideaologies over loyalty and morallity. Dinobot is devoted to the Predacon Ideas of Honor (For the cause, there must be a clear line we will not cross). Thus, when Megatron is believed to be without Honor, Dinobot believes it is a line he cannot cross and thows in his lot with the Maximals. Meanwhile, Rattrap is devoted to the Maximal Cause (there is nothing I will not do if it enables the Maximals to win the egagement). We do see Rattrap "betray" the Maximals, but in both instances, he believes that by betraying them, the Maximals will gain an advantage in the long run. While the pair have argue, it can be see that both see in the other their ideals without conflict. Rattrap is not proud of his dirty fighting and actions that run counter to Maximal ideaolgoy and admires Dinobot for his devotion to moral fortitude ("You may be a slag spewing saurian, but at least we know where you stand"). Meanwhile, Dinobot wishes he could show the same devotion to the Predicons that Rattrap shows to the Maximals... but that would mean comprimising what he personally stands for. ("Upwind of you by preference")("My Destiny is my own. And yet, how ironic: I have no choice. I am a warrior still. Let the battle be joined.")

The best way to do go about this is that each side in this conflicts looks at the other and sees a reflection of their own worst features celebrated as a positive feature. Their arguements should be counter to each other not because they are black and white, but because they are blue and orange. They do not mesh with the logic of the others and rely on positives.


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