Nazis are bad. If you carry away one thing from this blog post, it’s that Nazis are bad.
In fact, Nazis have become a handy shortcut in storytelling for representing evil. Need a bad guy? Make him a Nazi. No reader of books or viewer of films or player of video games thinks twice if Nazis die. They are evil. They are all evil!
There’s only one problem with this convenient idea.
Not all Nazis are evil—rather, Nazis are not all evil.
You see, people are complicated. No person—Nazi or not—is absolutely, one hundred percent wicked. No person is completely good, either. Bad people have virtues, and good people have flaws.
As satisfying as black-and-white moral struggles are in storytelling, they’re not very realistic. It’s hardly ever as simple as “good versus evil.” It’s usually “something versus a different something.” Even in cases of clear-cut good and bad, it tends to be “something mostly good versus something mostly bad.”
It’s hardly ever good storytelling to make the good guys perfect and the bad guys irredeemable. In real life, when does that ever happen?
Granted, it can work. J.R.R. Tolkien, who somehow managed to write great books while ignoring a lot of basic rules for storytelling, pits (mostly) good and selfless hobbits, men, elves and dwarves against orcs—twisted creatures damned to an existence of pain, war and cruelty. Tolkien’s black-and-white struggles work because they’re sort of symbolic. Orcs seem almost like Tolkien’s fairy-tale representation of absolute evil in his fairy-tale realm of Middle-earth. The villain, Sauron, is more like the concept of badness than an actual bad guy. (I should note that Tolkien did manage some morally ambiguous characters, such as Gollum and Boromir.)
For the most part, however, the best stories have good guys that are sort of bad and bad guys that are sort of good. Consider Avatar: The Last Airbender, the fantastic fantasy show. In its world, the Fire Nation is a lot like Nazi Germany. It attempts to conquer, exploit and control other countries: in this case, the Water Tribe and Earth Nation.
Guess what? The “good” countries have their fair share of bad guys. A psychotic criminal belongs to the Water Tribe. The Earth Kingdom is the home of thugs and thieves, not to mention a corrupt official and the merciless secret police under his control. The “evil” Fire Nation is populated largely by innocent, well-meaning citizens.
Hayao Miyazaki also does a great job of creating morally ambiguous characters. Probably his best films in this regard are Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, in which the villains are… no one, really. Princess Mononoke has a bunch of characters fighting selfishly for their own survival and prosperity; they’re self-centered, but not really evil. Spirited Away has characters that seem bad, but when you get to know them you realize they’re just gruff and insensitive.
People are hardly ever all good or all bad, and conflicts are usually more complicated than “good versus evil.” Ambiguity and subtlety are invaluable assets for any story or character!