I had a conversation once with another Book of Mormon novelist about characterizing the infamously “wicked” King Noah. The other author thought he was wicked through and through, with no redeeming value. Perhaps that was the case toward the end of his life, although we cannot truly know the deep motivations or potential of another. I considered the “why’s” and “how’s” of King Noah and his evil court. What had led him through the series of events that cumulated in sentencing a true prophet of the Lord to a fiery death? (See Mosiah 17.)
Did King Noah have a lousy childhood while his father, King Zeniff, was busy running a nation and his mother attended to her vast queenly duties? Perhaps Noah was mistreated by a nanny who raised him; or perhaps he was the brunt of schoolyard jokes . . . Was he uncoordinated? Did he have a hard time making real friends? Was he a lousy hunter?
Whatever drove Noah to spiral down the path of greed, selfishness, and eventual destruction, one thing is clear: we can learn from his choices. They were certainly subtle in the beginning. Maybe he stopped saying his prayers, he chose the wrong friends, or he let his pride swell exponentially as he prepped to become the heir to the throne.
In a recent national writing conference, the topic came up of creating a believable villain when the author herself doesn’t carry those traits. The teacher’s answer surprised me. “Someone loves the villain, even if it’s just his mother. You have to give your villain sympathetic qualities.” Think of someone you love and what might happen if they committed a horrible crime. The love is still there; although it is now accompanied by a broken heart.
If we hear of a crime committed by someone we don’t know, we rush to pass judgment. Just like a character in a novel, a person can’t be all good or all bad. And just as in real life, a child is not born evil.
Once we understand the motivation behind a person’s horrible actions, our hearts may be softened. Of course that doesn’t mean we condone the actions, for justice must also be served, but we stop casting the person/character in a 100% bad light.
Reading about the villains of the scripture can teach us how to avoid the same pitfalls. In my non-fiction book, Women of the Book of Mormon, an early reader was concerned that I had included the “bad examples” along with the good. Isabel was a harlot (Alma 39), and the daughter of Jared plotted out a secret combination to kill her grandfather (Ether 8). How could reading about the women who made wrong choices be inspiring? I see these women’s stories as cautionary tales. If we aren’t vigilant on a daily basis, we might discover how slippery the slide can really be.
In Dennis Gaunt’s recent book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, he makes an excellent case for learning the enemies’ strategy in the ever-escalating spiritual war—a war in which two sides are battling for our souls. If we want to win, we must think like a military leader. A successful military leader studies every move his enemy is making. Gaunt suggests that we plan our own counter-attack by educating ourselves on the “bad guys in the Book of Mormon. Let’s learn to be smarter than they are. Let’s learn their tactics. See what tricks they used. Peek at their maps and plans. Pinpoint their lies. Point out the holes in their arguments. Let’s see how faithful people just like you and me resisted and defeated them in the past. Let’s be ready to face the bad guys of today”
I couldn’t agree more.
Studying about the rise and fall of civilizations throughout the Book of Mormon can often be pinpointed to just a few ideologies. Many times the slide of civilization begins with an anti-Christ. In a fascinating essay, Robert L. Millet outlines the portrait of an anti-Christ, saying, “The first and most obvious characterization of an anti-Christ is that he or she denies the reality of or necessity for Jesus Christ” (The Book of Mormon: Jacob Through Words of Mormon, To Learn With Joy, 176).
Interestingly enough, Gaunt also hits on this theme, taking it one step further: “Anti-Christ is Antifamily” (142). This phrase really caused me to stop and think of the many dictations of the world that are handed down to us on various shapes and sizes of serving platters. The antifamily messages are anti-Christ. And sometimes we may not even recognize the subtlety right away.
I echo Gaunt’s petition that we must stay proactive, we must stay diligent, and we must stay educated and aware of the adversary’s power, so that, we can “rejoice and exult in the hope” of Christ (Alma 28:12).
Heather Moore is the author of Women of the Book of Mormon: Insights & Inspirations, and the most recent Book of Mormon novel: Ammon. Visit her website: www:hbmoore.com