Once he crosses that red line, there's no turning back.
"Tarkin, if ever there was a shred of humanity in you or these twisted creatures of yours, it's dead now. You're at war with life itself. You are enemies of the universe... your Empire is doomed."
Named for the boundary around a black hole
from which there is no escape once crossed, this trope uses the black hole as a metaphor for evil; the Moral Event Horizon refers to the first evil deed to prove a particular character to be irredeemably evil.
Note the word irredeemably
. It is a demonstration of permanent
evil; as in, the first evil deed whose role in the story is to tell us they will always be a bad person
. That moment where you know for sure that it is simply not in their character to do something genuinely good and unselfish. And of course, many villains stay evil throughout, but we're talking "If you can find it in your soul to even consider forgiving this person, there's something freakishly wrong with you." Their existence is a blight on humanity. They poison the earth they tread upon. The very air they exhale is toxic fumes. They. Are. Vile.
While they may not have had a term such as this to define it, many authors clearly recognized it. Robert A. Heinlein
's Stranger in a Strange Land
referred to it as being the result of an act that was "so bad, so black" that it was basically unforgivable. Hank Rearden in Ayn Rand
's Atlas Shrugged
said that "to convict a human being of that practice was a verdict of irrevocable damnation... a verdict of total evil
" and that "he would not believe it of anyone, so long as the possibility of a doubt remained." Meanwhile, multiple religions have the concept of "perdition", where those who have committed a truly unpardonable sin are irrevocably doomed to damnation.
Obviously, it follows from the definition that a character can't cross this boundary more than once. Crossing it implies going from redeemable to irredeemable, and that's it; the other way around contradicts the definition. Of course, that doesn't mean they'll always be getting worse. Sometimes a character who has crossed the horizon will invoke I've Come Too Far
afterwards... but they have still crossed the line. Yet there are ways to stem the descent into a true monstrosity. Sometimes all that stands between man and monster is a Single Tear
... or even a full-out weep
. Perhaps a show of respect for the enemy. A Heel Realization
that you've gone too far. Sometimes they become The Atoner
. But the act has been committed, and they will never fully succeed...
And since it's subjective, some characters will think you've crossed it, while others may be still prepared to believe in your possible redemption.
Just as with a real black hole, the closer you come to a Moral Event Horizon, the harder you must try to escape.
Can lead to a Complete Monster
, but crossing the Moral Event Horizon does not
automatically imply a Complete Monster
. The character can just be a bad person; the Moral Event Horizon is a black mark in their history that cannot be forgiven. A character who performs an act that should make them irredeemable but somehow gets away with it is a Karma Houdini
. Unless they realize it
, feel horrible
and work their ass off to atone for that crossing
. Then maybe it'll evolve into Forgiven But Not Forgotten
, that one crossing certainly will stay as a black mark, but they're working to be a better person. Such instances, however, is rare.
Sometimes, however, there is a positive usage of a Moral Event Horizon
. If in a work, a villain seems to be too ineffectual and pathetic to be a threat yet the show wants to insist that it's a dangerous villain, letting the villain cross the Moral Event Horizon
can be a good way to establish that villain's caliber, that he's meant to be opposed. In other words, it can save a supposed villain from being a failure of a villain.
- Crankshaft. The September 2013 plot arc has Crankshaft get even surlier than usual because a new co-worker is challenging his reign of smug, curmudgeonly idiot incompetence; his response is try to 'scare' her into leaving him be the festering asshole using his hard life as an excuse to be the antisocial clod he was born to be....by trying to run her over with his school bus.