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Averting Good Is Impotent:

So I'm stuck right now. Really stuck, and this is why.

I like action-adventure. High Fantasy, Heroic Fantasy, Shonen anime, etc. I want to write something like that. Problem is, I'm not sure how to write the good guys.

You see, I want them to be good. Or at least, better than the bad guys. But can you really have Good Is Not Soft / Good Is Not Nice / Beware the Nice Ones? Can the heroes defend themselves and what they stand for without Jumping Off the Slippery Slope? I want good guys, but not Stupid Good guys or Suicidal Pacifism.

Here's an example: Consider your typical Staff Chick. She's often an Actual Pacifist and a Distressed Damsel, but doesn't mind The Hero fighting for her. Now, imagine she had some kind of Holy Hand Grenade-type spell. She uses it against her enemies so that she doesn't end up as a Distressed Damsel in the first place. She's a case of Beware the Nice Ones who functions as more of a Black Magician Girl. Can she still be described as "nice" though? For that matter, can a Black Magician Girl ever be an example of Dark Is Not Evil?

I'm fine with Grey and Grey Morality and antiheroes, just as long as they're A Lighter Shade of Grey. It's just that protagonists who get too dark tend to annoy readers, and I'm really afraid of causing Moral Dissonance and Unfortunate Implications.

edited 13th Dec '11 3:44:38 PM by Xandriel

What's the point in giving up when you know you'll never stop anyway?
 2 Leradny, Tue, 13th Dec '11 3:48:12 PM from Alameda, CA
Don't be afraid to write ambiguous morality. No matter what you do, there will be someone out there who will dislike your work. The least you can do is minimize the number of people who dislike your work by doing it as well as you can.

Also, use complete sentences instead of tropes.

One thing you might consider is to acknowledge that, yes, being good means you can't be purely pragmatically ruthless in a manner that would truly maximizing your effectiveness, but show that evil people aren't pure, ruthless pragmatists either.

Good people might be forced to occasionally forego tactical advantage to spare the lives of innocent bystanders, for instance, but evil people aren't pure, min-maxing munchkins: a Politically Incorrect Villain alienates or ignores potential allies out of bigotry. A cruel villainous leader who impales all captives on pikes gets a reputation which means that every times he has a town besieged, it always turns into a doomed last stand, rather than the defending soldiers saying "we can't win this one; we surrender." Taking towns from forces hell-bent on not getting captured proves costly and inefficient, while the good army, if they show mercy to PoWs, might get enemies to surrender more quickly.

In short, maybe Good Is Dumb, but often Evil Is Dumb too. grin

Think about our world today. Do you see a world where the villains have won, and evil stands triumphant over the impotent forces of good? Maybe to a certain extent, yes, but to also to a certain extent — I would argue a greater extent — no. The Nazis do not rule Europe, slavery has been abolished (at least officially) in most of the world, etc. If you read about the bad guys, they are not mostly evil geniuses — they make mistakes and do stupid stuff as much as the good guys, more or less.

In my setting, there's a Religion of Evil which rules a large empire. They're misogynists who bind women's feet, cut up their sex organs, and force them to stay indoors unless escorted. They're not hopelessly inept villains who don't pose a threat, but they do pay a very real price for crippling and restricting half of their population in terms of economic viability and stuff (along with other instances of For the Evulz stuff incompatible with Pragmatic Villainy) — as real as the price the good guys pay for things like showing mercy when it's not pragmatic, helping the needy, etc.

edited 13th Dec '11 4:36:00 PM by Maklodes

 
[up][up] True. I just want to have overall good guys though. Not necessarily saintly, but likeable. That and the "Anvils You Needed To Be Dropped" thread made me worried about dropping the wrong kinds of anvils.

[up] I don't believe the real world is split into "good people" and "bad people". Real life has a lot of shades of grey, IMO, some lighter or darker than others. The problem is, how far should the shades of grey go? The Nazis don't rule Europe, but only because it took World War II to stop them.
What's the point in giving up when you know you'll never stop anyway?
 5 Night, Tue, 13th Dec '11 10:57:27 PM from PSNS Intrepid Relationship Status: Drift compatible
Who you are does not matter.
"One thing you might consider is to acknowledge that, yes, being good means you can't be purely pragmatically ruthless in a manner that would truly maximizing your effectiveness, but show that evil people aren't pure, ruthless pragmatists either."

Terry Pratchett demands restitution for this statement.

As a practical matter, no, you CAN be all these things and still good. It's about targets, collateral damage, and ends. Indeed, simply pragmatically ruthless demands a certain level of goodness. Pragmatism itself does. Machiavelli knew it. You touched on it with the commentary on how offering surrender saves unnecessary bloodshed on both sides.

Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. both made careers out of using a saintly nature itself as a weapon. They were extremely, ruthlessly, pragmatic. They sent people to be beaten or maimed in their causes, were beaten themselves in those causes, and made their followers swear not to defend themselves in so doing. They knew that people would die in the process. They did this because they knew, pragmatically, that the actions that would have to be taken to defend the system against them could not be justified to the system.

Never mistake goodness as a barrier to pragmatism.
Trusted Poster of Legitimate Advice (from Wo-Chan)
 6 nrjxll, Tue, 13th Dec '11 11:03:14 PM Relationship Status: Not war
[up]Some might argue that that behavior itself would disqualify them as "good". I would disagree with such an argument, but I have certainly seem it made for analogous situations.

 7 USAF713, Tue, 13th Dec '11 11:05:27 PM from the United States
I changed accounts.
It depends on how you define "good, " really.

For example, say you have a bad guy modeled on Hitler. Yes, the bland example is intentional.

Some members of the audience may get to the end and be shocked if the good guy even considers killing the bad guy. How could he? After all, that would make him as bad as him.

Or, you could have other members of the audience, like me, who will sit there with their chins in their palms thinking "when will he shoot this bastard and be done with it?"

Things like justice and righteousness tend to be very malleable concepts. What is "good" for one person may be "gray" for another, and vice versa. You can't please everyone. So, you simply have to define what you think is "good, " and go from there.
I am now known as Flyboy.
^ Or you can just dedicate an entire work to exploring this idea of ethics' malleability, a la Monster.
And better than thy stroke; why swellest thou then?
 9 USAF713, Tue, 13th Dec '11 11:10:43 PM from the United States
I changed accounts.
This is true. Moral relativism is quite the beast to tackle, speaking in literary terms, in its own right.

I somewhat doubt you're going for deep-level philosophy here, though, OP, so, suffice it to say, no matter what you do, somebody is going to offended. Let the bad guy go, you offend the Pay Evil unto Evil crowd. Kill him, and you offend the pacifist crowd. Either way, you win some and you lose some. Pick which one (or maybe something else entirely) you agree with, and then figure it out.

Or at least, that's how I see it.
I am now known as Flyboy.
I don't know what I agree with though (personally, I'd feel awful either way).

Is it a bad thing that I like action-adventure? You can't have it without action, after all. Is there really a way to write Good Is Not Soft? What I don't want is a situation where the good guy lets the bad guy continue his reign of terror and goes "sometimes, being good means not changing anything", but it looks like there's going to be a Family-Unfriendly Aesop whatever I go with.
What's the point in giving up when you know you'll never stop anyway?
Shadowed Philosopher
Myself, I'm all about get him to stop hurting people. I prefer that nobody else die in the process, but if it's a choice between killing the guy and letting him continue being evil, just kill him. I suspect that anyone who's going to be deathly offended by that is not in the target audience for a work in which it's even a possibility.
Shinigan (Naruto fanfic)
Xandriel writes:
I don't believe the real world is split into "good people" and "bad people". Real life has a lot of shades of grey, IMO, some lighter or darker than others. The problem is, how far should the shades of grey go? The Nazis don't rule Europe, but only because it took World War II to stop them.

Personally, I tend to favor a Morality Kitchen Sink to Grey and Gray Morality. It seems a little odd to say it took World War II to stop them from ruling Europe — to me it looks like World War II was how the Nazis were going to acquire Europe, aside from Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland (e.g., at the start of Operation Barbarossa, that Germans started attacking the Soviets caught Stalin so offguard that it took him a while to authorize his forces to return fire). World War II just didn't go according to plan the plan of the Germans (or Japanese or Italians). Now, if you said that the violent, bloody warfare waged by allied side is why the Nazis don't rule Europe, fair enough.

As for your example of, e.g., a Staff Chick with a Holy Hand Grenade, what if it were a knock-out grenade that caused, oh, a half-hour of unconsciousness or paralysis, rather than seriously maiming or killing? If you're dealing with high-fantasy magic, there's no reason nonlethal weapons couldn't work (especially since, e.g., making people fall asleep or turning people into stone has a longer pedigree in magic than, say, fireballs, so it's not too much of a stretch to say "it's like a gorgon's petrification power or the evil fairy godmother's sleep curse from Sleeping Beauty, but it only lasts an hour.") Now, if that's too neat and tidy for you, and you want her to be grayer, then you don't have to do that, but there's no reason it's impossible or anything.

Night writes:
Indeed, simply (being?) pragmatically ruthless demands a certain level of goodness. Pragmatism itself does.

Odd idea. What makes you think that? I could see the inverse — that being good requires a certain level of pragmatism — but I don't get the claim that being pragmatic requires a certain level of goodness at all.

You touched on it with the commentary on how offering surrender saves unnecessary bloodshed on both sides.

A pure, ruthless pragmatist, by definition, does not limit herself in her methods. She could treat captives kindly if that is the best strategy at that time, or could torture or massacre them if that's the best strategy at the time — and maybe on some occassions, terrifying enemies with brutality is the best strategy (even if it certainly isn't always). A good person still wouldn't do that, though. However, pure, ruthless pragmatism is rare among both heroes and villains, which is why I mentioned the case of a villain being unpragmatic.

Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. both made careers out of using a saintly nature itself as a weapon. They were extremely, ruthlessly, pragmatic. They sent people to be beaten or maimed in their causes, were beaten themselves in those causes, and made their followers swear not to defend themselves in so doing. They knew that people would die in the process. They did this because they knew, pragmatically, that the actions that would have to be taken to defend the system against them could not be justified to the system.

Never mistake goodness as a barrier to pragmatism.

A pure, ruthless pragmatist could use civil disobedience and a (feigned) commitment to non-violence as a tactic when that's the best tactic, or use, say, terrorist violence against civilians when that's the best tactic. A sincere believer in non-violence doesn't have that flexibility.

Now, you could make some sort of game theory argument that being clearly, "irrationally, " inflexibly committed to something shifts the Nash equilibrium to something more favorable to you, but I'm pretty skeptical of such arguments in the real world. In my experience being irrational is rarely some form of deeper rationality, no matter how much its practitioners are convinced that it is.

Now, morality, of course, isn't irratonal per se; it's just a competing set of motives which sometimes conflicts with other motives. Moral motives don't conflict with other motives out of some particularly anti-pragmatic notions: they just conflict because different motives often conflict. The fact that I want to win some battle and I want to avoid harming civilians, and there's some tension between these objectives, is no more notable than the fact that I want to eat gyoza whenever I feel like it and I want to lose weight are sometimes in conflict, even though there's no real "moral" content to either motive in that case. In my view, though it's pretty implausible that consideration of moral motives never conflicts with any other objectives.

edited 14th Dec '11 1:55:06 PM by Maklodes

 
I think what 'goodness' means in your story has to depend on the genre. 'Movie' good guys that never leave a friend behind, risk it all to save everyone, and never strike the killing blow are just plain incompetent and reckless in a realistic setting. Conversely, in a heroic setting, people who plan out acceptable losses in an earnest attempt to save as many people as they can often come across as callous and cowardly. All goodness which isn't tragic requires BOTH being well-intentioned and effective, and that requires a degree of genre-savviness.

Traditionally the genres you mentioned pull as many punches as they can to make things easy on the good guys' fragile innocence, but that also means that when a good guy is faced with a genuine moral problem it's a lot more powerful.

In the end though, the whole problem really isn't that hard. If the good guys are likeable and mean well, and the bad guys are selfish assholes, nobody's going to have any trouble working out who to root for.
 14 Handsome Rob, Wed, 14th Dec '11 5:24:05 PM from A very angry place Relationship Status: I made a point to burn all of the photographs
Scary little bugger
[up]

Unless the bad guys are also really funny and charismatic.

Then break out the leather pants and play the Galactic Empire theme.cool
No, I'm not a Zombie, they piss me off.
We're Having All The Fun
Don't separate it into "good guys" and "bad guys", all that does is immediately colour the characters' beliefs in some way. Write characters, give them personalities, give them goals, ask yourself what they are trying to do in relation to the plot. Once you have done all this, you should find that there is a natural conflict of interests between some of the characters, that is how you can easily place characters in opposing ends of a conflict without having them be paragons of virtue or orphanage burning evil.

The way you write a protagonist out of that is to pick a character for the novel to follow and to make him/her relatable to the reader, so that they care if the person succeeds or fails. What you were doing was writing one dimensional caricatures to take part in a set-piece conflict, which could only result in a dull story that has more in common with Bayformers and anime than it does with any real literary work.
All I do, is sit down at the computer, and start hittin' the keys. Getting them in the right order, that's the trick.
 16 USAF713, Wed, 14th Dec '11 6:43:28 PM from the United States
I changed accounts.
I don't think it's quite fair to say that having definitely good and definitely bad characters will make for a poor quality story. It's probably more difficult to do in an interesting and creative manner, but certainly not impossible.

Otherwise, though, I do agree with your advice, largely.
I am now known as Flyboy.
We're Having All The Fun
Yeah, I was not saying that characters cannot be good or bad, I was saying that that should not be their defining feature. Who can care about a character who wants to overthrow the Evil Dictator of Minge Castle when we are never told anything about the Evil Dictator of Minge Castle beyond the fact he is a dictator, specifically the dictator of Minge Castle, and he is evil. We need to know why the hero fights and we need to be emotionally invested in the character, that rarely happens when you start with the notion that he is good and then work backwards.
All I do, is sit down at the computer, and start hittin' the keys. Getting them in the right order, that's the trick.
 18 USAF713, Wed, 14th Dec '11 6:54:33 PM from the United States
I changed accounts.
Oh, absolutely. I think I had a reading comprehension fail there. You seem to cause that a lot, for me. 0_o

Though, I dunno, I'm sure you could get some comedy value in a parody with that kind of thing. A serious story, though, should definitely be more complex, and I agree on finding the plot-relevant motivations of a character and going from there, rather than saying "this character will be good, and the plot will warp itself so that he only does good things."
I am now known as Flyboy.
 19 Night, Wed, 14th Dec '11 7:09:36 PM from PSNS Intrepid Relationship Status: Drift compatible
Who you are does not matter.
"Odd idea. What makes you think that? I could see the inverse that being good requires a certain level of pragmatism but I don't get the claim that being pragmatic requires a certain level of goodness at all."

It is almost always not pragmatic to engage in outright evil or even evil-seeming acts; they make enemies. Even drifting too grey leaves you untrustworthy in a crisis. No matter your goals, it is usually better to achieve them with an open hand wherever this is possible. The closed fist makes them harder to hold onto and ensures that resistance will increase.

Your example about terrorists is instructive. Consider: what campaign of terrorism has achieved its goals in the modern world? The people who best understood how to work that system, the IRA, ultimately decided to give up. Every time someone bombs a bus in Israel or launches a rocket into Israeli territory, the Israeli government hardens its stance. 9/11's downstream effects included a spectacular amount of damage to both the causes and the organization that produced it. The FARC and the Tamil Tigers both collapsed at the hands of their enemies. Terror for its own sake has proved impotent and even detrimental. The only noticeable victories for it have also gone on to lose the peace.

In the end, pragmatism demands that you minimize not just your losses, but your potential for loss. That means minimizing the number of your enemies and the number of causes they can take up against you, and maximizing the number of friends you have and their reasons to protect you. And no human is a reliable friend to one they see as evil.
Trusted Poster of Legitimate Advice (from Wo-Chan)
 20 Noir Grimoir, Wed, 14th Dec '11 7:19:02 PM from San Diego, CA
Rabid Fujoshi
I suggest you read Mercedes Lackey's Heralds of Valdemar books. They do a good job of having characters that are undeniably good people, but aren't pacifistic, sitting targets, and who things like kill people on occasion in the name of good, especially in war scenarios. Heck they actually assassinated someone one time (though he was so horribly evil and had done so many bad things it was obviously necessary).

The trick is to make their opponents obviously bad and evil as well as not have the characters angst about the things that could be considered 'bad', like killing someone, even if they were attacked first and it was self-defense. The angst draws attention to the things that the audience sees as pretty much justified, even if strictly speaking they are 'bad', so just don't have the narration try to paint the characters as bad when they aren't, really. You can also emphasize the point that to be good, you sometimes have to be a bit bad. You know, steal from the rich and give to the needy, type stuff.
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 21 feotakahari, Wed, 14th Dec '11 7:37:52 PM from Looking out at the city
Fuzzy Orange Doomsayer
The trick is to make their opponents obviously bad and evil as well as not have the characters angst about the things that could be considered 'bad', like killing someone, even if they were attacked first and it was self-defense. The angst draws attention to the things that the audience sees as pretty much justified, even if strictly speaking they are 'bad', so just don't have the narration try to paint the characters as bad when they aren't, really. You can also emphasize the point that to be good, you sometimes have to be a bit bad. You know, steal from the rich and give to the needy, type stuff.

I'd consider the trick to be the inverse: it's often advisable for the villains to not be completely evil, but whether they are or not, you should show the thought processes that lead the heroes to fight them. Angst is a perfectly legitimate tactic for humanizing your characters.

(For the record, I have read exactly one story* in which a protagonist who gave honest consideration to which of two choices would be the "lesser of two evils" still managed to be appalling. That protagonist assassinated a rightful king and queen to usurp the throne, used black magic to mind control people into following her, killed her own soldiers for thinking disloyal thoughts, and murdered thousands of civilians, including children. Keep your characters less grey than that, and you should be good.)

edited 14th Dec '11 7:45:35 PM by feotakahari

That's Feo . . . He's a disgusting, mysoginistic, paedophilic asshat who moonlights as a shitty writer—Something Awful
 22 Noir Grimoir, Wed, 14th Dec '11 10:17:27 PM from San Diego, CA
Rabid Fujoshi
Angsting about something that was obviously the right course of action is whiny and annoying. A supposed 'hero' cutting down a villain who wasn't that bad of a guy makes the hero seem not all that heroic. I honestly don't get this huge trend to make every villain So Grey They're White. Most of the time I don't find it humanizing. I find it an excuse to have the character Wangst about stuff that isn't interesting. Especially for a Sword and Sorcery, I don't think we need excessive angst. Save that for the ever deepening black hole that is Epic Fantasy.

edited 14th Dec '11 10:22:48 PM by NoirGrimoir

SPATULA, Supporters of Page Altering To Urgently Lead to Amelioration (supports not going through TRS for tweaks and minor improvements.)
 23 feotakahari, Wed, 14th Dec '11 11:38:18 PM from Looking out at the city
Fuzzy Orange Doomsayer
^ If the reader would angst about killing someone, and the hero doesn't angst about killing someone, that's a way in which the hero is separated from the reader, potentially to the degree of causing alienation. I expect my readers to be the sort of people who'd angst about killing someone, so . . .

Edit: And as for killing someone who wasn't all that bad a guy, that's why a lot of my heroes don't kill unless they absolutely have to. (I'm surrounded by people who aren't all that bad, so it seems disbelief-shattering to me to include lots of bad people for my heroes to kill.)

edited 14th Dec '11 11:39:39 PM by feotakahari

That's Feo . . . He's a disgusting, mysoginistic, paedophilic asshat who moonlights as a shitty writer—Something Awful
Pronounced YAK-you-luss
You're using magic in this setting.

Have you considered the possibility of non-lethal spells? All the action, none of the angst about blasting people. Then, once they're no longer in a fit state to keep trying to kill you, you can go about Talking the Monster to Death... or, at least, encouraging the monster to seriously reconsider its lifestyle choices.

edited 14th Dec '11 11:42:09 PM by Iaculus

Freedom of speech includes the freedom for other people to call you out on your bullshit.
 25 Noir Grimoir, Thu, 15th Dec '11 12:01:02 AM from San Diego, CA
Rabid Fujoshi
[up][up]Angsting about killing people who obviously deserved it and require being killed to say, save millions, is boring no matter whether it's justified or not. It's just a lazy way to make drama in my opinion, because it's so obvious not much effort is usually put into it to make it realistic, and its rarely done very well and often lasts way too long. Whenever I read about it I tend to find it whiny and emotionally manipulative. I don't relate to the character because when it's portrayed in so obvious a light, I want to yell at the hero "Just get over it!"

edited 15th Dec '11 12:01:56 AM by NoirGrimoir

SPATULA, Supporters of Page Altering To Urgently Lead to Amelioration (supports not going through TRS for tweaks and minor improvements.)
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