I’ve been playing a lot of Fallout: New Vegas recently. I played through in my usual style, helping out, being a hero (or so I thought) and achieved a free and independent Vegas. Now I’m playing through again, my characters name is ‘RatFink’ and I’m trying to be, if not evil, then selfish, self-serving and callous. It’s not easy and it got me thinking about how the creators of stories play with the morality of characters and the relationship between heroes and villains in certain franchise properties.
You see, RatFinks problem is that New Vegas steers the character into helping people solve their problems, the thieving and murdering rarely feels like part if the plot but sometimes the decision to be bad is harder than you might thing. It was easier in Fable when the pursuit of moral extremes was more for the distinctive aesthetic rather than for any divergence in the plot. Quests are the main mechanic for earning XP and levelling-up so you pretty much have to do them otherwise you have a sandbox you run around in doing whatever you want but little in the way of stimulating narrative. Many of these quests have no karmic reward but more have ‘good’ karma than ‘bad’. The biggest complication is the overall socio-political situation in the Muhave so, while you may be earning good karma, you might not be doing things you see as being ‘good’.
So what about Moral Absolutes? What about the spectrum? My first thoughts for this blog were that I was going to write about god-mod characters but some of those represent different positions on the moral spectrum so, here goes. Possibly the most virtuous hero that springs to mind is Superman. He’s effectively indestructible and his personal moral values share that ultimate resilience in the majority of his story-arcs. Ask anyone and they’ll say his weakness is ‘Kryptonite’ but is it? In order to expose big blue to this glowing rock most of his enemies chose to distract him by placing innocents in danger, from that respect his weakness is his very morality and humanity. His relationship with his repeat appearance villain, Lex Luthor, is on of strength vs intellect, humility vs arrogance and humanity (from the alien) vs inhumanity (from the actual human).
I’ve been aware of One-Punch Man for a while but have only just gotten around to exploring Saitama as a character. Here is a character who has (somehow) developed immense physical strength and durability, such that no foe can hurt him and he can defeat (see; smush into bloody gobbets) any monster with a single punch. Saitama is presented as quite a dull personality, he has moments of strong emotion but his character is presented in the anime by being more simply drawn than the others, he’s purposefully presented as bland. He becomes a hero for no other reason than he wants to and remains on for fun, having achieved a level of prowess where he’s never at risk. Although he fights monsters and criminals (ostensibly for the common good) the collateral damage of the fight scenes in the just the first episode is horrifying and, just as often (so far) he fights for selfish reasons like ‘the challenge’ or because the bad guys chose to shave their heads ‘stealing his look’ as he puts it. So he does good but not for altruistic reasons. Saitama’s ultimate enemy isn’t any of the villains he faces but the growing detachment from his human emotions he feels as he fails to find a worthy challenge. To that end he’s introduced to other ‘hero’ characters assumedly to help him retain his humanity.
Many of my returning readers will know that I’m a Punisher fan and, while you can get a more polar opposite to Supes, you can’t really while still retaining the title ‘Hero’ (even if it’s Anti-hero). So Frank Castle doesn’t go for leaving his enemies alive but he doesn’t hurt the innocent and he doesn’t tolerate collateral damage but, the best stories about the Punisher (Ennis is great for this) don’t really revolve around Castle, he’s a shallow character, beyond his tragic backstory and his unwavering resolve to punish criminals there isn’t much there. He’s a consequence for the villains or a complication for agencies of law and it’s how his actions impact on the other characters in his stories that makes them enjoyable for me. Take one of the all-time great Punisher books, ‘Welcome Back, Frank’ (the start of Garth Ennis’ involvement with the title). Ma Gnucci is a wonderful villain, Detective Soap is the luckless police officer assigned to a Punisher Task-Force of two and Franks neighbors round-off the circles of influence Franks passage stirs ripples (or tidal waves) in. The morality of the Punisher isn’t that far from Judge Death of the 2000AD: Judge Dread strips but, far enough removed from the ‘All crimes are committed by the living, ergo life is a crime’ that he doesn’t simply murder everyone but sometimes he does question how long it will be. Castle is a perfect example of an absolute, there is no ‘give or take’ his position is immutable but, as a result, he has nothing else.
There’s a trend these days to make your hero an ‘Edge-lord’ and then make the villains markedly worse but it’s a balancing act. A friend of mine recently commented on the ‘Uncharted’ game series. They went back to play it for nostalgia reasons the find that Nathan Drake wasn’t much better that the scum-bag villains he was fighting against and let’s not even get me started on Fifty Shades. On the other side of that coin is Geralt from the Netflix ‘Witcher’ series. To my mind Henry Cavill’s take on the character (very much like Bruce Willis in the Die Hard Franchise) might be brusque and often unnecessarily mean in his interactions it’s the way he deals with and sympathises with the ‘monsters’ that make him an ultimately redeemable character. A better interpretation of a similar kind of character is Terry Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax and, to a slightly more misanthropic level, Sam Vimes. These characters aren’t ‘nice’ (“I never said I was nice!”) but still the fan-base loves them. A cynical, hard-bitten exterior but the do have hearts, they’re not self-serving and, ultimately they do care.
The old good/bad morality is way behind us, the audience wants depth, nuance and ambiguity to reflect the world we live in so, doing the ‘wrong thing for the right reason’ or vice versa is pretty much standard operating procedure these days. Again, the audience has multitudinal tastes, from Disney to Dexter, Breaking Bad to Here Comes the Boom! You can stage your story at any level of the moral spectrum and you will find an audience but you’ll definitely find it easier if your character has one, clear redeemable virtue to hinge their motivation and personality on.
So, whether your character is a paragon of moral virtue, a morally ambiguous rogue making their way through a shades of grey setting or a bad person, doing bad things to worse people there are ways that work and ways that don’t and largely it’s about your characters being relatable. Not many of us have experience of being a highly trained, successful and feared retired hit-man but we relate to John Wick because a very large percentage of us love our pets.