CW: Spoilers, Marvel Civil War, Dresden Files: Battle Grounds
So, a really good friend of mine linked me to a YouTube video about ‘Allowing good MC’s or characters to do ‘bad’ things and asked me for my take on the subject. Afterwards it occurred to me that I haven’t posted a creative themed blog for a while now. Luckily the whole discourse happened across Discord, so I can share my take with you.
The original video ‘Let them be bad’ is by Bricky, and can be watched here;
So, Bricky makes some very good points here. Moral absolutism can be boring unless it goes counter to the status quo. A ‘good cop’ who does everything by the book is only compelling when they’re surrounded by corruption. Likewise the gung-ho loose cannon only plays if they’re surrounded by straight arrows. But, we see lots of characters who operate from a standpoint of moral absolutism and, when done correctly, they can absolutely compel the viewer/reader. We take characters like The Punisher (Lee, Conway, Romita Snr & Andru) and Judge Dredd (Wagner, Ezquerra, Mills, McCarthy, Spurrier). Both have survived for decades operating within a very narrow purview (it helps that both are anti-heroes). However, in my humble opinion, they work at their best when the stories aren’t actually about them, when the focus shifts to the colorful ensemble cast arranged around them and the very villains that they chase. Both Punisher and Dredd work at their best when treated like the shark from Jaws (Peter Benchley, 1974) as an orbiting threat, a figure of legendary proportions and iron resolve.
But, that’s not the question here, the question is about ‘Good’ characters, the ‘boy-scout’ stereotype, infallible in their moral compass. We’re talking about Captain America and Superman here however, in recent years, even Superman has benefited from a shift of focus. Another great position for moral absolutism is as the antagonist (I know we’re talking about protagonists here, but it’s worth mentioning). When, in the ‘Injustice’ universe (or as part of the mirror-verse Justice Lords) Superman tales a zero-tolerance position on crime, then that unyielding position becomes a terrifying thing, especially in the hands of a set of super powered individuals who can easily subjugate the entire globe. For Cap we look to the Civil War story line where the very structure the Avengers work within makes a decision that Cap finds unjust. The comic arc in Civil War is work of high standard narrative, bringing complexity to the existing relationships between various superhero groups and the authorities, fractures within the groups themselves, the existing relationships between characters and even with those characters themselves. The scene where Cap tries to bolster the anti-Super Hero Registration movement, by taking in super-villains (because the pro-faction have started to) and Frank Castle, the Punisher, (who saved Spiderman from a group of those enlisted villains as the wall-crawler defected, turning from Tony Stark’s side?) executes them out of hand, brings the two to each others throats as their moralities conflict. Of course, Frank won’t raise a hand against Steve since, as he puts it ‘You were always my hero’.
From a narrative standpoint, having characters who can’t adapt to changing moral situations can be a major hurdle, especially with audiences demanding more complex plots with deeper moral ambiguities. It’s like the ‘Lawful Douchebag’ Paladin stereotype in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign who stalls the story because ‘my character wouldn’t do that’. In stubbornly refusing to engage with particular story steps (even if it opens up the way for ‘good’ choices later) they stonewall any progress of any kind. In reality life is complex, it doesn’t always work out how you want and sometimes it all gets a bit mucky or murky. In story terms pushing a ‘good’ character to do ‘bad’ things is how you introduce conflict either into the characters social group, or into the character themselves. It has the benefit of generating complexity in the character. The other aspect of that is ‘Fallout’, both social and emotional. Was the ‘bad’ act witnessed by others? Is the character hiding their ‘crime’ from their team? Are they simply struggling to accept what they did?
It’s something handled very well in the TellTale adventure games, especially their Walking Dead series. As the Bricky says though, such events are not something to be dropped out of the blue and then immediately resolved. Gradually building up to the breakdown of a character’s guiding morals can be a deeply satisfying narrative route. Don’t get me wrong, when our hero finally gives in to their baser instincts and commits (or attempts to commit) some grievous atrocity against a figure who’s been tormenting them for a while, parts of the audience are still going to scream in frustration, and cry, and react, and that’s the important part. In establishing the circumstances in which this bad thing occurs, or the reasoning behind it (defending a loved one, punishing a villain etc) you want to hold on to the uncertainty, the question of what your character is going to do, or even if they *can* go through with it. Either that or the provocation has to be so immense that the character has nowhere else to go, and that’s when the after effects of whatever they did become so important. In the instance it’s a spur of the moment decision it’s the fallout that becomes the narrative payoff. I think it’s certainly a story arc that benefits from a slow burn, timing and pacing are key, the weakest examples come when a villain kills a hero’s friend/love interest, the hero bests the villain but restrains themselves from dealing the deathblow *all in one scene*. Which isn’t to say it can’t be done. Jim Butcher handled it beautifully in The Dresden Files: Battle Grounds when Rudolph fatally shoots Murphy and Harry *nearly* kills him in revenge but! That scene isn’t just that scene, it’s the culmination of a storyline running through seventeen previous books so, in that sense, it is anything but rushed.
The point is that, it’s all well and good to make your audience scream ‘WHAT?!’ at a characters actions. Heck, it’s the name of the game at times, media in any form is about provoking a response, but you can’t just drop a bomb on the audience and immediately resolve it or worse, walk away from it without dealing with it in a narratively satisfying way. Bear in mind that ‘narrative satisfaction’ has nothing to do with the outcome being ‘happy, ‘sad’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, simply that the matter resolves in a way that satisfies the reader and that can involve either rage or tears as much as smiles and laughter.
The final point I’m going to leave you with is this, the very nature of good or bad is itself subjective and entirely dependent upon your genre. In Militaria the act of killing enemy combatants isn’t considered ‘bad’ (although having a character struggle with it is a valid narrative avenue) but giving in to cowardice or worse, betraying comrades is. In anything tagged with Noir beating up an informant is generally not considered bad (as long as the snitch is set-up to be a weaselly stereotype), but taking bribes (as the ‘good’ guy) is a cardinal sin. During the Camelot 2050 trilogy the MC Rosalyn kills a whole mess of people but, since they are enemy combatants in a war setting, it doesn’t play as ‘bad’ to the audience, it’s necessary. The ‘bad’ thing that she does, the thing that is out of character, the thing that she agonizes over and eventually rationalizes to herself, is countermanding a direct order, going against the King’s authority, stealing Excalibur and charging off, half-cocked, to fight the dragon and, for her at least, the fallout from that is pretty big.
So, having ‘good’ characters do ‘bad’ things? Absolutely, it’s a mechanic that works across genres to promote story and rile up the audience. It is those reactions that we, as creators, are actively trying to provoke. The failure comes when these events within a story are seen as a gimmick, or a cheap gag without grounding or consequence and that foundation, or ongoing price are the hallmarks of good storytelling. There are plenty of instances in the world around us, in history, in our own lives when we, and others, have done bad things, either for good or bad reasons. Whether we’ve been hailed for them, villified by them, or still struggle to cope with ourselves over what we did, those are part of a shared human experience and a keystone of narrative conflict. So, yeah, let them be bad from time to time, just remember the keyword, ‘consequences’.