Ah, morality

April 10, 2011

Imagine two scenarios (alas, I have no claims to either… they’re stories by Philippa Ballantine and Christof Laputka, respectively).


Scenario One

A misogynist pig of  a prince views women solely as sex toys. Then he’s cursed by witches. His attempts in escaping the curse lead to his kingdom being attacked. So, to protect his kingdom, he offers his life up to the witches… and doesn’t die, but is transfigured into a woman himself.

Scenario Two

A tough, resourceful secret agent bursts in at the last second to save the heroine. We know and like this agent well. With much derring-do, he subdues his enemy by firing a neurotoxin dart at him. Obviously, the enemy is now completely helpless. Nevertheless, our “Hero” proceeds to injure him further, punching him in the face so that the dart lodged there punctures his brain.

So what?

So, I think the First Scenario is an excellent example of the convergence of theme and plot. The prince is, as I’ve mentioned, a pig. He redeems himself at the end, so we don’t want him to die. But he’s not a good person, so we don’t want him to get away scot-free either. His punishment is wonderfully ironic- now he gets to feel and truly appreciate what life is like for the women he mistreated. And he’s not dead, so there is hope he actually will learn his lesson. Even though he remains an anti-hero, he earns our (perhaps grudging) respect and admiration.

The second, however… I lost pretty well all respect I had for our heroic secret agent. Up until that point, I had liked him. He was charming, and intelligent, and actually cared about other people. But this? Morally speaking, the agent makes a fatal choice. Killing the guy was not the problem; the evil genius was evil, and it was self-defence. But the agent’s actions shows the reader that he is in fact the kind of man who will kick someone when they’re down (or cram them full of more pain when they’re already dying). These are not the actions of a hero, and therefore, he can no longer be a hero. Furthermore, given that this was at the end of the story, I’m not optimistic for any further character development that will explain this less-than-heroic act, or that we were “supposed” to not like him anymore, setting up conflict down the road.

Bad guys can become good guys through their choices. Good guys can become bad guys. But for me, the worst is when the good guys (and perhaps the person writing them) don’t realize when they’ve crossed that line.



One comment

  1. Great points here. There’s a trust between author and reader and I don’t like when that trust has been breached. One formerly favorite author, a very prolific writer, had a recent book where the antagonist turned out to be a character who’d never shown up previously or even been hitted about, until the very end. Talk about cheating the reader out of trying to figure it out. Have you read ‘Bullies, Bastards, and Villains’ by Jessica Page Morrel? Good book on creating believable antagonists.

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