Tag Archives: feel good violence

Q&A: Nature Abhors a Vacuum

Hi there, I’m trying to write a comic set in a dystopia, and your “feel good violence” post has really helped. BUT!! is there a way around the “killing your way to the top” trope? I can’t think of any other way for my heroes to complete the main story arc. the thing about dystopias is that they don’t change for anything less than a total kill-out, right? Thank you!

This somewhat depends on what you want to achieve.

There’s a real attraction to, “killing the bad guy,” to make the world a better place, it doesn’t really work. That doesn’t mean no one tries. It’s still perceived as a legitimate approach to getting rid of problematic organizations. The issue is, it doesn’t usually get rid of them.

So, let’s work with this in a few less abstract scenarios.

You’re a special forces operator from a first world nation with (nearly) unlimited resources and have been tasked with eliminating the a criminal organization that has overrun a nearby country.

Anyone you kill will be quickly replaced. If you wax someone, everyone below them gets an instant promotion. So simply assassinating the head of the organization would just mean his (or her) lieutenant takes their place. This may result in subtle policy shifts with the organization, but it’s still going to be there, doing whatever it was doing before. You haven’t removed the criminal syndicate. They’ll still be operating unaffected.

Ironically, the best you can hope for in this scenario is to weaken the syndicate. If you were able to sufficiently reduce their capacity (their ability to actually affect change) to the point where they’re no longer functional, you would actually kick off a power struggle with nearby syndicates moving in and trying to pick up their territory. If the leader you picked off was sufficiently prominent, you might be able to provoke this with one bullet. Unfortunately, you’d end up with a gang war in the streets and countryside of this hypothetical nation.

If you wanted to destroy this syndicate, the best route would be to cut off their financial support. That may mean destroying their supply lines, or production supplies. It may mean picking off their logistical experts, to reduce their efficiency. That said, even this approach isn’t 100%, and some of the most crippling blows you could inflict would be at a policy level, legalizing and regulating the behavior they’re exploiting to make money.

If the goal is to “send a message,” and your nation is seeking retribution for some previous harm, then the goal of assassinating the person who issued the order is… I don’t want to say, “legitimate,” but, killing them will achieve your goals. Unfortunately, it won’t discourage future violence. The people you’re killing are already under threat from their competitors, by joining the fray, you’re not doing something they weren’t prepared to deal with.

So, new scenario: same background, but you’re dealing with a warlord in a failed state or feral city. Ironically, a lot of the same issues apply. If you assassinate them, you’re not going to bring order back to the place. That would involve a full occupation, and a prolonged campaign to rebuild the local government.

Again, simply killing a warlord would mean their lieutenant would take control, or if they had multiple lieutenants and no clear line of succession, it may result in further violence as they fight with one another in an attempt to assume control. Again, if there are competing warlords, they’d be inclined to move in and try to expand their territory.

Now, it’s worth noting that not every nearby warlord would look at this situation and say, “yeah, don’t I want a piece of that,” however anyone who did would simply ramp up the bloodbath.

Again, this is a situation that can be handled with force, but it’s going to involve years of concentrated work, and a lot of troops operating as domestic police, while you rebuild the civil government. There’s some debate if this is even a possible solution.

Okay, new scenario: You’re tasked with suppressing a political movement. It has a clear, prominent, figurehead. Killing them is probably the worst possible solution to the problem. For one thing, it won’t remove the organization. The actual followers will still be out there, believing what they did (more or less), before the bullets started flying. So the organization will go on. At best nothing has changed, except the person rallying the people. You created a martyr who is now immune to character assassination. Good job.

However, it’s far more likely that the actual organization will radicalize. You’ll have members from that organization operating covertly against your interests. This could range from their own assassinations to bombings targeting civilians.

Using violence to suppress politics only leads to stronger, more aggressive, and often violent opposition.

If you’re wondering how that makes sense, when I just said engaging in violence will empower your foes, but lead your own faction to violence, it’s worth remembering that this is behavior that can easily consume both participants in a conflict. Once either one abandons discourse and turns to force in order to push their ideals, they encourage reciprocation.

To quote Babylon 5:

“You don’t have to respond in kind.”

“Of course we do. There’s a natural law. Physics tells us that for every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction. They hate us, we hate them, they hate us back. And so, here we are: victims of mathematics.”

This is a pattern you’ll see frequently in sectarian violence and civil wars. There may have been political disagreements or grievances, but once the knives come out, the violence become cyclical. There is also a constant, direct, risk of escalation, and it’s often the civilian population that bears the greatest costs in these conflicts.

New scenario: You’re dealing with the CEO of a megacorporation that has marked your characters for death because of an off hand comment in a chatroom six years ago.

Yeah, killing him will remove him from the planet. You’re also now going to be going up on murder charges in a highly corrupt system, assuming corporate security doesn’t simply execute you on the spot. So, good job hero.

Killing him won’t take down the company. It probably won’t even change the company’s policies. You may have even done the board of directors a favor, allowing them to use the corpse as a scapegoat for any politically questionable choices they may have engaged in, while still keeping their hand firmly in the cookie jar. Not that said favor will buy your characters any clemency. They’re still looking at 25-life for murder.

Does any of this matter?

Yeah, kinda. If you’re going to use those characters or that setting again. Even if you’re just wrapping up the story, it’s probably worth remembering that surgically removing people from an organization doesn’t mystically cleanse it of all evil.

That said, people do look at this as a solution, and it makes perfect sense for someone to think, “yeah, that’s all we need to do.” It also creates a rich tapestry of interconnected consequences, which can really help if you’re setting stories further down the line in that setting, (regardless of if you intend to use your original characters or not.)

I mean, did they turn around and try to take the place of the crime lord, or warlord they waxed? It’s certainly possible, and they may well have become as bad or worse in their goal of doing something noble.  Did they turn a politically unstable metropolis into a feral city? Is that someplace you want to go back to, with new characters, because they need to get something, or rescue and extract someone?

There are a lot of potential ways to play it, and many of those could prove very interesting.

It’s also worth remembering your characters may not care what comes afterwards. If this is a personal vendetta, then the goal is to kill the guy. God, bad, doesn’t matter, they need to die. Everything that comes afterwards is unimportant to that motivation.

Also worth remembering: A lot of people genuinely believe this approach works. “Just go in and kill the dude, how hard can it be?” Only to be confused when the resulting consequences start kicking in. This applies to people who are relatively well educated, and know what they’re doing, so it’s not just some trap for the uneducated getting out of their depth.

If that’s the end of your story, so be it, but, I’d honestly recommend you keep pushing past that, and play with the aftermath. Probably with a new cast of characters, and after a few months or years, to let the new mess fully ferment.

-Starke

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hey there! thanks for answering all our questions on this blog + how possible would it for someone to crack ribs with a solid kick? there’s a character i have in mind that’s escaping captivity, but they’re also young, so i’m not quite sure how easily they’d be able to hurt the (adult) antagonist in such a manner, especially lacking any fighting experience to begin with?

Well, you can break someone’s ribs with a kick. That’s the entire purpose of the roundhouse, especially the version where you strike with the ball of the foot rather than the top of the foot. (And… aren’t like me when I was seven or eight, when I was new to sparring and totally stubbed my toe in another kid’s side at a tournament after my brain/body got confused between the two. I didn’t break my toe, but I could’ve.)

That story above is important, by the way. If you’ve got a character who doesn’t know how to fight then they’re not even going to get that far. If you don’t know how to kick then that’s a great way to get your leg caught by someone who knows what they’re doing. They catch the foot by the ankle, and then drag you wherever they want. That’s assuming the character can get their leg up and out without falling over. Even if they do manage that, say because they’ve watched a lot of martial arts flicks, they won’t know how to generate power and will be very slow. A, B, and C occur anyway. Your protagonist is going to end up back wherever they were being kept, this time in a much less comfortable position.

Even for an experienced martial artist, kicks require fairly constant bodily upkeep in order to be able to do them cold (much less perform them at all). That’s not a combat scenario, that’s just in general. You’ve got a great chance of pulling all the leg muscles you need to get away, including ones you didn’t realize you had and that’s if you don’t break your toes. Board breaks with the roundhouse kick are the most terrifying of them all because you’ve got to remember to curl your toes just right in order to carry your foot through the board.

Kicks are off the table.

More importantly, this is an exact rendition of the “Feel Good Violence” trope: My Instincts Performed A Wheel Kick.

The protagonist is suddenly and randomly enough good at fighting to not only fight, but win when making their first attempt at a violent altercation. They use techniques which require a fairly high level of dedication and aptitude out of “natural ability” and “instinct”.

Unless you’ve got an ironclad reason for invoking the trope (past lives/ immortality/memory loss/the matrix) it will undercut your narrative credibility in ways the story cannot recover from.

When you’ve cracked your foundation, you’re done.

“The only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction needs to be credible,” – Mark Twain

Narrative integrity is based on the rules or limitations we’ve set for ourselves, those limitations are the ironclad rules by which the narrative functions. They exist on two levels: in behavior and actions of characters within the world, and on a secondary level the setting’s behavior around them. Everything in your story must be working to uphold the fiction. When it doesn’t the audience’s “suspension of disbelief” starts to crack. You are beholden to the rules and limitations set down by your setting. Without them, you have no story.

When you’re setting out to create a character, there are four questions you should ask yourself:

1) What can the character do?

2) What can’t the character do?

3) What is the character willing to do but can’t?

4) What can the character do, but is unwilling to?

Within these four circles you have your character, their ethics/morals, and their limitations. That is the box you’ve created for yourself. It is important to own it and abide by it. When dealing with a protagonist, those limitations are not just the foundations of a character but the entire narrative.

Your character cannot fight your antagonist in a one on one and come away with any victory because you have established they don’t know how to. That
is a limitation you set for yourself. That the audience knows and
understands, so they will expect this character to act in accordance
with it. They may want to walk up to the antagonist and kick them in the ribs so hard those ribs break, but they can’t. That desire could be a driving force behind them learning to fight later. As of now, though, their powerlessness in active violent conflict serves to reinforce the antagonist’s position. Reinforcing the antagonist’s position is for the narrative good.

They should be making choices based on the Venn diagram’s center: when what they can do meets what they are willing to do.

If what they can’t do conflicts with what they’re willing to do and they go with it anyway then the result is a failed escape attempt. A captive’s survival is based on their value. If they’re valuable enough for the antagonist to go through the trouble of capturing them in the first place, then they’re probably not going to be killed. At least, not until their value runs through. They lose and wind up back in captivity under more scrutiny, more security, and with fewer exit options. This reminds us why they were captured in the first place, and reinforces our villain’s position.

A protagonist can fail and retain their legitimacy many more times than an antagonist can. While this is a perfectly legitimate narrative outcome, I don’t think its the one you’re looking for.

This is the second issue with your question:

A narrative’s antagonist is its backbone.

Your antagonist is one of the most important pieces of your story, if not the most. They are the lingering threat, the shadow hovering over the story, and the knife at your protagonist’s throat. They are seventy percent threat, and the last thirty relies on their ability to make good on it.

One of the biggest mistakes an author can make is assuming their antagonist’s position in their narrative and the threat they provide are impervious to harm.

Unlike your protagonist, your antagonist is always in a precarious position. They must constantly re-affirm themselves and the threat they represent through their actions. That threat is all consuming and when challenged, it must either be defeated or confirmed.

If defeated, then the threat is gone.

If confirmed, then the threat level is heightened because now we imagine what they might do next.

An antagonist can re-affirm themselves after a defeat, but they’ve got to double down on their effort and create a new threat rather than relying on their old one. You as the author must work harder to make up for what you lost, and even then you’ll never have the initial fear ever again.

The first rule of the antagonist is: your capital is limited, so spend it wisely.

When you undercut an antagonist in favor of the protagonist before its necessary, you damage the antagonist’s credibility and, subsequently, their position in the story. When you lose your antagonist, you lose most of your narrative tension.

A character who doesn’t know how to do something is applying a limitation to the character. You are applying a restriction to what they can and can’t do. If you’re character doesn’t know how to fight, then fighting will be off the table. More importantly, having your character succeed at a skill set they have no experience in doesn’t make them “awesome” or “cool”, it means instead that the other characters who put time and effort into honing these skills suck.

When those characters are your antagonists… that hurts.

If you’ve got a protagonist with no hacking experience who manages to overcome a supposedly great hacker on their first or second go round with no time spent learning how to hack, then who looks bad? The second hacker. They’re the ones who are supposed to be good at hacking. If the narrative hinges on them being a major antagonist, then the author just shot their narrative in the foot.

Combat skills are the same way. They’re a skill set, not an instinct. They don’t come naturally, and take a great deal of time and effort to hone.

If your goal is to show your dangerous antagonist is a bumbling moron when an untrained teenager gets a lucky shot so miraculous they manage to lay them up for the rest of the story, then that’s a job well done.

If your goal is for the antagonist to maintain their credibility within the narrative? Don’t use them for a punching bag.

Violent confrontation is based just as much on threat of force as it is on the follow through. The threat is usually more frightening than what follows, and your protagonist is already challenging the fear by trying to escape. From a narrative perspective, if they get over their fear enough to challenge their antagonist directly then it’s game over. You spent your all capital either at the beginning or midway through the story, and you’re not getting it back.

Remember, your antagonist has to do just as much work to earn their street cred as your protagonist. Their position is a delicate balance of power management and threat of force. They rely on show over tell. They need to live up to whatever it is you’ve been saying about them. They need to be as dangerous as they’ve been puffed up to be, unless their reputation itself is the real antagonist. Never forget, your antagonist (whoever they are/whatever it is) is the backbone of your story. They are often the driving force of action, the reason why the protagonist is struggling, and the focal point. In some ways, they are more important than your protagonist because without them the protagonist’s got a whole lot of nothing.

When you undercut your antagonist, you also hurt your protagonist’s development. You cheat them of their chance for growth, and deny them their ability to show off whatever it is that they’re actually good at i.e. using their bravery, intelligence, and cleverness to sneak out.

If your protagonist beats down their Goliath at the beginning of (or even the middle) of the story then there’s no reason for them to go to the mountain master and learn to throw rocks.

-Michi

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Could you list all of the tropes that you consider “feel good violence”?

Okay, “Feel Good Violence” is very simple as a concept. It’s violence that feels good, when you’re reading it, when you’re watching it on screen, because for the perpetrator violence can feel really damn good. However, that is violence when taken outside of context. It is violence without consequences. It is violence for the sake of violence. Violence that serves no purpose but to prove the character or person is tough.

Protagonist Sanctioned Bullying – Bullying in general is a fairly popular method to achieve “Feel Good
Violence” because bullying does feel good. The audience sympathizes with
the protagonist, so when the protagonist acts they cheer for it. Its
not presented as bullying by the narrative, but it is still bullying.

Usually it’s a rival or a character set up to “deserve it”, but sometimes not.

Making people afraid makes you feel tough. Many authors will fall prey to the sweet lure of bullying and not even know it because bullying is violence without fear of consequence. Most often, they’ve been the recipients rather than the perpetrators, and acting as the bully is a very different ballgame. It is an emotional and psychological high. You feel big, strong, safe, and untouchable. Powerful.
In their worst incarnations, most superheroes become bullies.

Bullying is all about control, protected status, and freedom from consequences. An entirely fictional world creates the opportunity for all these things, with the narrative itself siding with the bully. Bullying is Feel Good Violence writ large in real life. It’ll follow you into the fictional world just as easily. Power is a high you never forget.

This is very common trope for characters who also act as a means of self-insertion by the author. For them, it isn’t bullying. It’s an example of how awesome their character is and how tough they are.

Everything But Dead

– When the only morals applied are if someone died, the rest is sanctioned without comment. There are no narrative consequences for the character’s behavior, and everyone cheers them on. Anyone who calls them out is an acceptable target, usually evil, or the protagonist wins them over in the end because their actions are “justified”.

By Any Means Stupid – This is the “by any means necessary“ trope, where the violence really isn’t necessary and the author just wanted an excuse to paint the room red.

Unprovoked Violence Is Always the Solution – This is the one where the protagonist skips all the other steps and goes straight to preemptive violence against a total stranger, for no reason other than it makes them appear tough. Usually not framed by the narrative as bad, but it is. Oh, yes, it is. Worse there usually aren’t any consequences for the hero physically assaulting someone in a room full of witnesses because everyone knows they’re the hero, right?

Random Violence Before Strangers is A-Okay –  The
protagonist disembowels a bully in front of their victim in order to
protect them and receives effusive thank yous. Nothing comes from this.
The bad guy is dead. We all feel good. All is right in the world.
Except… violence freaks people out.

Acceptable Targets – These are people designated by the writer as non-entities and targets for violence regardless of narrative context. A very slippery slope that is ever descending. But, you know, it feels good? Sure, so long as you’re not on the receiving end. This kind of dehumanization happens in real life too, just in case you were wondering.

Beating Up My Source – You have a character who collects information from an old standby, they threaten and beat up that standby regularly to show they’re tough. At what point does this seem like a terrible idea? Never! Hey, they’re a bad person so you feel good, right?

Waving My Gun Around – Trigger discipline is just the beginning of this problem.

A gun is not a toy. but you’ll find a vast array of narratives who use it that way in order to look tough.

Killing Your Way to the Top – You can’t really destroy organizations like this. Killing the people at the top will just lead to someone else taking their place. Whenever you create a power vacuum someone will fill it. You can’t destroy an organization by killing. It doesn’t work. But, it feels good!

Must Obviously Be Boy – Because female fighters are unicorns and the mooks have never laid eyes on a woman before. Usually part of a larger narrative issue with violence, but acts as a “get out of jail free” card.

Clear the Building – That time the character decided to knock everyone out to prove that they are tough. Weirder when it happens on stealth missions.

I Am Not Gaining Levels – When you’re reading a book and the character is fighting like it’s a video game. They fight everyone like they’re in an RPG chasing XP. Why? We don’t know, but it makes them feel good.

Let Me Shoot Him Twenty Times – We could call this spray and pray, but let’s pretend for a moment the magazine could run dry.

Magic Bullets – The bullets that go where you want, stop when you want, and don’t cause accidental casualties. You know, like the protagonist blind firing through a wall and hitting a four year old playing in the yard across the street.

Body Armor Always Prevents A Blow-through – Nope!

New to Training, Perfect Sparring – That time the main character took on their evil rival (school’s top/better trained student) in a sparring match and won, especially when it was their first day.

Sparring Just In General – The vast majority of Western media doesn’t understand the concept or purpose of sparring. Many authors seem to think its a UFC match where you just beat each other up and the first thing you do during training to “assess your capabilities”.

Queuing for Combat – This is an old Hollywood trick where the burden of a group fight is lifted as the stuntmen wait their turn to fight the protagonist. Particularly egregious in written action sequences where the author doesn’t grasp the concept of teamwork. It also warps the understanding of how many people its possible for a human to fight at once.

Terrible At Torture – Torture is a terrible way to gain information in general because it doesn’t lead to a confession so much as confirmation bias. The subject will tell you whatever you want to hear because they want the pain to stop. It’s even worse when done poorly, which it is 90% of the time. Usually, media uses it for shock value or to prove how tough a protagonist is. Torture is not putting a blowtorch to someone’s foot and hoping for the best. It’s far, far more complicated than that. Neither torturer nor subject come out of the experience whole. Besides, the unimaginative protagonists say, “screw you!” The clever ones lie.

What Is: Dress for Success – How we dress our characters is often necessary for crafting a sense of narrative realism. This comes in often as a reason for why its so difficult to take female action heroes seriously, but it happens to the guys too. Not a bad trope on its own, but often symptomatic of a larger narrative approach to violence that ends with “feel” and “good”.

Beautiful and Badass – This one is a very specific female fantasy, which is that you can meet all the cultural standards and definitions for beauty while being in direct defiance of them. These are the female characters who are never touched by the combat they engage in. They are always graceful, always elegant, always beautiful in motion and the narrative will pause to tell us this often. “She fights like she’s dancing.” For these characters, their supermodel-esque beauty is a natural extension of their being. They don’t work at it. Combat is incidental. It’s a set piece to tell you how awesome the character is. It generally amounts to nothing, serves no real narrative purpose, but by god the author is going to walk us through it in excruciating detail. Combat and character are separate, and consequences are for other people.

My Instincts Performed A Wheel Kick – Your instincts just don’t work that way.

There’s probably more, but that hits most of the major sins.

Keep in mind that many of these tropes are not issues by themselves. They often work when context and consequences are taken into account by their narrative/setting. Generally, this results in characters with no accountability for their behavior and exhibit no responsibility for their actions. The issue, of course, is that responsibility and accountability are what make well-written violence work. Violence often drives the narrative. It’s part and parcel to who the character is, and their decision making. It’s the difference between a character who presents themselves as tough or skilled and one who actually is.

-Michi

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