Tag Archives: feel good violence

Q&A: Indirect Consequences

Hi I’ve been reading your posts on Feel Good Violence and it’s very interesting. I’m writing a story which largely centers around a Sinister Dystopian Government Agency ™ that is pretty… liberal in its use of violence, and I’m worried about FGV when there is little to no personal consequence for their actions. The narrator (part of the agency) does experience emotional/physical effects (and the “necessity” of the violence is discussed at length), but is that enough to keep it out of FGV?

Let me reiterate something, I know I’ve said before, but, the entire feel good violence critique is based on violence that exists as a power fantasy. A lack of (plausible) consequences is a common symptom, not the cause.

Those consequences don’t need to be direct. It’s not necessarily a simple cause and effect relationship. It’s also important to understand, these consequences aren’t necessarily a punishment. A character engaging in violence that then affects other characters in your story is still a legitimate consequence.

For example: if you’re telling the story of someone who, in a moment of macho bravado beats someone into a coma, and then goes on with their life, that could be FGV. However, if you’re also focusing on the family and friends of the person who’s been brutalized, the entire narrative takes on a different, far less celebratory, tone, even without applying those consequences to the character who created this situation.

Violence is not a precision tool, it spills over onto others, and affects far more than just one character. If someone bombs a bar your characters hung out at, that’s gone, it affects them. If someone is killed, it affects the people in their life. That’s a coworker, friend, or loved one, that no longer exists in their life, and that absence is something that has consequences for them. Even if the killer walks away and disappears without anything befalling them. Not everything needs to be Crime and Punishment; you don’t need to torture your characters for what they’ve done, you do need to address it, however.

This is, actually, at the core of the bully vigilante scenario we’ve mentioned several times: A bully acts against a third party, the “hero” intercedes on the victim’s behalf. The problem is, there are consequences, but they wouldn’t have fallen on the character who interceded, it would be back on the original victim.

Okay, let’s step back and apply this to your setting: You have a dystopia that engages in state sponsored violence, that’s not feel good violence. If your setting was presented as a utopia, and your state sponsored violence was somehow limited to, “only the people who deserved it,” that would be FGV on an institutional scale.

To be clear, this can, and does, happen in Science Fiction. Someone’s writing a story about their utopia, and hands the police (or military) unlimited authority to chase after whomever they want. It also exists at the core of any special cadre that operates above the law in an otherwise idealized utopia. Unless that is handled very carefully, there’s a real danger of the violence being presented as a good thing, and the resulting effects are simply washed away.

There’s a lot of room to experiment with an otherwise utopian setting, where these kinds of organizations thrive, subverting the ideals they claim to protect. It would be significantly more challenging, but if you want to wrestle with that, there are certainly things to be said.

Strictly within the context of what you’ve said, there’s a lot of room for a discussion on ethics and the state’s monopoly on violence, mixed in. At that point, a general lack of punishment for your character’s actions is a very legitimate talking point. This is particularly relevant because it can easily create personal dilemmas for your character, centered on the difference between the their ideals, their ethics, and the world they live in. Especially when they’re working for an organization that uses the threat of violence as a coercive force.

It’s also possible you may have characters who enjoy violence. In those cases, they “feel good” about what they’re doing, regardless of the consequences to others. This would probably be part of a larger critique. This is something you can see from real world law enforcement and military. The consequences become something that other people have to deal with. So long as you’re remembering and addressing that, it’s not Feel Good Violence.

The issue with feel good violence has, and remains, the idea that you can use violence as a solution to any problem. The joke, “if force doesn’t solve your problems, you’re not using enough,” played straight in prose. If anything, your setting may have the framework for an argument about why these approaches don’t work.

-Starke

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Q&A: Feel Good Violence is Universal

So I’ve seen a lot of your posts on violence but how does that stuff pertain to a fantasy novel where fighting is a character’s way of life? Like his job is to fight off monsters and stuff so does fight scenes still fall under feel good violence or any other pitfalls you’ve discussed?

Feel Good Violence is the trope which makes a lot of our readers go, “I came out to have a good time and I’m feeling so attacked right now.” Mostly because they’re misunderstanding what it means, and assume that this relates to over the top violence, or exciting superhero movie fight scenes, or scenes that are written purely to be exciting and fun. That’s not what Feel Good Violence refers to.

Feel Good Violence is about violence written without consequences and scenes that have no narrative impact, which ultimately serve no purpose in the story except to show us how awesome the hero is, by itself, alone, and are scenes ultimately not worth anyone’s time. Feel Good Violence is your hero initiating a beat down on some poor schmuck in a bar at a level they certainly didn’t deserve, where they destroy the bar in the process, and everyone cheers. If you ignore the pitfalls of Feel Good Violence, you will cast your hero as a bully and most of your readership may not notice because violence as wish fulfillment translates directly into bullying and bullying really does feel good.

Feel Good Violence is your character contextually behaving the same way as a nasty anon sending nasty messages into someone random person’s inbox in the name of their fave and then being celebrated for it. Without context, without perspective, this is violence designed to feel good and violence where the action leads the narrative nowhere.

Violence has a high price tag, whether that price is paid physically through exhaustion or injury, socially through its impact on those individuals around you and the way they treat you, and culturally through the rules and laws put down by whatever governing body rules your setting. Fight scenes are great for your fiction because that high price tag (which will impact every aspect of their life) is an easy road to high key drama with high stakes.

Feel Good Violence ignores the stakes, negates tension, and destroys drama, these scenes exist purely as an abstract and float outside the narrative’s actual plot. They do nothing, they influence nothing, they incite nothing, and ultimately mean nothing. They are the character acting without fear of consequences in a narrative sanctioned environment where those consequences can never occur because the author won’t let them threaten the protagonist. Consequences to their behavior simply don’t apply, no concept of long term pay off exists, justification is broken down on the lines of “good” and “bad”. The police officer will threaten the snitch who provides them with information, beat them up, throw them into walls, in order to remind the audience that the officer is tough. Forgetting that the snitch provides the police officer with important information, information where in the same situation and in a better narrative would no longer be available down the line when the police officer needs it.

The problem with Feel Good Violence is that consequences and fallout from your character’s actions are what create tension. In fact, most characters that general audience adore adore them in part because they’re walking drama bombs. Like the bad boy loner with a temper who punches out the school bully and lands both himself and the protagonist in detention.

Inciting Incident > Negative Action > Consequences

Feel Good Violence would just have the bad boy punch the school bully, and wander away while the bully lies on the floor crying while the in-scene audience cheers.

Inciting Incident > Negative Action > Poot

In characters that are supposed to be combat professionals, the mentality this trope creates will lead to abdication of responsibility and them behaving in ways that are unprofessional in the extreme. You won’t have any respect for the damage the character is capable of doing because you discarded the price tag. A real professional, or even just a recreational martial artist, knows they must moderate their behavior to react in ways which are situationally appropriate. They carefully weight their response because just hauling off on some stupid motherfucker can have some terrible consequences.

Now, while those consequences can be bad for the character in-setting they could be great for the narrative and the plot as a whole; but only if you let the consequences of those choices play out.

A cop beating up a snitch and then the snitch turning on them down the line is great drama. The monster hunter who accidentally destroys a town, whose actions have unintended consequences, or pulling a Geralt and hacking off some idiot’s hand in order to get hired for a job is great drama.

So, yes, this one applies to everything you write regardless of genre because it directly relates to the consequences revolving around your characters actions. Violence is very expensive, regardless of how fantastical the setting is. Feel Good Violence is consequence free, these scenes exists purely to make you feel good without having to worry about anyone’s feelings or anyone (you care about) getting hurt. You see the best examples of this trope in wish-fulfillment characters where the end result of the mentality is a main character becoming a psychopathic bully. At least, they will when you look at the external context of the actions they’re taking. However, if you choose to never critically think as a reader, you’ll simply absorb these scenes and cheer.

You avoid feel good violence by bringing consequences home into your fiction, and having the character’s behavior impact their daily life and how others see them. For example, if your character is a monster hunter and the monster he’s hunting gets into the town that hired him and destroys it, they’re not going to be very happy with him. They will continue to not be happy with him even if he does kill it and ultimately saves their lives. There are other consequences to be had like their homes, equipment, and livelihoods have all been destroyed.  It’s like Spider-Man destroying your car by throwing it at Rhino to stop him.

Thanks for saving my life, buddy, but I still need to get to work tomorrow.

A good way to double check yourself on Feel Good Violence is to stop and think about what’s happening context wise in your story. Most of the issues with Feel Good Violence stem from being too connected to your protagonists and trying to smooth the way for them, or engineering events to try to control how others will react. Those reactions and consequences are part of what create realism and tension within your fiction. Step outside your protagonist and start thinking from the perspective of other characters in your story, about how you’d react if these events happened to you. If you saw X occurring, how would you react? What reaction would help the story to progress?

Essentially, treat violence and your fight scenes like events actually occurring in the setting with real effects on the narrative and you’ll avoid Feel Good Violence.

-Michi

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Q&A: Daydreaming Power Fantasies

So like, if you want to write Feel Good Violence but want to avoid all the problems mentioned, you should have it be in-‘verse fictional? Like, a character’s daydream or fantasy.

Not really. When you have a character indulging in a daydream, that’s not the same as a character who gets up and actually assaults someone. There is a real place in a story for characters to engage in  fantasy escapism, but doesn’t take the place of actual violence, and wouldn’t have the same consequences.

When you have a character who sits there fantasizing about all the things they’d do to someone, if they could, you’re drawing attention their inability to act. That may be simply because they can’t act openly, or it could be that they’re actually incapable of taking action.

Depending on your character arc, that can be a useful thing to show. A character who goes from powerless to empowered may begin their story fantasizing about the things they’d do if given the opportunity. Depending on if they’re the protagonist or the villain, you may even contrast this or replay it to more horrific effect, in the real world later. It’s also possible your character would attempt to enact their fantasy, only to be slapped down hard

Also worth remembering, indulging in violent fantasies is not really what you’d call socially acceptable. If anyone finds out what your character’s been dreaming about, it’s entirely reasonable that this would stick a monkey wrench in their life.

Intentionally, or otherwise, daydreams like this can provide important insight into how your character views the world. If they’re dreaming about all the horrific things they’d do to people who’d wronged them, that’s not a flattering image. It’s also setting the bar much higher when they try to come back from that.

Alternately, it can underline how disconnected your character is from reality. Someone who frequently engages in violent daydreams could have a tenuous grasp on reality, and be on the edge of completely spiraling out of control.

Dreams (of any variety) can be an important window into a character’s fears, desires, and inner psyche. However, they’ve been heavily overused, simply because they’re a useful tool, and as a result, it’s difficult to use them without being cliche. This doesn’t mean you should completely ignore the idea, but dreams (and daydreams) should be used very sparingly, only when you really need them. If you want to express a character’s inner frustration boiling dangerously close to the surface, you can cull the sequence down to a couple lines, describing what they’d like to do, without indulging in a full scene.

So, no, it doesn’t sidestep the problems inherent in consequence free violence, it’s an entirely distinct tool with it’s own uses.

-Starke

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Q&A: Violence in Sloppy Writing

I’ve seen you two use this term before, and often pretty negatively, so could you explain what you mean by ‘Feel Good Violence’ and why you dislike it so?

Usually, Michi writes these up, so this time, I’ll take a swipe at it. Feel Good Violence involves situations where a writer has their character engaging unnecessary violence, without any consequence, and, often with unrealistic resolutions.

In good writing, everything that’s there has to serve a legitimate purpose. A lot of FGV is unnecessary. These are establishing sequences where a character will engage in unneeded violence in order to establish a violent reputation. To be clear, there are situations where a scene like this may be necessary to explain who the character is.

In the real world, violence has consequences. There’s some variant of a cliche to, “win or lose, they’ll know they were in a fight.” It is true. Violence has many consequences. Physically, you will feel it in the morning, with aches and pains from everything you over-stressed. There are also legal and social consequences to consider. Again, there are legitimate cases where someone can dodge some consequences. For example: an assassin may be able to escape a job undetected, avoiding the legal consequences of killing someone. That said, there’s still social consequences for being an assassin. Even if they’re being careful about their real profession, the people around them will still have to deal with the fact that sometimes they’re just not available, and that can affect their relationships.

Something we’ve said before is that violence is a tool. It’s an option your characters have to achieve their goals. However, because we’re talking about (an approximation of) people, the changes you can actually force at gunpoint are somewhat limited. FGV often has unrealistic resolutions. One of the specific examples we’ve cited before were situations where characters chase after the whole, “cut off the head to kill the snake,” routine of simply killing the villain, and having their entire organization instantly crumble. Granted, there are situations where that would make sense, for example a necromancer or a vampire who keeps minions under his thrall, but it makes far less sense when you’re talking about a corrupt corporate CEO, or an organized crime boss.

So, let me give you an example that fails at every point: You have a teenage protagonist, early in the story they see a bully going off on another kid, they step in and beat the bully into submission, forcing them to give up their ways.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen variations of this.

So, is this necessary? No. To that scenario’s credit, it is a reasonable impulse, but unless this scene is setting the entire story in motion, it’s not necessary. Very often, scenes like this are used to say, “hey, look, my character’s a good person,” and, “look how badass they are.” That’s Feel Good Violence.

Are there consequences? Often times, no. In the real world, engaging in unrestrained violence would alienate the character from their friends, especially the love interest, get them in trouble with their school’s administration, and probably leave them with injuries. But, often times, when a scenario like this is presented, the scene could be cut with only minor edits. If the violence is only there to feed the power fantasy. It makes you feel good about the violence presented.

Are the resolutions realistic? This is a little different from consequences, because I’m talking about the specific goals that the character is trying to achieve. Most of the time when you have a scene like this, the goal is to get the bully to stop. Now, any of you who’ve interacted with bullies on a more than casual basis should understand the flaw here. The bully will retaliate against their original target, in more vicious ways, because their incapable of getting retribution against the kid who humiliated them. Bullies aren’t territorial alpha predators, they’re opportunists looking for a chance to work out their frustrations out on targets that can’t fight back. Interceding does not work, it just gives the bully more material to pass down the chain.

There’s also, often, an element of cognitive dissonance in all of this. The protagonist’s behavior is never fully analyzed by the author (or some members of the audience), because they’re the hero, and therefore, whatever they’re doing is inherently different from another character doing the exact same thing. The example I just pulled apart can easily result in situations where the protagonist is as much, or more, of a bully in that situation because they’re picking a fight against someone who has no hope of defeating them, due to superpowers or implausible levels of training. However, thanks to the marvels of cognitive dissonance, they’re the good guy.

Finally, it’s worth talking about tension briefly. As a writer, tension is one of the currencies you have complete control over. You can decide how much pressure your characters are under, and you, alone, can add and remove it as you see fit. The more that’s on the line, the more threats they face, the more problems that threaten to trip them up, the more tension you have. The harder you press your characters, the stronger they’ll become (or the more they’ll start to fray at the edges), and the more your audience will be invested in their struggles.

Violence vents tension at an incredible rate. You can spend 50k words torquing up your characters, and accidentally vent it all in a 500 word fight scene. In abstract terms, fictional violence is expensive as a writer. This is a large part of why I will continue saying you need to be careful, and surgical, with your fight scenes. Particularly when they involve your protagonists. Carelessly used, violence can cause your audience to tune out and wander off.

Feel Good Violence is violence as cheap catharsis. It vents tension, and throws your story’s credibility under the bus for a brief moment of, “didn’t that feel good?” It’s sloppy, and it devalues your work as a writer. It encourages you to rob your future for a brief rush in the present.

Write a character who endures, a character who is creative, a character who is persuasive, or even viciously analytical, and your readers will remember them long after they’ve forgotten about that power fantasy “badasshole” who started their story getting into a bar brawl against werewolves in order to prove they were “awesome.”

Write characters that don’t need to resort to violence at every opportunity. Let your reader always worry that, “no, this time, it won’t work out,” and make sure that occasionally, once in awhile, they’re right.

-Starke

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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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