Tag Archives: morality and fiction

Earlier in your post about swords on fire and lightsabers, you wrote “Many writers have a mistaken view that death is the worst thing that can happen to a person and end up having heroic characters commit horrific atrocities as a result, doing more damage in the long run than they might’ve if they’d just killed the other character.” Could you please give a more specific example of what would be worse? Thank you!

The Joker just killed half of Manhattan.

Seriously though, there are characters in YA that believe putting arrows through people’s joints is the more merciful option and those characters are portrayed as heroes. Not only that, the author seems to believe it’s the more merciful option. The character is never shown they’re wrong.

Death is the worst thing ever.

This is Saturday morning cartoon logic, often used to excuse a character’s capriciousness and cruelty. This excuse often comes into play when some writers want their characters to be violent but don’t want them to be judged for it or seem like bad people. Thus, they take up the approach that as long as their victim lives then they haven’t really done anything wrong.  

This is where we get characters that say stuff like, “Well, I only ever kill when my evil uncle tells me too. However, the rest of the time I just use disabling shots to hit them in their joints and cripple them for life!”

Yay!

Don’t you feel their kindness?

You can no longer use both your legs because you took a few arrows through your knees. This would be difficult to repair in a modern environment much less the Middle Ages.

You get this a lot when writers want to imitate the success of a more popular but dark franchise like 24, there are others but that was a big one for a while. They want the darkness and brutality without having to deal with minor issues like accountability or question what level of violence is actually acceptable. Or, really, ask any questions about it at all. They see their Saturday Morning Cartoon logic as a get out of jail free card.

It’s the extension of the superhero or PI detective that ram a guy, who isn’t even a suspect, into a wall to get answers. The supposed detective who goes around waving guns in people’s faces and threatening to shoot them if they don’t cooperate or just casually threatening to shoot them in general. (No, really, a real police officer would get into so much trouble for that.)

“You shut up or I’ll break your kneecaps!”

Hero, yes, this is our hero.

“I’m having an off day. Do you mind if I just break your arm in three places, snap your elbow, and send you home?”

It’s the hero who tortures people.

K.

Aren’t they such a good person!

What?

The hero who protects their city, doesn’t kill their villains, but runs a secret prison on an island in the middle of nowhere where they hold their villains indefinitely without due process.

Aren’t they such a great and noble person?

The answer is no.

No, mutilating an enemy so they’ll never walk right again isn’t kindness and it isn’t actually better. If you haven’t spent a lot of time looking at the consequences of your favorite hero’s behavior or thinking beyond what the narrative shows you to the context of their actions, you might want to. Especially if the narrative is insistent that they are a truly good person while they engage in any sort of violent activity.

It may also be somewhat disturbing, especially if they land in the “They’re Such A Good Person” category.

Did your character just stab someone through the hand with a knife in order to make their point? Are they supposed to be your hero? Have you constantly focused on how hard their life is and how tough things are for them throughout the narrative?

Say it with me: that’s not a good person.

And you know what?

That’s okay.

Navigating the line of what violence is and isn’t culturally or morally acceptable should be part of a narrative if you intend to bring morals into your story. There are huge debates happening all over the world today about violence, about what kind of violence is allowed, who should be able to commit violence, and what is acceptable.

The problem for a lot of writers ultimately comes back to Kant.

At a basic level, there’s a subset of Kantian philosophy which says that intention rather than action is what defines guilt.

For writers it often comes back to this:

“My character didn’t intend to hurt anyone.”

 They didn’t think they were doing wrong, so they weren’t doing wrong.

Superman destroys half of Metropolis in his battle with Zod.

People claim he is a hero. Not only is he a hero, but he’s someone every human on the planet should look up to and believe in as a symbol of hope.

This is standard Superman, but does that fit at all with the Superman who destroys the people’s homes, places of business, cars, like a one man hurricane that passed through their lives with no regard for them or their safety?

This is what happens when we separate a character’s actions and the destruction they cause from the context of what they are actually doing within their narrative. And, hey, who cares about the human wreckage so long as there are no body bags? Right?

It’s not like there are any consequences to violence other than death, right? Anything between reckless endangerment to flat out cruelty don’t count at all.

One of the great things about characters like Daredevil, the Punisher, and (sometimes) Batman, is that they often don’t have the full-throated support of their communities. They cross lines that you’re not supposed to cross and make people question whether or not this is really appropriate.

If your character is making controversial choices then let there be controversy. Violence is, at its heart, controversial.

The act of hurting another human being is.

It should be.

How many sacrifices can you make before you’ve sacrificed your soul?

“I don’t kill enemy soldiers, I just hurt them.”

“And how do you hurt them?”

“I ensure they’ll never harm anyone again.”

If those words don’t chill you, I don’t know what to say. Maybe you’ve never been faced with another human looking to take away everything that you take for granted about the way you live your life. If you did, you’d find this “kindness” isn’t kind at all.

It’s time to graduate to the next level in morality.

Hurting people is wrong.

Thank god we got this far.

There are so many more steps to climb.

-Michi

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