Tag Archives: writing tropes

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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I see this scenario pop up a lot in YA lit, so I’m just curious how valid it is: a competent fighter pretends to be grossly incompetent in order to lure their opponent into a false sense of security, only to curb stomp them into the pavement. My question is, wouldn’t your own movements give you away? Someone who knows what they’re doing doesn’t waste as much motion or energy as bona fide newbies, right? What about muscle memory reactions?

It is a thing. The way it gets presented in YA? Not so much, no. It’s actually very difficult to do. There are two different scenarios with very different meanings that these authors might be pulling from:

1) Wuxia films, and in some Anime, where it’s a matter of principle. The protagonist doesn’t consider the fight to be worth their time or the combatants are so far beneath them that they cannot actually hurt them. Their understanding of martial arts allows them to be in a more enlightened state. You should not be beating up anyone who is weaker or less than you. (This is not a matter of reality, but more philosophical in bent. It’s also a very basic explanation of a very complicated cultural hierarchy and philosophy about violence and the appropriate use thereof.) In this case, they are choosing not to engage as a part of their ideology, because they have nothing to prove, and it is only after they’ve been put into real danger that they turn around and act.

It’s the sort of outlook that makes the more pragmatic martial artists crawl up inside their own skulls, but it exists in real world martial arts. It’s also vastly more complicated in terms of spirituality, cultural context, philosophy, and responsibility than a single paragraph can sum up. The same can be said for the use of the trope in cinema, and where it often fails in Western media.

There is a difference though between:

“This is not worth my time.”

Or

“If we fight, I will most likely kill you. So, let’s save ourselves a headache and not fight.”

Versus:

“I will recklessly risk my safety for some kind of small advantage that I didn’t need anyway.”

2) The sequence comes out of a lot of spy fiction, the trick there is that they’re usually pretending to be something that they’re not and they also allow themselves to actually be beaten.

I mean beaten into the gutter beaten. Beaten so hard you’re bleeding out on the sidewalk beaten. Beaten that it took your special skills to preserve yourself without them knowing while they were kicking your stomach in.

Beaten within an inch of your life, spitting out blood and maybe a few teeth. You’ll be spending the next three months dealing with fractured ribs, a broken collarbone, and you’re flat out lucky they didn’t rupture something vital.

Annihilated. Eviscerated. Done.

So done that you’re not even in their hemisphere anymore, you don’t even exist in the same galaxy. Because that’s the point, you don’t want them to think about you anymore. You’re not any more of a threat to them than the janitor they spit on while walking to work or the store owner they shake down every weekend.

You’re invisible.

You can go where you want, within reason.

When it’s part of establishing a cover, then it is a real-ish thing. It is also a very dangerous thing. It is a gamble. It is risk. You’re risking your life, you’re risking them noticing that something is up, your betting big on your ability to play your cards and throw the fight well enough that they don’t notice anything. You can’t just do it, you have to do it well. You have to try, but not too hard. You have to get your hits in, you’ve got to make them mad, you’ve got to press them to the point where they’re willing to kill you, so that when they finish beating you into the pavement they feel damn good about it.

You’ve got to make them work for it and let then let them establish their own sense of superiority, both without dying in the process and not giving away that you’re letting them win. This is like watching someone try to throw a chess match. If they just stop playing in the middle of the game, you know something is up. And in the end, when you’re life is in their hands, all you can do is hope that they don’t kill you or blow your cover and actually play it straight to save your life.

Throwing a fight in this way is a con. The YA novels that I think you’re talking about, they’re not doing that. In their case, it’s just a cheap way to establish drama/tension with a character who is already overpowered.

“I’m so good I don’t even have to try.”

9/10 when you see the scenario presented in this way, the author has usually bought into their own bullshit about their character or the character’s bullshit about themselves. They’re not facing real opposition, so they have to pretend they are for things to even approach being interesting. The author has already decided the victor, one character has already claimed victory, and there’s not much point to watching the fight play out on the page because we know who the winner is.

They’re being dragged along by the plot. The writer is trying to make it interesting. Their pet will never be ground into the dirt the way they probably deserve by someone better because there is no one who can stand against them. There is no tension.

“Gosh! They might be tough! Maybe I can lure them into a false sense of security.”

Combat training informs the way we move, it informs how we think, it’s there in everything we do. Someone who excels? You can see it. It’s in their attitude. It’s in the way they walk into a room. It’s there as they survey an area. When they’re looking at you, you can feel the confidence roll off them. Go look at someone like Ronda Rousey, watch videos with cops, or check out videos posted by soldiers in the Marine Corps. You’ll see it, even in the ones who aren’t that good. You can feel it. There’s something different about them, even if you can’t quite figure out what it is when they’re wandering about in plainclothes. You get a similar feeling off of athletes too. A sense of self-ownership, confidence, and it takes more than just ducking your head and playing the fool to throw someone off. Especially someone who knows what they’re looking for.

The better they are, the more it’s there. The ones good at hiding it are the ones who’ve trained themselves to be changeable, to hide. This is why I brought up spy fiction.

“What even is an advantage?”

A lot of YA novels shortchange their villains. They do more than handicap them, they bind them by their hands and feet, weight them, and toss them into a lake. They move when the plot says and sit when it doesn’t. They notice what the plot wants them to notice, and they let slide what’s the hero needs to pass. They rarely behave like people and when they have to be bad to prove how bad they are, it happens to someone else. This provides the protagonist with their time for self-angst and other personal issues that the plot would rather focus on.

No one is setting fire to trees or fouling the water supply with a few good corpses. No one is breaking arms. No one is getting shot by their teachers. No one is just getting shoved off a cliff and down a raging waterfall because, well, they failed.

Do you wonder if the villains of this story could beat these protagonists? Do you wonder if the hero can pull it off when you’re reading these scenarios? Or is it just “of course”. That’s the plot device.

It doesn’t take into account anyone’s thought process but the protagonist’s. It will work because they decided it would and no effort is made, really, on the part of the author because they don’t really know what failing looks like.

Except failing in fighting means you get hurt. It means you take hits. It means you die. They must overcome more pain, misery, and injury from wounds they could’ve avoided if they just took this shit seriously.

Why was this a good idea again?

3) The last one is that they might have taken a joke too seriously.

“What do you mean? I’m just luring him into a false sense of security.”

The witty comeback a protagonist makes to save their pride when the other guy actually has them on the ropes and they win by sheer luck or because someone else cheated. It’s very common in Han Solo types.

It… doesn’t really work when you play it straight. Then, someone is just being a dick and it starts to transcend into cruelty. Basically, when you play it straight then the villain can’t hurt the hero and the hero is just playing with their still living food. It’s a fucked up thing to do.

-Michi