Q&A: Zealots and Martyrs

What’s a good starting point for creating and understanding a zealous character e.g. characters with “I recognize what I’m doing is wrong, but the outcome is worth it” and/or “I will kill or die for my beliefs” mindsets and what are some things that should be avoided when writing one?

Remember these are rational people. People you don’t agree with. People who will do things you’d never do. People who do not care about the same things you hold dear. However, they are people.

If you’re focusing on the outcome, and willing to do anything to achieve that goal, you’re engaging in a philosophy called, “Ends Justify the Means.” It really what it says, the “ends” you’re working towards justify whatever, “means,” you used to get there. It’s an ethical slight of hand, designed to disregard the negative consequences of your actions, based on the positive outcomes.

This can either be explored honestly or hypocritically.

If you’re being honest, it can be a house of cards. If your positive outcomes are sufficient, they outweigh your negative consequences and, “hey, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.” If the negatives outweigh the positives, you’ve done a lot of damage without anything to show for it.

However, even if you’re being honest, the entire philosophy is flawed, or at least a gamble: You are betting that the outcome will be positive, enough, to justify what you’ve done to get there.

Then there is the hypocritical side, where someone espouses this as a way to excuse their actions. Frequently this is presented with the positive outcome as an absolute good. “Save the world,” “protect the cause,” “achieve our goals,” rather than in concrete terms. This is because it’s harder to qualify an absolute. “Sure, you killed all those people, tortured a bus full of kids, but what does that compare to protecting The Truth?”

Again, there is a fundamental flaw: If you are sacrificing your cause’s morals to support the cause, you’re actually sabotaging it. Undermining the movement, and over time this can result in serious damage. People break off and leave. They will come to suspect the entire movement. In extreme cases it can even poison against your cause, and give your enemies the opportunity to recruit.

The entire ideology is problematic in its own right. It requires the practitioner to very carefully self-regulate, while rewarding successful escalation. If you broke the rules to win, why would you go back to following them?

This can all get worse if someone is operating in an echo chamber. They go more extreme, the people around them take that as the new normal until someone suggests they all dial it further. This is how we end up with self-radicalized zealots. (It’s also a critical component for radicalization in general.)

On the other side of this, we have people who are willing to die for their cause. These are martyrs. The term is loaded with religious symbolism, and the implication that they’ll be remembered, if not venerated, after death.

The only important thing to remember about a martyr is that they’re willing to die for something. That can be belief in a cause, opposition to another. It can be because they don’t see another option, or because they don’t want to be there to see the aftermath. The options are open.

There is one critical part; they need to have the conviction to follow through. Generally, one does not choose to throw their life away frivolously. From an external perspective, this is debatable, but they believed in their action, no matter how misguided.

There is correlation, the more fanatical someone is, the more willing they are to sacrifice lives in pursuit of their cause. Presumably, others first. If someone is willing to die for their cause, they’re probably willing to kill for it. They have identified something as more valuable than their life, and as a result they probably see it as more valuable than any other life. There’s a potential edge case with people who are, philosophically opposed to violence, but still willing to die for their beliefs.

The, scary thing about this is, it’s not that hard to get into the headspace. It’s comforting to believe that this requires some kind of altered state. To tell yourself, “I could never become that.” However, the only difference between you and them is that you haven’t ceded your moral compass to a cause, and you haven’t found something you’d die for.

Now, there is one significant possibility here worth discussing. Someone from an extremist organization may have a warped understanding of how the world works. Particularly when it comes to the fields where their organization is most radicalized. You can encounter this even in semi-mainstream organizations that have fringe inclinations. When you get to a topic that actively threatens to undermine the cause, things get weird.

Most of the time this starts with people in the organization presenting the subject in the least favorable light to other members, warning them away in the process. At this point it can devolve into a game of “telephone,” where information gets more distorted over time. Anyone who’s ever had conversations about pop culture with people raised in fundamentalist Christian communities have encountered this. Of course, with an organization, this can easily trend into conspiracy theories, or serious misinformation.

If your character is not in a radical organization, then warped perspectives become optional. It is possible if you have a character who is mentally unsound, they may have some, lesser warped perspectives. It’s also possible if they’re operating in an echo chamber, that they’d have perspectives which were exaggerated within their community. Though, this isn’t necessary for your question. Someone with a sound view of the world can decide that the ends justify the means or that a cause is worth dying for.


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