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The Genre Defines the Lines

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, May 9, 2020
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We grin and support John Wick as he ploughs through dozens of people per minute in his revenge quest over his murdered dog and ruined car, but we gasp with shock when the Wicked Witch of the East pursues a single person to take revenge for killing her sister with a house and stealing her property.

Why is that? As an audience, as individuals, we have a relatively set standard when it comes to ethics and what we approve and don't approve of in human behavior.

One element is that when we immerse ourselves in a story, we trust the creator to orient us as to who is the protagonist and who the antagonist- who is the hero and who is the villain. That is done to a big extent with cues. Some cues are pretty hamfisted and crude (e.g. the good guy wears white, the bad guy wears black), some others are nuanced, hidden in dialogue and behaviors we generally associate with alignment: rudeness, mostly meanness, towards people that aren't presented by the story as deserving it,

The other element is the genre of the story itself.

In general, the bigger the suspension of disbelief required by the story, the bigger the tolerance and expansion of the limits of what a character is allowed to do and still be considered ‘good’ or when he/she crosses to the area of ‘bad’.

So in a story like John Wick, or Kill Bill, everyone is expected to have a huge body count under their belts- ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters alike. Their position as the hero or the villain isn't affected by how many they kill, but by the context and the motivation- and selection- of who they kill. In many action adventures the same principle holds, as well as fantasy, fairy tales and spin-offs of the sort. In these genres, the body count is truly that- body count. The people that die at the hands of the main characters are unknown, irrelevant to the story, there only to be cut down, as spectacularly and entertainingly as possible. Deaths count (morally and story wise) only when they come to named, main or supporting characters.

On the other hand stories where the suspension of disbelief is not very demanding, the tolerance for the limits of what a character is allowed to do and still be considered ‘good’ thins out. The more realistic the story, the tougher it is to sell a killing as ‘okay’- and especially tougher to sell the lack of an aftermath after said killing, both emotional and social. The more realistic the story, the more any death counts, whether it's of a named character or a totally unknown extra.

Lastly, when the negative impact of acts that are morally ambiguous or objectively bad affects the main characters, then its weight carries even if the story requires massive suspension of disbelief. So the Wicked Witch of the East, therefore, is a villain because she's pursuiing and trying to assassinate Dorothy even though she leaves everyone else (except those trying to help her) alone: her action affects the main character AND she is presented as having judged the main character unfairly, accusing her of murder when it was an accident (though the theft of the ruby slippers was no accident).

The musical Wicked displays beautifully how, when the Witch is the main character, her actions suddenly seem a lot more understandable and defensible, or downright warranted.

How would you consider the villains in your story? How about the heroes?

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comment

anonymous?

bravo1102 at 4:11AM, May 10, 2020

Might also want to look up BoB when everyone thinks that officer killed Herman PWs in Normandy and you never do quite find out whether he really did or did he do it to scare people? Or the Poles and Canadians in Normandy who never took SS prisoners. For the Poles it was kill or be killed and they reportedly only took surrenders if ordered to do so. Moral ambiguity. The good guys doing evil stuff to fight evil?

bravo1102 at 2:49AM, May 10, 2020

You have so got to read and watch Wicked. It turns the Oz motivations and characters on their head. You see the ruby slippers were magic that allowed Epheba's sister to walk. Everyone had painted Epheba as evil when she trying to do right and everything kept having unintended consequences. It's all about how someone can be depicted as evil, when they're really not. Then there are great revisionist "new" westerns or film noirs where the line is so blurred and good people do evil for the best of intentions and evil people do good for the worst of intentions. Just love moral ambiguity.

ShaRose49 at 2:12PM, May 9, 2020

I love talking about villains :3 the current villain in my story is probably more of a realistic one, and killing is generally shown to be a bad or risky thing in the story, but he’s got no problem killing anyone if they become a liability to him, no matter how young or old

KAM at 5:53AM, May 9, 2020

I was reading a webcomic, Serpamia Flare, and the lead characters were pleasant enough. Nemi was a thief which was not unusual for a fantasy/sword & sorcery type story. Then it was revealed that Cain had tried to kill his brother and accidentally killed his dad. Hmm, kind of a dark backstory... Then it was revealed that Kylie had destroyed a town and I asked the author, "Have we been secretly following the villains the whole time?" The answer was "No." but dang that would have been a heck of a plot twist.

usedbooks at 5:51AM, May 9, 2020

Used Books have a lot of protagonists feeling bad about having their morals pressed. Only a couple of the protagonists actually kill anyone, and *most* of them really struggle with it on a moral/emotional level. The antagonists vary quite a bit on the sanctity of life. A couple actively try to minimize injury to other people. One of my favorite secondary "bad guys" is an assassin named Gibson who preserves life simply because lives = $$$. If he's not getting paid, it is a waste of potential income to allow anyone (especially someone who might piss of powerful/rich people) to die. One of my more likable villains, Jack, is incredibly callous and self-centered. He won't bat an eye to slit the throat of a minor annoyance. But he's fun and charismatic, so people like him more than his stuffed shirt foil Raidon who has some level of morals and principles.

usedbooks at 5:31AM, May 9, 2020

This is basically the opposite of the "Means Makes the Villain" topic. Sometimes motive, not action, defines the character. As MOrgan pointed out, the Wicked Witch was never out for revenge. She didn't care that her sister was dead. She wanted the shoes. So many action movies have protagonist killing dozens (or more) people, while an antagonist sends goons to try to kill him, just him. But it's motive that counts. Even if the "good guy" cares nothing for life, if he's trying to stop a villainous plot or trying to survive, we root for him. It can also be a matter of action-reaction. Who threw the first punch? Seeing a protagonist pushed to do bad things is forgivable. Antagonists tend to be more "actively" bad. The only thing that prevents Bugs Bunny from being a bad guy is that his mischief and harassment is always a reaction.

MOrgan at 2:42AM, May 9, 2020

If Dorothy had intentionally squashed the witch with the house and the other witch had had an emotional breakdown over the death of her sister rather than just wanting her shoes we might feel a little more sympathy for the witch. If the death of John Wick's dog had been an accident we might not have as much sympathy for John Wick.

hushicho at 2:10AM, May 9, 2020

These are all such good points, and important to remember. I've done...so many videos analyzing and critiquing American Horror Story for handling this exact thing extremely poorly, especially season 8, Apocalypse. It's not only a question of suspension of disbelief, it's a question of making characters identifiable as well as sympathetic or at least understandable. But when that fails, repeatedly, and instead you end up building an emotional wall between your characters and the audience, it makes them very hard to care about, much less like. And consequently, it makes suspense difficult to build because you ultimately don't care about what happens to them or actively wish them harm! Things to avoid.


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