One of the first books that analyzed plays and tragedies is Aristotle’s Poetics. It’s an incredibly short book that has had a profound impact on how we view drama and stories. The downside to the book is that in addition to the differences in Greek and modern thought and the difficulties of translation, many of the works he analyzes have been completely lost or are only read for historical importance.
Aristotle’s most memorable critique is the concept of the “tragic hero”. The tragic hero is a character who has some sort of flaw that makes them, without intending to, set off a series of misfortune until they discover what event caused this misfortune, with Oedipus Rex being the eminent example of this type of story.
Hegel furthered this idea by stating that what really is at the heart of tragedy is a theory of two rights between two legitimate institutions. It is the hero’s unwillingness to compromise on this that eventually leads to their destruction.
To update this for modern times, we don’t typically have tragic heroes that are destroyed by cosmic forces and institutions. What we typically have are heroes and villains.
The easiest way to create a villain is to have them “kick the puppy.” Kicking puppies, murdering children, raping women, these are all things that make a villain instantly evil. If we were in Shakespearean times, then our villain would commit regicide. You can also make them genocidal like the villains in Quigley Down Under.
The Problem with this Villain
There’s a reason why this sort of villain doesn’t work very well though. All of us have an innate moral code, a set of things we will and will not do. If you ask different people this question:
Your Mom is dying in a hospital from cancer. An experimental drug can cure her. You think you can steal the drug and give it to her. But in doing so, other people will die while the drug has to be recreated and re-tested.
You’re going to get different responses. It’s not important so much what their answer is, but what their answer reveals about their moral code.
I.e. someone who is a pragmatist might say that the unlikely odds they can successfully steal the treatment is someone with a different moral code than someone who says that they don’t want to be responsible for the deaths of untold amounts of other people. If they were in a book, they’d have different reactions to various situations.
This means that while a villain can be a sociopath they can’t be a psychopath. A sociopath is someone who doesn’t care about society’s rules and norms. A psychopath is someone who is mentally unhinged. Dexter Morgan is a sociopath, but he does have his own moral code about who he will and will not kill.
A character without a moral code is unrelatable. Conversely, a character with no moral conflicts is bland. Real people have moral conflicts all the time, it’s how they resolve them that determines their character.
Going back to Harry Dresden, Queen Maab is mad, bad, and powerful. Dresden is terrified of her. Yet he realizes as the story progresses that she’s not insane. Rather, her role is to prevent a powerful group called The Outsiders from infiltrating into the Fae Realm. If they get through, then all life is over. To prevent that from happening, she is willing to sacrifice anyone and anything.
The conflict revolves around Harry’s determination to serve Maab and the fact that his moral code doesn’t allow him to casually destroy people the way that Maab’s does.
Most of the bad guys I see in LitRPG stories tend to follow the “Kick the puppy/murder the children” archetype, or super-villains. They’re not interesting because they’re not relatable. It’s even worse when these people amass armies or groups. Why would anyone follow them? Look at real life mafiosos and criminal organizations. They can be ruthless, but they can also be incredibly kind.
Does this mean a super villain can never work? No. A super-villain can have a role in a novel. An example is in the Lee Child novel Persuader. In it, Jack Reacher comes across a sexual sadist named Paulie, a thick slab of muscle and meat that completely dwarfs even Jack Reacher. It presents a major physical conflict in the story, because in the novels, Jack Reacher is usually the biggest guy in the room. Here, Jack is suddenly the dwarf.
But Paulie is just the hired muscle because someone like this could never be the main villain in a novel. Even though his presence infuses the novel, the idea of someone like that running a complex gun smuggling operation is too hard to swallow. And that’s in a Jack Reacher novel.
Now we turn to the problem of Vanilla-Wafer good guy. The vanilla-wafer good guy is a good guy who is generically good, but doesn’t have any defining characteristics.
The reason why this is such a common problem in LitRPG novels is because of the “Quest” line of storytelling. Most novels introduce a character and give them a scenario where they have to pit their own morality against a task they have to accomplish. In the Iron Druid series, Atticus has to decide whether he’s going to start trusting people by taking on a new apprentice and trusting allies he meets, or if he’s going to revert back to the habits that kept him alive for 2000 years and flee Arizona and create a new life.
As the Iron Druid progresses, we also learn about Atticus’s flaws. We learn that he often overestimates his own cleverness and guile and underestimates his adversaries. We also learn that Atticus is too proud and doesn’t like to be bossed around. This prideful nature makes him leave a powerful enemy alone, who returns the favor by killing some of his friends and destroying his fortune.
Harry Dresden constantly pits Harry’s morality system against others by forcing him to work with gangsters, fae, and other monsters that he despises because it means keeping demons in check. Each of these creatures that Harry works with have their own schemes and mechanisms, and Harry has to figure out how to fulfill both their mutual goal and how to thwart any goal that the other beings are trying to implement at the same time.
However, most LitRPG novels tend to use the MMO style of questing, whereupon the hero is given a task by someone or some group, and then completes it. These tasks usually don’t offer any sort of moral challenge to the protagonist, and instead only offer a physical challenge to the protagonist.
The end result of this is the protagonist never develops any sort of moral traits, just physical traits. Able to turn water into ice, able to create elemental weapons, etc.
Switching from literature to television, let’s look at an excellent scene that establishes the moral character of Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock from the portrayal by Benedict Cumberbatch. Even though Holmes is often a complete pain-in-the-ass to his landlady, Mrs. Hudson, the way she keeps checking up on him and the snatches of tenderness that he shows her.
The point gets driven home in “A Scandal in Belgravia”. In this episode, American agents kidnap Mrs. Hudson and hold her hostage with a gun to her head. He outsmarts the agents and disarms them. When Watson walks in, he states, “Mrs. Hudson has been harmed and I am restoring balance to the Universe.”
After he throws the burglar out the window (repeatedly), he declares that if anything happens to Mrs. Hudson, “England will fall.”
Here’s the scene in its entirety. In 4 minutes, it completely establishes the character of Sherlock Holmes, his moral worldview, and his relationship to his landlord.
To drive home the point if the clip goes down:
- Sherlock doesn’t kill the intruders because it would violate his moral code.
- But his choice of language, “restoring balance to the Universe” and “England will fall” indicate that she’s of the utmost importance to her.
- While appearing cold in his initial words to her, the tenderness with which he looks at her and examines her wounds showcases his sympathy towards her.
- His ability to quickly disarm the intruders in less than a minute showcases his tactical mindset.
- The fact that he calculates how much damage he can do to the intruder without killing him showcases his absolute ruthlessness.
You don’t need to see a single other scene from the show to know everything you need to about Sherlock Holmes. More important, it establishes the moral dimensions of Sherlock Holmes. He doesn’t care anything about harming items or material possessions, and if you hurt him, he’s not particularly concerned either. ** But if you harm someone he cares about, he’ll hunt you to the ends of the Earth.
** It’s not showcased here, but he does deliberately let himself get tortured in another part.
In another showcasing of moral dimensions in a single scene, the final fight scene from Man From Nowhere is an epic example. Warning, it is one of the most brutal fight scenes filmed in a movie. Another warning, this is the English dubbed version, which sounds awful. The Korean actors are very skilled and it’s way better in the original.
The protagonist (Cha Tae-sik) is searching for a lost little girl that was his neighbor. He was once a Special Forces Instructor whose pregnant wife was killed by an assassin that also shot him numerous times. This detail is important, because guns are not common in South Korea, only elite units typically carry them.
The foil is a character named Ramrowan, also an ex-Special Forces soldier who cares about nothing except the joy of killing. Ramrowan is setup as a contrast to the main character of what his life would be like if he didn’t have a wife to turn him away from his violent past.
The main antagonist (Man-seok) has kidnapped the girl and rolls her eyes in a jar to Cha Tae-Sik. From there, Cha Tae-sik executes one of the most brutal revenge scenes in cinema.
- When Cha Tae-sik approaches, he’s alone and walks nonchalantly right in the middle of everyone. This displays his confidence.
- When Man-seok first approaches, he starts walking towards Cha Tae-sik, then turns around and stays back. It shows that despite being the boss and constantly slapping his men around, he’s a complete coward. He won’t even get near Cha Tae-sik when he has him completely surrounded.
- When he rolls the eyes towards Cha Tae-sik, his men start clapping. It shows their sycophantic nature.
- When Cha Tae-sik picks up the eyeballs, it shows the happy faces he let the girl draw on his fingernails. This shows his tender side.
- When the fight begins, Ramrowan gets shot. The way he casually glances at his wound shows that he’s been in numerous fights like this before.
- When Ramrowan sees how deadly Cha Tae-sik is, he doesn’t help the other men. He just stands there and watches in awe. It showcases his dream of finding the worthy opponent.
- The fight scene showcases how ruthless and deadly Cha Tae-sik is when he’s pushed. Compared to the dance choreography fight scene in The Matrix Reloaded, where Neo has a dance competition with a room full of bad guys before he finally gets bored and kills them, Cha Tae-sik doesn’t play around for a second. He’s there to kill people in the most efficient and brutal way possible.
- When the boss is fleeing, he uses his own men as a shield. It drives home his cowardly nature.
Again, it’s a single scene that explains everything you need to know about the story and who the characters are.
It’s not that every scene needs to be as dense as these two, but the conflicts within the story should reveal moral dimensions to the character outside of “generically good guy”. The more a quest reveals the inner morality of our characters, either good guys or bad, the more dimensions it adds to the characters and their actions.