Analysis

Four Behaviors Fiction Needs to Stop Glorifying

Crowley from Supernatural, right before Sam and Dean start laying into him.

We humans have spent the last 200,000 years trying to figure out how to treat each other, and while we’re still confused on a few subjects,* the basics are pretty solid. At least, they should be. Somehow our fictional characters can’t go two seconds without doing something horrible to one another. I’m not talking about killing out of necessity or bad guys doing bad things. These are the good guys performing acts with no justification, and we’re supposed to like it.

1. Responding to Taunts With Violence

In Avatar the Last Airbender, there’s a scene where Toph is viciously teased by some Earth Kingdom girls because they think her makeup looks funny. That’s mean enough, but Toph is also blind, so anything she could have done more easily as a sighted person hits close to home. Toph’s friend Katara responds by washing the girls away in a wall of water. The scene is played for laughs, as a nice bonding moment between main characters.

Without question, the Earth Kingdom girls were being unbelievably cruel, but consider who really had the power in that situation. Toph and Katara can both control the elements through their deadly martial arts; the Earth Kingdom girls had cutting words. In real life, it would be like the senior quarterback punching a first grader for saying something racist. The response just wasn’t commensurate.

I’m not saying that words don’t matter. They matter a lot, but we all know on some level that the correct response to a verbal attack is not a physical attack. This is especially true when the one getting physical is way stronger. Uncle Ben wasn’t wrong when he said that with great power comes great responsibility. At best, what Toph and Katara did was respond to bullying with more bullying.

It’s easy to see why authors choose this route. We want our characters to stand up for themselves and others. Main characters also tend to be very good at violence. However, there are other options if we want our characters to act less like jerks. For instance, they could be capable of a few cutting words themselves. In the Avatar example, why not have Katara casually point out that Toph’s makeup is in the style of a famous Earth Kingdom model, thus putting the bullies in their place?

More straightforward, if the bullies themselves are violent, it’s acceptable to respond in kind. Some situations force you to defend yourself and others, after all. You can also depict realistic consequences for responding to taunts with violence. Show the bully in the hospital, and have the main character question whether a few seconds of gratification were really worth it.

2. Treating Love as Conquest

No matter how far we’ve come as a society, we can’t seem to get away from the idea that sex is something men want and women don’t. This means that for romance to occur, the man must wear down the woman’s defenses until she gives in.*

Described like that, it sounds awful, but this problem keeps popping up in characters we’re supposed to root for. It’s the suitor who won’t go away when asked or the guy who brags about his sexual experiences as if they were mountains he climbed. It appears without warning in otherwise excellent stories.

Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal is a delightful book about reviving the Ankh Morpork post office. But it features a troubling love story between the reformed con man Moist von Lipvig and the chain smoking badass Adora Belle Dearheart. The “romance” is portrayed as being entirely one sided. Adora isn’t interested in Moist and tells him to leave her alone many times. Instead of respecting her wishes, he keeps pressing until she gives in. It’s even more pronounced in the film version, with a very uncomfortable dance sequence in which Moist bizarrely demonstrates his dominance over Adora by not letting her leave.

If it can happen to Pratchett, it can happen to anyone. Writers fall into this habit because it’s a simple way to throw obstacles at a love story. We all know how important conflict is, and making one half of the relationship fight against it seems like the obvious way to get that conflict. Except that relationships built on only one person’s desires are terrible. They have to be two-sided, or they don’t work. We wouldn’t write our swordsmen holding their weapons blade first, yet we write romances that are obviously non-functional.

Fortunately, romances can be interesting without this unhealthy behavior. The obstacles just have to come from somewhere else. Culture clashes or evil warlords and their armies are just a start. You can also have characters whose feelings towards one another change over time, so long as it’s not based on one overpowering the other.

3. Making Another’s Decisions for Them

How would you feel if someone concealed vital information so you’d make the decision they thought was best? What about if they locked you in your room so you couldn’t do something they thought was dangerous? Chances are you wouldn’t like it very much, yet we celebrate this behavior in many fictional characters, so long as it’s done for another character’s supposed good.

Looking again at Terry Pratchett’s work, we find the character Granny Weatherwax. Granny is a fantastic character in many ways, but she has the nasty habit of manipulating people into doing “what’s best for them.” This wouldn’t be a problem if it was portrayed as a flaw, but we’re actually supposed to support Granny when she does this. It’s a testament to Pratchett’s writing skill that most of us do.

The story always arranges things so that Granny turns out to be right. In Witches Abroad, she subtly pushes another witch, Magrat, to give up witchery and get married. This ends up being the best thing for Magrat, despite scenes in a previous book that indicated she had great witching potential. Like so many other characters with this problem, Granny isn’t interested in letting other people make their own informed decisions. She wants them to conform to her ideals.

Another character on the Discworld who does something similar is Lord Vetinari, Patrician of Ankh Morpork. He’s also a master manipulator, always juggling a dozen plots in the air. The difference is that when Vetinari manipulates someone, the book doesn’t present it as being for their own good. Vetinari isn’t evil exactly, but everything he does is for the good of his city, not the individuals he pushes around. Vetinari is also wrong sometimes. Manipulative characters can certainly exist in fiction – goodness knows they exist in real life – but it shouldn’t be treated as an admirable trait.

4. Torture

In real life, torture is a blight on humanity that supposedly enlightened countries like the United States have promised not to engage in.* In fiction, torture is what characters do when it’s time to get serious. The bomb is ticking/the archdemon is rising, and the only way to stop it is to beat up the captured terrorist/imp until they reveal their secrets. If you include torture in a drinking game for the show Supernatural, you’ll quickly find out what alcohol poisoning is. You also see it a lot on shows like 24 and in books like the Gentlemen Bastards series. The victims and methods are different, but all of them show the main characters inflicting agony on helpless enemies in order to get information.

This is portrayed as a necessary evil, the same as shooting a cultist in the head before they can summon the Old Ones. While I would say that deliberately inflicting torment is worse than violence in defense of self or others, there is a much more immediate consideration. Torture doesn’t work.

That is, torture isn’t a reliable way to get information, no matter what Dick Cheney tells you. That’s counterintuitive for a lot of people. After all, most of us wouldn’t last two seconds under torture before spilling everything we knew. However, torture’s ineffectiveness has little to do with the victim having an iron will.*

Instead, it’s because the torturer doesn’t know what the victim knows. If the person being tortured doesn’t know where the rebel base is, what are they supposed to do? They can’t say “I don’t know,” because that’s what someone who did know would say! Instead, they make something up because they just want the pain to stop. People who have actually been the victims of torture talk about this all the time. Suddenly everyone they knew was a terrorist, every home they’d ever lived in a bomb factory. Now the torturers have to waste valuable resources chasing down false leads that they only have because they kept beating on people.

If a show like Supernatural were to portray torture the way it actually works, Sam and Dean would be constantly sent off on wild goose chases. Whatever demon they were beating on that week wouldn’t have known the information they were after and would have had to make something up. While the Winchester brothers were busy investigating false leads, the world would end.

If your story relies on the protagonist getting information from a captive bad guy, there are other options. You could emulate the scene between Black Widow and Loki in The Avengers, where she tricks him into revealing something via his own arrogance. Or you could have your character offer the villain something they want in exchange for information. That’s a real moral choice right there. Is finding Smaug’s secret weakness worth giving a shipment of weapons to the nearby orc tribe?

Not only are stories that glorify torture inaccurate, they’re irresponsible. Many Americans support torturing terror suspects because they think it works, and a lot of fiction reinforces that assumption. Media isn’t mind control, but it does influence us. Just like we wouldn’t accept a movie that portrays baby cannibalism as the key to weight loss, we have to stop accepting stories that show torture in an even remotely positive light. The same goes for every item on this list. We shouldn’t banish them from fiction entirely, but they should be treated as something the bad guys do or as a good guy’s tragic failing.

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Comments

  1. Anne

    great article. I couldn’t agree more

  2. hannah C brown

    This is all so true; especially the torture part. It annoys me so bad when they let the good guys in cop shows beat up the bad guys; it’s bad and lazy writing and the cops would lose their job over that!

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Or at least they should. It’s disturbing how often cops actually do shit like that, and I wonder if it has anything to do with how it’s portrayed in media?

  3. Jennifer Schultz

    I absolutely agree with this blog post. These things infect otherwise healthy stories like a plague. Thank you for writing this!

  4. Tamara Ryder

    I respectfully disagree with several of your points. Adora Belle was not totally disinterested in Moist. She simply had severe trust issues that kept her from giving in to her feelings for him. He persistently battles to earn her trust, and the process is made all the more romantic by the fact that initially he doesn’t deserve it. He has to change himself before he is worthy of her. I agree that the dance scene in the movie was disturbing, but Pratchett did not write that. The screenwriters did. Movies often get things wrong in their attempts to demonstrate the thoughts and feelings that don’t come across as easily in visual terms as they do in writing. I would recommend just not watching the movie adaptation of anything. As for Granny Weatherwax, who is one of my favorite characters of all time, her talent for manipulation is not portrayed as a straightup virtue. It is a neutral personality trait which she manages to put to a good use, helping people get what they really need rather than what they want. It’s not very nice, but as Granny herself would say, “Witches don’t do nice. They do right.” I agree with your general premise. There are plenty of instances where fiction glorifies sexual conquest and emotional manipulation, but I don’t think these are good examples. If you have a logical rebuttal, I would very much like to hear it.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      A respectful disagreement, on the internet? What madness is this!?

      So, here goes. I specifically choose Discworld because it’s amazing and I love it. Picking on Twilight or something similar is easy, the hard part is recognizing these problems in media we like. Now, the problems themselves.

      For Going Postal, I’m all about Moist’s arc to become a better person. My issue is that his romance arc with Adora seems more based on “will you date me? How bout now? How bout now?” A better way to indicate he’s becoming a better person would be for him to respect the many times she says no. Then she could decide to pursue the relationship once he’s actually become someone she wants to date.

      Most of the times she rejects him have nothing to do with him being a bad person. Mostly, she just doesn’t like him. It’s only when his crimes are laid out on the table (and their link to her father going out of business) that she rejects him on that basis. A;so, as it stands now, it feels like he’s getting her as a reward for saving the day.

      With Granny, I do honestly think we’re supposed to approve of the way she manipulates people. Granny is one of my favorite DW characters too (check my Six Reasons You Should Read Discworld Right Now post), but in none of the books I’ve read (and I think I’ve read them all) do her manipulations ever lead to a bad outcome. It’s always portrayed as what’s best for the person being manipulated, as well as everyone else.

      The reason I brought up Vetinari is that he does something similar, but it doesn’t always work for him. In one of the Watch books (can’t remember which one off the top of my head), he goes too far in trying to manipulate Vimes, and the Commander just shuts down as a result. It’s only through the intervention of the other characters that he comes round. I can’t recall anything like that happening with Granny.

      In particular, the way Granny treats Magrat in Witches Abroad upsets me. Magrat had made a lot of progress toward being a better witch in Wyrd Sisters, but in Witches Abroad, Granny basically bullies her into dropping out of Witchery and getting married, as if her previous development never happened. This, of course, works out for everyone.

  5. JakeS

    When you write that torture does not work, you are taking a very narrow and limited view of the purpose of torture.

    Torture works very well at its actual purposes, which typically have very little to do with obtaining actionable intelligence. More often it is about some combination of:
    (a) Revenge, for slights perceived or real.
    (b) Exemplary terror.
    (c) Extracting a public confession for use in your propaganda.
    (d) Public humiliation of your enemy.

    Exemplary terror, in particular, has been a core component of every empire’s wetwork repertoire since antiquity. But the popularity of torture in fiction aimed at particular audiences is probably more driven by the first and last item on the list: It allows the audience to vicariously live out its revenge fantasies against an imaginary enemy.

    You might object that this is all kinds of problematic. And you would be right. It is.

    But the narrative purpose it serves needs to either be circumvented or satisfied in some other way. And that can only be done if we understand what the narrative purpose actually is.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      While you’re correct that torture is used for all those things, I did specify “That is, torture isn’t a reliable way to get information.”

      In the examples I cite, the characters are specifically trying to get information, which is why I object to them. If a story is willing to admit outright that the main character is using torture for one of the reasons you listed, then that’s a different matter.

      Rarely in my experience has that been the case, though. To do that, a story would have to admit that it’s protagonist is just an awful human being, which most stories don’t want to do.

      • JakeS

        I guess it’s a question of malice or incompetence.

        The original post seemed to me to be firmly in the “incompetence” camp.

        I’m suggesting that a lot of the writers who do this know precisely what they’re doing. That a lot of authors are using “interrogation” as a fig leaf over pandering to audiences who disagree with your last sentence. After all, there are more people than one might wish who are perfectly okay with revenge, humiliation, and exemplary terror.

      • Krssven

        I would respectfully point out that you are using the term ‘torture’ as if it is synonymous with ‘interrogation’, when it is not. Interrogation is portrayed in multiple media without ever being torture. Let’s take the police roughing the suspect up a bit as an example – this is often used to portray a character flaw (such as anger issues) rather than to imply that the suspect is having information tortured out of them. It’s just not the same to be roughed up slightly by police (however problematic it is) and to be waterboarded.

        Most ‘torture’ in modern media is not torture unless the characters are very specifically using over the top forms of violence that is both denigrating and extremely debilitating to the victim. One good example of a series of torture scenes is in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode ‘Becoming’ where Angelus not only needs information from Giles, but also personally enjoys inflicting pain and misery. Angelus even declares to his tied-up victim that in a way, he actually hopes Giles doesn’t give him the information he wants, because he really, really wants to torture it out of him. Giles is able to keep from spilling the info and I don’t think that it’s at all unrealistic to portray someone as having the willpower to resist that. Some people in real life really have survived very brutal forms of torture.

        I’d also disagree that torture doesn’t work. It’s really dependent on what you’re trying to find out. This is also linked to the idea that most users of torture in history come at it from two ways:

        a) Interrogation hasn’t brought answers, so the extreme endpoint of this is to threaten the person’s health directly, either through pain or threats to their immediate family.
        b) You are trying to get the victim to confess to something you want them to confess to.

        In centuries past, option b) was used by the Spanish and Portuguese inquisition to garner confessions of witchcraft (among other things) out of undesirables in society. They weren’t actually trying to discover the truth of the situations they were ‘investigating’. The whole inquisition in those countries had a big anti-minority agenda.

        Option a) is the more logical way to use torture if you suspect a prisoner knows something, but isn’t yet willing to give it up. It would be very problematic for anyone that used torture if it were ever revealed that a key element in preventing an attack was obtained under those sorts of circumstances. To use more blunt terms, it is astronomically unlikely that of all the people ever tortured in history, none of them would have revealed anything true. It seems to now be Western dogma that torture results in bad information, when that is clearly wrong. More accurately, torture CAN result in bad information that will often need to be checked out before its veracity can be determined. Sometimes, that information will be all you are able to get. It’s ludicrous to assume that the militant captured in a failed terrorist raid on a military camp will only ever reveal false information. Despite how they are portrayed, there is no reason to treat them like any other person: potentially afraid, willing to bargain for their own protection or the protection of loved ones. There’s a reason many high-profile arrests of criminals have involved deals or plea-bargains. Guarantee a person’s safety (physical or legal – both have similar psychological impact) and they can be a never-ending source of crucial information.

      • Alex

        I think that the problem with the way torture of bad guys by good guys is portrayed in fiction like 24 and Supernatural is not so much that torture categorically can’t ever work, as that the kind of situation where torture does work is common in fiction but almost never happens in real life. For torture to be both effective and ethically justifiable (at least on utilitarian grounds — at least some versions of virtue ethics and deontological ethics categorically forbid torture for any reason) requires four specific factors: the good guys have captured a bad guy who (a) they know for certain has crucial information; (b) that information is time-sensitive; (c) the information is necessary to save one or more lives; and (d) the veracity of the information can be checked quickly.

        The classic examples are the location of a time-bomb that’s already been planted and armed, and the location or means of access to a hostage whose circumstances will result in their death if they aren’t rescued soon (e.g. they’re sealed in safe to which only the bad guy knows the combination and will run out of oxygen and asphyxiate in a few hours, or they’re held by a confederate of the bad guy with orders to kill them at a particular time if the bad guy doesn’t check in). In those circumstances, the only way for the bad guy to stop the torture is to give the good guys the correct piece of information; if the information is wrong, the good guys will find that out in a few minutes, and the torture will resume, possibly at a higher intensity.

        The problem, as I said, is that while situations like this happen all the freakin’ time in fiction, so much that they’ve become cliché, real life examples are practically impossible to find in the whole of history. The key thing that makes these circumstances so improbable is the time factor: in real life, criminal and intelligence investigations tend to go on for months, whereas the period during which torture could be effective for saving lives is generally a matter of hours or minutes. The odds that the authorities (or vigilantes, as the case may be in fiction, but hardly ever in reality) will take the bad guy into custody during that brief window, and know what information they need and that the bad guy they’ve seized knows it, are vanishingly small. In the real world, we don’t actually catch the terrorist between the time the bomb is planted and the time it goes off, or if we do we don’t know about the bomb until after it goes off.

  6. Technomad

    As far as the Gentleman Bastards example goes, torture is specifically shown not working in the scene where Capa Barsavi is questioning the Full Crowns about the death of their leader. The reason that Locke and Jean’s torture of the Bondsmage works is that Locke and Jean know that the Bondsmage does have the information that they want, and they can’t trick or bribe it out of him, so what else is left? They also owe the Bondsmage and his master, both of them…and it’s specifically said that the Camorri are a vengeful people.

  7. An O'Nymous

    Unfortunately, torture DOES exist in the real world. People do use it. I would guess that sometimes it IS effective, or it would have fallen out of use long ago, not because it’s inhumane, but because it doesn’t work. So unless you want writing to devolve to the level of care bears, you sometimes have to accept there will be darkness in stories and sometimes that darkness will be on the side of the “good guys”. If anything, you should have written that people should stop writing about “good guys” and simply write about individuals caught in a situation they need to get out of. After all, good and evil are subjective terms, not objective realities.

    • Cay Reet

      Actually, it’s no longer used in legal procedures in civilized countries, because it doesn’t really work. A tortured person most likely will say what they think their tormentor wants to hear, which is not necessarily the truth. Prime example: the witch hunts all through history. Tortured prisoners would denounce other people as fellow witches, because their tormentors wanted to hear more names. In Bamberg (city in southern Germany), the torturers even went so far as to give the tortured person a list of name and basically only stop torturing them when they agreed those all had been at the witch meetings, too. That was even against the laws then, which says a lot about the use of torture.
      The only person who should, therefore, use torture, is someone with a specialized agenda. Breaking a person’s will would be a reason to use torture, if the person doing it is ‘dark’ and ruthless enough. It shouldn’t be portrait as a viable (in other words: effective) way of gaining real information. You can have it in your story that way, but in this case you should also show it doesn’t have the desired effect. Portrait it, if it fits with the tone of the story, but don’t glorify it as something ‘good’ or ‘right’ to do.

  8. Eric

    It seems to me that you have confused fiction for an idealization of your own beliefs and strictures. What you propose would be an increasingly dull and dumbed down version of fiction with little purpose or exploration of humanity. Certainly, some authors do this exploration better than others, and even the best authors fail to completely avoid cliches and stereotypes as well as time worn tropes.

    The audience must be assumed to be intelligent enough to realize that while the characters in fiction behave in a certain fashion, that does not indicate a best practices in real life.

    • Cay Reet

      Which, I guess, is why people no longer think that waterboarding a supposed terrorist will lead to anything. Oh, wait … they think the opposite. (sarcasm warning)

      So, in other words, without protraying that a guy just has to push the woman he wants long enough (something straight out of the handbook for pickup artists), any story is dull. Without showing the main character breaking the bones of his enemy’s right hand one by one, until he gets a stuttered bit of information between the wails of pain, you have a dull story. And if anyone dares to tell the main character his clothes look silly, it’s perfectly alright to break that person’s nose in response. Otherwise: dull story.

      All of those examples (including the one about the two master manipulators of the Discworld I agree with, Vetinary is written a lot better in that aspect, because his manipulations sometimes fail, showing they were not the right choice) are mainly focused on what a hero shouldn’t resort to. A villain can manipulate, torture, or use violence whenever they feel like it. They’re essentially even supposed to. But giving people the impression that it doesn’t darken the hero’s character to resort to that, doesn’t make stories good, it makes them bad.

      There is a reason torture is no longer used to gain information in criminal cases in so-called developed countries. It’s not efficient. There’s a reason why women who feel pressured into a relationship get a restraining order on the guy trying that. There’s a reason why hitting a person merely verbally attacking you usually takes you in front of a judge. They are not the right kind of behaviour. And media should finally stop treating them as a such. And a lot of young guys unfortunately think that any insult should be answered with your fist by now.

  9. Bronze Dog

    My Changeling chronicle: “Love as conquest.”

    That’s going to be one of the things that makes the True Fae scary: They run on conflict and go through the motions of love and marriage for the wrong reasons. Their marriages are in themselves a form of rivalry. Without compassion and respect for the wishes of other beings, they can’t experience human love, and may come across as stalkers if they start to fancy a Changeling or mortal.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah, the True Fey don’t understand healthy relationships. Don’t date one of them.

  10. Vazak

    This was a good article.

    In reference to the Avatar issue, I will say though as someone who was bullied and bullied other people thrice (Not something I am proud of) that trying to respond to a bully with words rarely if ever works. Plus I’m pretty sure the EK didn’t really have models at this point. Honestly I feel just splashing them could have done the job, its not terribly violent but still leaves the bullies with mud on their faces,possibly literally.

    Thank you so much for your points on romance, the persistence of the pursue, pressure and harass thing is disgusting and anytime it shows up and wants me to support or sympathize with the pursuer I am just left angry and disgusted.

    Good insights on Granny Weatherwax, I love her character but that aspect to her has been bothering me more and more recently so I am glad its not just me.

    And yes, finally, thank you, yes on torture. Its awful, its impractical and I hate seeing characters who are meant to be heroic and smart doing it. I desperately want to see it fail miserably and be portrayed as the disgusting, violation it is with the cast called on their acts and punished for them.

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