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.
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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