How Should I Portray a Vengeful Hero?

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Hello Mythcreants I am back.

I want to ask if portraying Vengeance as something that can be good is inherently bad. In many stories Vengeance is vilified as evil and more often than not it’s expected that they have to grant forgiveness to the bullies or the criminal or whatever party is responsible for it. I find that thinking to be complacent, and more often than not Vengeful people, even if right, are treated as irrational, despite enacting Vengeance requires skills an irrational person doesn’t have.

For instance I have for my story the Hero wanting revenge on a monster (morally speaking) and doing so in a brutal fashion of beating him up, humiliating him, screaming at him, and finally killing him for all the bad things they have done. A core theme is that in a world where there is no formal justice, vengeance becomes the only type of justice available, so should I scrap the brutal killing or can I just let it slide with a simple kill? If Vengeance is way too bad to portray as grey then I let it go, even though I feel that for most people, it might not be feasible to get any form of justice in the World. Hopefully I can get some clarity as to how to tackle vengeance properly, so I can’t wait to see your answer.

With Love

Your Star of Hope.

Hey, Star of Hope, great to hear from you again!

So, this is a question with a lot of complicated moral and philosophical implications. People have been asking if revenge is a type of justice for a long time, and we still don’t have a firm answer. If revenge isn’t justice, then how do you differentiate the two? Is justice even real? It is naturally very sensitive to context. I can’t give a definite answer on the philosophical issues, so instead I’ll try to lay out how this sort of thing comes across in fiction.

First, a note on forgiveness. There’s a big difference between absolving someone of what they did and deciding to no longer seek retribution. In order for a character to be absolved of their misdeeds, they must actually make up for those misdeeds in some way. We call that a redemption arc, and while it can be very satisfying, it’s also difficult. On the other hand, a character might choose to stop seeking retribution for reasons that are more about their own needs than the person who wronged them. The character might realize that their desire for revenge is hurting them more than it can ever hurt their enemy.

The problem comes when authors mix these things up. You see this in a lot of stories where the protagonist must forgive their abusive family. In these stories, authors often absolve the abusive family even though nothing has actually been done to earn that absolution. This is really unsatisfying, and it reinforces toxic expectations in real life.

Now, to the act of violent revenge itself. How your readers view this will depend a lot on other factors in your story. A big one is the justice system. Is there a functional, competent authority the villain could be turned over to instead? If so, a protagonist who seeks personal vengeance anyway is likely to come off negatively to the audience. They’ll seem unnecessarily brutal when there are other options available.

Conversely, if the villain is likely to continue causing harm otherwise, then audiences are much more likely to accept the revenge as necessary. This is the difference between killing an active super villain vs killing an elderly, long retired bad guy. If the villain is no longer a threat, then killing them will seem much more ambiguous. It’s not necessarily wrong for your hero to go through with it, but it will cast a dark mood on your story, so be sure if that’s what you want.

Regardless of other context, I recommend against having your hero inflict unnecessary suffering as part of their vengeance. This will make them seem cruel, even if they have good reasons to be angry. It will read like a flaw the hero has to overcome, and there probably isn’t time to do that if it happens at the end of your story.

Finally, I recommend the Avatar episode The Southern Raiders for a great example of a story where the protagonist decides not to take vengeance. In the episode, Katara has an opportunity to get revenge on a Fire Nation captain who killed her mother. After a lot of soul searching, Katara decides not to. She doesn’t absolve the captain of his crimes, but decides he isn’t worth becoming a killer over.

Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your writing!

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  1. Ace of Hearts

    [Mild spoilers for The Last of Us: Part II (TLOU2)]

    Having your character enact brutal revenge is tricky even when the cause is justified (or perceived as justified by the reader). No moral choice is made in a vacuum – generally, it’s fine to seek justice with your own hands if there is no other way to stop a dangerous villain, but choosing to do so in a way that deliberately causes suffering to the villain is a personal choice, often a morally wrong one. You could just as well snipe them from a window and be done with it.

    TLOU2 is a story specifically about how violence invariably leads to more violence, and that seeking revenge invariably leads to broken relationships and wasteful death. At the start, you perceive the protagonist’s quest for vengeance as justified, even as she goes off the deep end. It’s only when you get to see the other side of the story that you realize that she and the antagonist are not so different after all.

  2. Kit

    Good question – I’m a little surprised that the tale of humiliating and lethal revenge comes from someone going by ‘Star of Hope’!

    • Star of Hope

      Hey!!! Hope never dies, as long as Humans exist and if inflicting vengeance, when there is no real justice system willingly to punish Criminals, is the only one we have.

      My gist is that Vengeance is an neutral thing and depends on context. Atheism is not inherently Rational, but it depends on how Atheism is defined here.

      • El Suscriptor Justiciero

        Well, basically atheism (no caps btw) consists in its entirety of not being theist. That’s the whole of it. While a sufficient amount of rationality will invariably result in atheism (with the caveat that bad data or indoctrination may subvert the reasoning), atheism by itself does not necessarily imply rationality.

  3. Cay Reet

    I agree with Oren about the cruelty. Depending on how your world works, how likely it is that there are authorities to punish the villain, taking matters into their own hand might be the only viable choice for the hero. Yet, there’s a difference between a quick kill (clean or dirty) and between humiliating and hurting a villain unnecessarily before they’re killed. Cruelty in stories is normally reserved for the villains for a good reason: they are allowed to do bad things that can be inexcuseable. They may cross the moral event horizon if they’re not supposed to be redeemed (which your dead villain won’t be).

    Heroes, even anti-heroes, have a moral code they adhere to. In the case of an anti-hero (which you’re probably writing for your story), the code may be flexible, but only to a degree. There’s always a line which a hero won’t cross and cruelty towards others should always be on the other side. If it’s not, what difference is there between the hero and the villain?
    Modern villains are rarely the old-fashioned ‘doing evil for evil’s sake’ kind – they usually think they’re doing the right thing (for themselves or even a larger group of people). They might use cruelty because it’s efficient for keeping people afraid of them (commanding fear instead of respect) or because they simply enjoy it and it brings them joy and fun. That’s okay, because they’re villains. They aren’t supposed to be the character your reader relates to.
    Heroes, on the other hand, must be heroic to a degree. They can bury their heroism a lot under practicality, as anti-heroes, and only doing heroic stuff if it works out in their favour, but they will never fall completely off the wagon. Unless you want to make your hero in this story the villain in the next, I would refrain from the cruelty. Vengeance in the shape of killing the villain is okay in the right kind of world – which you seem to have. Being as cruel as he is about it (or even more cruel), is not okay.

    • J-68

      I agree with this 100%. Modern media has embraced this really toxic notion that cruelty is acceptable when the recipient is standing on the opposite side of an issue, to a truly distressing degree, and we can see the result of that kind of thinking at work in the world today.

      It is a valid argument that yes, sometimes violence is unfortunately necessary. But reveling in it, enjoying it? No. ‘Heroes’ are supposed to be better than that, and if the character you’ve written is cruel for their own gratification, they aren’t a hero, they’re something else, and if you’re going to go in that direction as a writer, you need a really good, really well thought out reason as to why that choice is being made and the message you want to convey by doing so.

  4. Tony

    Considering different reasons that a hero might not pursue revenge can also help. The usual reason given is that they don’t want to stoop to the villain’s level by killing in cold blood, but that’s become a cliché by this point. It’s worth noting that the heroes in both the aforementioned A:TLA episode AND the third Harry Potter book viewed the villain in question as too pathetic to be WORTH killing–though this didn’t turn out well in Harry Potter, as the villain (Wormtail) turned out to be more dangerous than Harry gave him credit for.

    • E. H.

      I never finished the Harry Potter series but it seems like even if he didn’t want to specifically get *revenge* on this guy there’s still reasonable room for self defense and containment. You know, instead of intentionally leaving him capable of causing more trouble in the next installment because you feel bad for him. LOL

      • Tony

        I don’t recall that Harry felt BAD for Wormtail; it was more just that he didn’t think revenge was worth blood on the hands of Sirius and Remus. Harry was perfectly willing to hand Wormtail over to the Dementors. But you’re right that they could’ve contained Wormtail better–maybe forcing him back into rat form and stuffing him in a jar, for example.

  5. Lucy

    There’s a number of stories about how villainous acts can breed a villainous response – I mean, this is essentially what a basic revenge story is. The urge to inflict the same level of pain on your enemy as they inflicted on you is very primal, and I think we can all still feel that sometimes – but it’s not a replacement for a justice system, and I think it’s not a great idea to implies that it is.
    It shows vengence as being a sensible response, when the problem with vengence in the real world is that your enemy will usually have friends and family, who then want vengence on you. That’s how vengence really does ‘make you a monster’ – now you’re the big bad, and next on the list for retribution. Your enemies kids don’t care if you had good reasons for what you did, when all they saw was you walk in and kill their Dad. I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re much more accepting of stories where the hero kills the villain, if the villain was on the point of doing something terrible – the hero has a clear and obvious reasons for their actions which everyone can see and understand … even if they liked the person who died.
    Societies come up with justice systems to keep this urge for vengence under control, not because of some idealised idea of right and wrong, but because there’s usually comebacks – and they can go on, and on, and on.

    • Star of Hope

      If the other option is letting them to commit injustices, then no, it’s the only form of justice in a world, where there is no reliable justice system, heck Justice initially was retribution as seen with the Code of Hammurabi. Humans moved on, but as we have seen with the IRA and BLM, people will not react well to being oppressed and killed, so it’s kinda mean to tell them, that they are bad, but personally, I consider Imprisonment retribution enough.

      Also if Humanity was so invested in fulfilling this primal urge, why didn’t we punished Corrupt rulers and still didn’t do that? Humans can get very easily over an grudge, if you let them.

      • Cay Reet

        We do punish corrupt rulers after they no longer rule. That’s what has happened throughout history. It’s pretty hard to get to a corrupt ruler while they still rule. And yes, there vengeance might run amok – as with beheading nobles during the French Revolution or with hanging the inner circle of the Nazi government (as far as they were still alive and caught) after their trial.

        How quickly someone gets over a grudge is very much down to the individual person. There are people who have a grudge, spot a passing squirrel, and forget the grudge. Then there are people who have a grudge, keep it down for forty years, and then bludgeon someone to death out of nowhere.

        The original juridical system was all about retribution – punishing the perpetrator for the crime committed. By now, the jurdical system is more about reintegrating criminals into society to prevent them from committing more crimes in the future without killing them all. The thief whose hand was hacked off could never return to society, so their only two ways of survival would be more crime or begging in the streets (in some societies also a crime). The thief who is taught a profession in jail and lives in a society taught to forgive them can lead a regular life after the end of their sentence.

        Our violent nature goes into the wish for vengeance, the old testament type idea of ‘an eye for an eye’. This is the base for many old legal codes. Modern society frowns upon ‘an eye for an eye’, because eyes without a body have no real use for anyone. It is true, however, that revenge rarely provides any real closure and it’s what led to all those blood feuds in the past.

        • Humanmale

          Cay Reet – you’re definitely right that modern societies tend more towards rehabilitation of criminals than punishment but few implement that perfectly and some are further from that ideal than others. It’s a work in progress and progress is slow.

          • Cay Reet

            You are right about that.

            I mostly wanted to point out that old legal codes are all about retribution and punishment and modern codes are more reaching towards rehabilitation instead, because by now we know that punishment alone doesn’t change anything.

        • Star of Hope

          After they rule is a bit too late and just cleaning the mess they left. Christopher Columbus is still an hero for many people and will remain so until Conservatives will glorify him. The French Revolution and the Nuremberg trials were the logical consequence of the people who caused the problem and I don’t begrudge the former more than the King, who betrayed his own Country and the latter even less.

          Historically people rarely have that much thought about such feuds and often forget or leave it behind when it becomes more profitable as seen with Sparta and Persia or the Orthodoxy Church and Stalin.

          Again I am for rehabilitation, never said I wasn’t.

          Well we have still another eye that can see, but yeah it’s often better to use the prison.

          • Cay Reet

            Feuds still are rampant in areas of the world where vengeance is an accepted form of demanding justice. The problem with them is that they can go on forever, because every time someone will be there who can say ‘you killed my [relative of your choice] and now you have to die’. That causes a lot of problems in a modern society, as you might imagine. That is why Feuds have died out in most ‘first world’ aka ‘industrialized’ countries where people have better things to do than kill each other until a family is destroyed. It wouldn’t take that long today, either, since families tend to be smaller. There are examples of feuds being overcome for financial or other reasons, but also plenty where they cause great grief. Just look at Romeo and Juliet, which in reality is not a romance, but a cautionary tale to put the feud above the lives of your family members.

            The reason why corrupt rulers get their comuppance after their rule is that it is nigh impossible to get at a ruler while they rule. They control the army and the juridical system, so they are untouchable. It’s only after they’ve been removed from rulership that they can be prosecuted. Here in Germany, that was introduced after the Third Reich, as it is, because the Nazis removed unwanted people from the parliament by having them arrested on usually made-up charges, so it’s not without reason to protect the ruler – even if that means that it can be misused by someone who is corrupted.

            A sad truth in our world is that the victor writes the story – aka the history we read in books is the version the victors of wars and occupations wants to see. Columbus is praised by Europeans and Americans of European descent – other groups see him differently, hence the demand to remove all of his statues and the movement to change ‘Columbus Day’ in the US to something different. Today, it’s even known that he wasn’t the first European on American soil (and he never reached the mainland) – the Vikings were there long before him.

            With the ‘eye for an eye’ approach, you have exactly two moves on someone, then it’s no longer possible, because humans don’t regrow organs.

      • Lucy

        …. the IRA?
        I’m half English, half Irish. I don’t see the history of Northern Ireland as a good example of how people easily forget past wrongs, or how vengence doesn’t lead to painful cycles of violence.

        • Star of Hope

          Yeah Lucy, they aren’t, that’s true, I never said that they were an good examples of people forgetting grudges, I said that they exist, because the justice system so so flawed, it justifies their existence.

          • Star of Hope

            Since when is the acceptance of Vengeance the reason why feuds and conflict happen more frequently in those areas and not Socio-economic factors like the remnants of Colonialism and interventionism? Also I find the whole idea of whole families destroying each other because of Vengeance at best exaggerated. 1. It assumes that the people who have lost their relative have not the ability to reflect on the evilness of this family member and 2. That they loved them in the first place. Family bounds matter little if they aren’t as thick as the covenant of blood.(bounds with allies and friends).

            History written by victors is sort of an cliche, it’s written by those who wrote and they aren’t always the victors like Fraser’s enemies, the Ancien regime and WW2 with the Nazis and all their documents on the Holocaust.

            Not any longer, if we manage to recreate our eyes with Gene tech.

          • Cay Reet

            First of all, a lot of feuds are started over something relatively minor. In a honour-based society (where the status of a man especially and a family in general is defined by how much honour they have in the eyes of society), feuds can be necessary to regain or keep honour. Once the feud has started and the first family member of the other family has been killed, the other family needs to take revenge, because that is the only way to keep or restore their honour. This plays the ball back into the field of the first family and so on. At some point, if the families are clever, there is an outsider called in to sort it out and end the feud. If not, the feud ends once a family is either extinct or has left the area for good. It is not the acceptance of vengeance as a such. Vengeance – or rather revenge – is a tool to regaining or keeping honour.

            As to 1: in most feuds, the killed family member isn’t ‘evil’ at all, but commited a social crime and damaged someone else’s honour. Unwise, certainly, but not evil in the way killing puppies or enslaving orphans is.
            As to 2: love has nothing to do with it, keeping or regaining honour has. For cultures where honour is important, even killing a member of your own family can become necessary (that’s why there’s honour killings). Honour ranks above the life of the individual.
            Honour cultures are not as widely spread today as they once were, but they still exist. Europe has had an honour culture well into and throughout the middle ages – enlightenment took it away to a degree and our modern focus on capitalism has done away with it completely, because honour has no financial advantage. In some areas, remains are still alive today, but it’s not as strong as it used to be.

            History is written by those who control the written word. That can be done through violence or through money, but you will always find that history mirrors what those who have the power want it to. While the Nazis were in control, they stylized themselves into heroes, when they were no longer in power, the truth slowly came out. When a country is taken by a colonial power, this power will see themselves as those who have brought ‘civilisation’ to the ‘uncivilized’ people they have conquered, hence justifying the conquest in the first place. It is only when colonisation ends that other things can be written down. History is not what happened – it is what people think is important to remember. That is why we learn about the lives of ‘important’ and ‘influential’ people through historical documents and not about the family living on the second farm on the left side of the small hamlet halfway between those two towns.

          • Star of Hope

            ⬇️⬇️ If you mean by Minor, minor disputes about territory then yeah these are petty, but that goes too far away from the actual point, but I tackle it just for you: “Honour” as an concept was less than gravitas and just some Honorific people could receive from them subject, but that alone doesn’t justify their position and very often it boils down to Money and Military might. And people very often ignore old feuds to win against new problems. I agree with you on vengeance being more a tool for them, rather than any meaningful concept.

            To your 2 rebuttals:

            1. Really? Wouldn’t you call assassination on the heir an evil act, if the heir doesn’t do anything or an Woman who kills your mother for no real reason other because hurting her gives her an kick? People back then were a lot more cruel than you think, especially in Political discourse. But that doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t think someone from their family who died at the hands of his victims is inherently good, they could very well sidd with this person, especially if its to their benefit. Also what has that to do with Modern morales? No one would mourn the death of an Rapist or an terrorist and in the past, even Columbus was considered awful, hence why he was removed from office and is today rightfully vilified.

            2.Honour is not a strictly followed code and Chilvary was never an thing back then. People are pragmatic , if they had to and could care less about such things. Honour killings were more than just killing in retaliation, they were also an punishment for adultery and for being “disgraced”. These killings also have an sexist element to it and nothing to do with what I or any reasonable person would associate vengeance with.

            No, this view is outdated and a very dangerous one in regards to history. For one, you don’t have to be an winner to write the story you want, ANYONE can write an story and if you preserve it, you have history. We have in the case of the Crusades mostly the loser as writer and not the winner or with the Vikings the loser as writer as well. In fact, many people who studied the Native Americans are our best sources for them and not the ones who slaughtered them. Also the Nazis were no heroes, everyone hated them, even the Ukrainians and the Pope himself called them the bad guy and he had an non-aggression pact with him. On the great man theory:Also wrong, we learn through records and reconstruction of old sites how people back then lived and know for an fact, that Medieval peasants had a better diet than Ancient Roman citizens. People are shaped by their surroundings and should not be reduced to the stories of some people, doing so is bad history.

          • Star of Hope

            OK the 2 arrows mean nothing, sorry.

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            Editor’s note: I think y’all have reached a point where you’re talking past each other. I’m not entirely clear what you’re arguing about anymore. I think we all generally agree that justice and revenge are complicated topics that depend a lot on context.

  6. Erynus

    My whole book revolves around revenge, and my MC being a spec ops operative i don’t see a different way to end the issue if not by killing the villain. In truth i have thought about it, but any karmic death would strip my climax of satisfaction as it needs to be on my MC’s hands (He failed to kill the villain once, and hence he feels that all that the villain did afterwards, is on him).
    I’m still reworking the ending, as i feel it is lacking.

    It is easier to have a “clean” revenge if the hero is not into killing enemies from the get go. If your hero have never killed, the decission on killing the villain would be harder for him, and thus choosing not to kill him wouldn’t feel “off”.

    • Cay Reet

      If the setting is right … and from your description, I dare say it is … then you can absolutely end the story with the hero killing the villain. A lot of stories in the right setting end that way, with the MC actively killing the villain. There’s no reason to worry about that part. Go ahead, have your MC shoot them, stab them, cut their throat, push them off a building … no problem with that part (well, you can only do one of those, clearly).

      The problem is the cruelty, not the vengeance/revenge as a such. If you portray the villain the right way, then the reader, too, will see the kill as the only possible way to end things. Needlessly being cruel to him beforehand is the problem, because a hero, no matter how malleable their general morals may be, remains a hero. As I’ve written above, even an anti-hero has morals, they’re just not as black-and-white or clean-cut as with a traditional hero. Needless cruelty should not be covered in a hero’s or anti-hero’s morals. An anti-hero might not think much about killing the henches of the villain and they will not lose a night’s sleep over killing the villain in the end. If it is necessary for someone to die or if it’s a ‘kill or be killed’ situation, they will not hesitate to kill. They should, however, step away from humiliating or torturing just ‘to get even’ before the kill. That will taint their portrayal and make people like them less.

  7. Bellis

    For me, the goal of defeating a villain would be to make sure that they will no longer do harm, and since your villain is a “monster” morally speaking, then they won’t change their mind, they need to be stopped by force. As there is no functioning justice system in your setting, killing them seems likely the only way. So far, so straightforward.

    The cruelty and humiliation are probably a sign of the main character going overboard and needing to make up for that part later on.

    But I can think of situations where it would be necessary to reveal the villain’s actions to make their supporters or the general public aware of it, especially if the villain was acting in secret or if they have lots of supporters for their evil ideology. This could be interpreted as humiliation by the villain and their supporters, but from the hero’s perspective, making the villain’s crimes and flaws in their ideology known is important to prevent further harm that the villain’s supporters could do.
    As an example we could take a cult leader who has convinced his followers/victims that they are fighting for what’s right and that the rest of the world just doesn’t understand and needs saving and is out to get their “community”. Simply killing this cult leader would only reinforce the followers’ ideology. The flaws in this thinking and the covered-up crimes that the leader commited need to be made public. The followers will see this as humiliation of the cult leader, but it is actually necessary.

    Whereas humiliating a defeated enemy without a good reason like the one I mentioned above would be a seriously bad look and a flaw the hero or anti-hero would have to overcome. It should also be opposed by the character’s friends and allies who are meant to be relatable/on team good.
    Same goes for beating them up or otherwise hurting them after they are already defeated or contained, or “playing with one’s food like a cat”, for example chosing to hurt them rather than contain them if one has that option or drawing out the fight unecessarily.

    You also mentioned screaming at the villain – I don’t see a problem with that tbh.

    The rest depends a lot on context. Especially if the hero was personally hurt, humiliated and victimised by the villain, some degree of vengefulness will be understandable. But still, it should never go into outright “cruelty-for-no-reason” territory.

    Again, it comes down to persuing the goal: Making sure no more harm is done. That includes making sure to not set off a spiral of escalating violence, and making sure to not be the cause of harm oneself.

    In my book “that person did xyz so I’m going to do xyz right back at them!” is morally flawed and causes more harm, whereas “that person did xyz and will continue to do so unless I kill them, so I’m going to kill them (after having exhausted other possibilities to stop them from doing harm)” is necessary to protect oneself and other potential future victims.

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