My swashbuckling-era hero is totally honorable, to the point where they would happily die preserving it. A large part of the plot is the conflict between their honor and the available yet dishonorable solution.
Can a modern audience sympathize with this, or will the hero’s adherence to honor seem far too foolish?
Hey Dave, great to hear from you again!
The short answer to your question is “yes” and the longer answer is “it depends,” which is admittedly the answer to most storytelling questions. A modern audience can absolutely sympathize with a hero whose honor code prevents them from taking the most pragmatic path to victory. We see that with Ned Stark, who warns Cersei so she can flee with her children rather than attacking immediately. This act of kindness is what dooms Ned to death, as Cersei seizes the opportunity to attack first. Readers and viewers both continue to love Ned right up until his head rolls off.
However, the audience can also get frustrated if a hero continues to pass up obvious advantages because of their own personal code. You need look no further than the debate over Batman’s no killing rule to see how that can play out. Not killing sounds good in theory, but it gets really irritating in a setting where one of the conceits is that no prison can actually hold comic book villains, so not killing them just means they’ll soon get out and cause more mayhem.
From what I have observed, how much the audience sympathizes with an honor-bound character depends on three factors.
1. How similar is the code to the audience’s own ethics?
It’s much easier to sympathize with a character who’s code includes “don’t kill children” and “help those in need.” Those are values widely shared amongst most people, at least in theory. A hero who won’t destroy the villain’s McGuffin because it’s implanted in a child’s heart will be very sympathetic.
Rules like “don’t attack an enemy who isn’t ready” are hazier. That’s generally considered the right thing to do, but for a particularly brutal or dangerous enemy, some audiences will get frustrated that the hero doesn’t take their opportunity to attack when the bad guy is snoozing.
Finally, you have more niche requirements like not fighting on a Sunday. Realistic or not, it’ll be pretty frustrating if your hero lets the bad guy take over a building because the attack happens during the hero’s company mandated lunch break.
2. How bad will the suffering be when the hero passes up a solution?
Audiences are much more sympathetic to a hero who causes problems for themself than a hero who causes problems to others. While Ned Stark’s actions did lead to a bloody war, their most immediate consequence was Ned himself being injured, imprisoned, and executed. This keeps Ned sympathetic as he’s the first one to pay the price for his failures.
For the inverse, there’s a scene in Dragon Prince where King Harrow decides to send a bunch of food to a neighboring country, even though his own people barely have enough. He feels honor bound to do this, but the main suffering from his choice will be felt by his subjects. As king, Harrow probably won’t even notice the difference. This makes Harrow’s choice far harder to sympathize with.
How bad the suffering is will also matter a lot. If your hero lets the villain go, and the villain robs a bank, that’s not a huge deal. If they let the villain go, and then the villain blows up an orphanage, your audience will be mad.
3. How consistent is the hero’s code?
Finally, there’s the question of how consistently your hero applies their honor code. The more consistently, the better. Other factors being equal, most audiences can accept a hero who doesn’t kill. But if they seem to kill minions all over the place, but then hesitate when they reach the boss, it’ll be a problem. CW’s Arrow does this a lot, and Batman is infamous for it. This happens a lot because writers care more about characters with names and faces, but it still annoys the audience, so it’s important to keep in mind.
All that said, whether your readers enjoy this honorable swashbuckler will depend a lot on the specifics of their code. Hopefully I’ve given you some useful guidance!