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!
Keep the answer engine fueled by becoming a patron today. Want to ask something? Submit your question here.
Comments on Can Audiences Sympathize With My Honorable Character?
Something weird’s happening; this post and yesterday’s podcast haven’t shown up on the main page for me yet. The only way I can get to any of those pages is through the links on the Mythcreants Twitter.
What’s causing that?
Hmm, could be a couple things. Would you take a screenshot of what you see on the main page and email it to me?
It’s actually fixed itself now. No idea what it was.
That’s okay, I know what it was :) I’m working on trying to keep it from happening again. However, if you could let me know whether you were on a mobile or desktop device, that would be helpful.
I use a desktop; the specific browser I use is Brave, in case that helps.
I had the same problem yesterday. I’m on PC and use Firefox.
What I’ve also noticed is that there’s a delay before I can see my own comments now – that wasn’t the case before the change.
Overacting Zuko Enters the Chat: “This post didn’t appear until the middle of the night?! Dishonor!!” ;)
And then Mushu joins in like “dishonor on you, dishonor on your cow …”
Another common example of a mismatch between the character’s honorable ideals and the audience’s own values is the trope of male heroes who “don’t hit girls”*, which authors have often intended as an example of honor but which audiences have increasingly viewed as condescendingly sexist.
* I’m not talking about men who won’t “hit girls” in the sense of committing domestic violence or more generally picking on someone who can’t fight back, which are bad regardless of gender. I’m talking about men who assume women to be automatically weaker and thus won’t fight them even on a fair playing field.
Yeah at that point it just shows the character doesn’t respect women.
I actually have that in the big confrontation of one of my stories.
I should start with the fact, though, that one of the ‘girls’ is a main character and the guy who considers fighting women beneath him in a villain. Well, he gets his two brothers down with rather unfair means, manages to takes out one sister, too, although it’s a lot harder, but when he’s facing his second sister (whom he considers beneath him for not being Aryan – it’s a story with Nazis), he is basically unable to land a hit while she hits him whenever she wants. In the end, she kills him.
At best, “no women, no kids” is an antiquated shorthand for ‘no civilians’ which makes outdated assumptions about the identity of combatants.
It’s application was particularly ludicrous in Suicide Squad, given the number of extremely dangerous women in a fully-stocked DC universe.
Going easier on kids, even in combat, does seem like a more reasonable honor code than going easier on women in the same situation, though. Then again, I’m not sure how I’d personally tackle depictions of child soldiers in the first place, even if the heroes don’t end up fighting them.
This is a strawman.
Decent men don’t hit women, because the only good reason a man in a civilised society would usually have to hit another man is in sports, and it would obviously be very unfair if a male boxer fought a female one.
Another reason would be self-defence – but women don’t usually hit men because they know they would lose a fistfight. Heck, most women don’t even dare say no to men for fear of men’s violent retribution.
(And no, fighting to evade a well-deserved slap does not count as self defence. If a man walks in on a woman while she bathes, after his false accusations almost caused her to be burnt at the stake in the previous novel … and she then makes to slap him … in such a case, not trying to wrestle her down while they both are naked is the least he can do. And yes, this novel really exists.)
I honestly cannot remember a single incidence of a male character really sticking to a “won’t hit women” policy and being unlikeable because of it.
The whole main cast of Lord of the Rings probably would never hit a woman. (Legolas might fight a honour duel against an elf woman, but then, I don’t know if duels even are a thing among elves.)
They still are much beloved by the audience.
No, the only unlikeable male characters who would “never hit a girl” are those who go on and on about how they would never hit a girl, but in fact start going against this alleged code of honour the moment a girl annoys them slightly.
Just for the record, authors use the “wouldn’t hit a girl” trope exactly the way Tony describes it, so often that there’s an extensive TV Tropes page on the subject. https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/WouldntHitAGirl
So, again, this is all leaving a real bad taste in my mouth.
“Another reason would be self-defence – but women don’t usually hit men because they know they would lose a fistfight. Heck, most women don’t even dare say no to men for fear of men’s violent retribution.”
This just isn’t true. I recommend the book Beauty Bites Beast for a breakdown of the subject, but basically it boils down to “Women can and do hold their own in fights, but we are told not to fight.” Why does Beauty sleep? We’re told we’re weak and that we’d never win in a fight against a man, and so many women don’t fight back when they could because they don’t think they’d be able to, or they think it would be safer not to. That’s far from true. I’ve taken self-defense classes; it’s actually very easy to bring down a fully-grown man, once Beauty awakens and bites the Beast.
And yeah, “never hit a girl” is pretty sexist. An honor code would be “never hit anyone.” “Never hit a girl” is just patronizing (and, as Tony said, condescending). It assumes women are unworthy of fighting or engaging with on a level equivalent to that of men, whether that’s in a violent manner or not. For the record, in your example, a man doesn’t become sexist when he hits a girl. He was sexist long before that, when he started saying “I don’t hit girls.”
It’s interesting that you use LotR as an example here, because yeah – that is a very sexist setting indeed. I feel the need to mention that the characters are not beloved because they don’t hit girls. That’s an extremely absurd leap. They’re beloved because people are attached to them for other reasons.
Anyway, I’m catching a stink of gender essentialism from your comments, where men are one way and women are another and therefore are “””naturally””” not subject to the same standards, and your consistent use examples of violence against women as a way for men to “prove” how honorable they are is honestly more than a bit disturbing. I really do hope you give this a second thought.
Since there are women in the armed forces and women in the police force, there definitely are women who can win a fistfight. It’s not always the stronger one who wins – agility can outweight strength if you know what you’re doing. There also are certainly women who are stronger than certain men – a short, slender man who is not doing any sports is definitely not as strong as a woman who is on the taller side and regularly trains.
It’s always dangerous to speak in absolutes – humans are not build from two clear blueprints, one for women and one for men. We differ greatly in our physical build. As a matter of fact, there are experiments which show that women, if seemingly unobserved, can be as aggressive, if not more so, than men. There have been female warriors in all cultures and at all times, because there will always be women who can or have to take up fighting.
It is condecending of a male character not to fight a woman because she is a woman. Not actively attacking a woman who is not fighting is one thing – nobody should attack another person who is passive and not presenting a danger to them, no matter whether that person is male, female, or something else.
I like this a lot– it’s a very fine line to tread between being honorable and being irritating. Like another commenter said, not hitting women is not a sympathetic kind of honor, but not killing children, or not aligning with slavers certainly could be, if done right.
The other thing about Ned’s rigid, feudal code of honor is that while it bested him, it set in motion the events that would destroy the Lannister’s and Littlefinger. Once he was arrested under false charges, Joffrey had the bright idea to behead him. That triggered the North to secede, which started the war, which ultimately engulfed all the conspirators.
I thought that was a really nice balance. Ned faced the realistic consequences of choosing to be honorable in the midst of Cersei and co., but his legacy as an honorable man ultimately brought his murderers to justice.
I also think it’s important to keep in mind how you want to play the trait. Is the character’s adherence to their code of honour supposed to be a virtue, an admirable trait? Or is it supposed to be a flaw, something that causes them trouble? I know I’d be more willing to accept a character “passing up obvious advantages for the sake of their code” if said code is being played as a flaw – as long as there’s no real reason to pass up the advantage beyond personal ethics (passing up an advantage that requires the character to murder puppies isn’t so much about a code of honour and more just general goodness). That way it’s just a character flaw doing what character flaws do – creating conflict to drive the story. Perhaps their arc can include them learning when to bend.
Regarding the no killing rule and consistency…
If you look at a well-known deontological (rule/duty-based rather than consequence-based) system of ethics like Kant’s, it’s NOT about having a list of rules (like “you must not kill”) and then follow them dogmatically just because.
At bottom, it’s rather about seeing yourself as one agent among others; not as a “chessmaster” above them, who’s got the right to lie, manipulate, hurt and even kill, as long as it results in better overall consequences than the alternative. It is wrong to place yourself above others, and see yourself as entitled to making plans and deciding FOR them, or making decisions regarding who should or should not be sacrificed for the greater good. That’s at the heart of the theory.
Oren is absolutely right that most people, even if they believe in roughly the above ideals, will seriously consider, e.g., killing the Joker if they lived in an absurd universe where it’s impossible to keep him locked up, and where it’s also somehow impossible to stop him from killing thousands of people more unless they kill him first. That’s a REALLY extreme situation.
But in addition, I have a hard time accepting a character’s no-kill-code if it’s not part of an at least somewhat consistent ethical PACKAGE like the one I described above; if the character instead happily treats people like shit, manipulate, lie, threaten, and even TORTURE people – he JUST draws the line at killing. (Some writers – not all, but some – write Batman just like this.)
When a character is like that, the no-kill-rule doesn’t really look like an ethical principle anymore, but more like… an arbitrary hang-up, as if the character always wanted to wear his special lucky socks when fighting crime.
Also, if a character happily hurts and tortures people but explicitly says that he can’t kill his enemies because “then he would be just like them”, it
a) remains inexplicable why hurting and torturing doesn’t suffice to make him “just like them”,
b) his justification for letting, say, the Joker run loose and kill people is that he cares more about his own self-image than other people’s lives. What a hero… (Consequentialists have a long story of accusing deontologists of exactly this attitude, and as should be clear from what I wrote above, I think that accusation is often unfair – but with so-called heroes like this, it’s spot on.)
Well, if you take Kant’s doctrines to heart, it’s about deciding what would happen if anyone did what you’re doing.
There are situation (self-defence or war) where you might have to kill to prevent worse from happening or to protect yourself or others. So ‘don’t kill’ as an absolute rule won’t do.
There might also be situation in which lying (or not telling the full truth) might be the best way to go, even if you don’t want to lie on a daily basis.
In short: life is too complicated for rigid rules.
Let’s not go down the rabbithole of how, precisely, to interpret the first formulation of the categorical imperative. ;-) I could spend the rest of the day writing about it, but I don’t think Mythcreants is the right place to do this.
Anyway, despite explicitly invoking Kant, I wasn’t really imagining a hero who was a bona fide moral philosopher, or even necessarily interested in philosophy. I was rather thinking along these lines…
Regular people can lean strongly towards something like consequentialism, or something like Kantianism, or something like virtue ethics, even if they haven’t studied philosophy at all. After all, the big schools of philosophy grew out of “pre-theoretical” moral thinking.
Thus, you might have a hero who’s not necessarily well-read in philosophy, but whose ethical intuitions and sensibilities still skew heavily Kantian. When they think of right and wrong, they therefore tend to focus on not exploiting and manipulating others, not putting themselves above others, treating others with respect even if they don’t like them, stuff like that, rather than focusing so much on expected consequences. This can be fine and probably come across as admirable traits to a lot of readers, even if said readers tend to think a little differently in their own ethical deliberations. It can also create hard ethical problems for the hero to deal with when following their usual principles seems like it would lead to TERRIBLE consequences.
But that’s very different from having a hero with an arbitrary no-kill rule, even though they have no problem hurting, exploiting, manipulating and overall treating people like shit otherwise.
That was the main point, which I now think might be worth trying to turn into a guest post. Different moral philosophies to use as a basis for your hero’s ethics, even if your hero isn’t an actual philosopher or think in very philosophical terms. (I’d obviously put way more thought into that than these quick posts…)
I think there is a practical aspect to Kant’s imperative – if you really break it down to ‘would I want others to do what I’m doing,’ it gets quite pragmatic. No, you wouldn’t want everyone to kill other people, but there’s situations in which it is the only viable solution. In those situations, it’s okay, in others, it’s not. Much more understandable than a blanket ‘no kill’ rule. ‘I kill enemies in fights when there’s no other way to stop them’ is much more understandable than ‘I don’t kill.’ Also much easier to keep to, of course.
Yes, it’s unlikely that any hero would first sit down and employ any kind of philosophy to figure out whether they can do ‘X’ in this situation. Yet, there’s a more instinctive way to employing the principle, if not in all the depth it has for Kant.
Of course, the real reason for Batman’s ‘no kill’ rule is that otherwise the rogue gallery would be pretty dead and the authors would have to come up with new recognizable villains all the time. Funnily enough, the Joker was originally meant to be a one-hit villain, but audiences like him, so he was put into more stories, growing into Batman’s nemesis.
Thank you for answering this
>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
Yeah, but another conceit is that for major characters, death is temporary. Being killed won’t stop you for much longer than being jailed
The “honor code” was originated as a way to self-hindrance to show how badass knights and samurai were. Like saying “i’m so good i’ll beat you even following nonsensical rules”. Bushido code put it itself in words: “Samurai are not like other people[…] they are so above the rest that they don’t need to be cruel nor to prove their strenght”.
Anyone can kill an enemy shoting him in the back, but to draw after him and still shot first is a real matter of skill (that was how wild west duels worked, if you draw and shot first is murder, if someone draws against you and you shot him, is self defense).
That last bit clearly still works, hence the ‘Han shot first’ debate.
I think quite a bit of the honour code was also based on the way people understood themselves. Knights were to observe rules which made them protectors of those who could not protect themselves (and weren’t ‘the enemy’ per se), hence the rules of how to behave towards poor people or towards women. They were also supposed to show they were more than just fighters, hence the principle of ‘minne,’ of dedicating their fights to a women they didn’t have a romantic or sexual relationship with, but desired as a symbol.
Great question, great answer. I think another facet of this that comes up is: why is the hero’s honor so important to them?
Is their honor something like “don’t kill villains” or “help the suffering no matter what?” Some of these are common sense, but it would help to establish why the hero believes so firmly in them, whether it be that their culture highly upholds honor or that a relative of theirs was dishonorable in the past. Does the hero firmly believe that everyone deserves a chance at redemption, which is why they never kill a villain? Have they seen their people suffer, leading them to never let anyone suffer no matter who they are?
I read a book I couldn’t stand where the MC refused to even consider dating his best friend solely on the logic “but she’s my best friend.” He was attracted to her, he knew she liked him, and they had good chemistry. And yet the MC never explained why he didn’t want to date his friend, which made his struggle sound empty to me. Explain why the hero values their honor, and you’ve got a great story recipe. Good luck!
Good point. With the best friend scenario, it could have made a big difference if he’d previously dated another best friend, and then things turned really sour, they broke it off, and couldn’t stay friends either. Now he’s afraid that will happen again.
Context matters, yes. There can be something in the background of a character which explains why they keep to a certain principle.
For instance, with his often-shown backstory of his parents being shot, it makes sense that Batman doesn’t use guns. His strict ‘no killing’ principle is much harder to explain.
At the core comes down to: Does the character’s adherence to honour harm only himself? Does it only harm others? Or does it harm both himself and others?
Obviously, the honourable knight who shows his kindness by allowing a mysterious stranger to sleep in the kitchen of his castle will not be very popular with the audience when the next morning finds the kitchen maids raped and murdered and the knight safe and cosy in his locked bedroom.
(Doubly so if the kitchen maids previously begged the knight to rethink his ‘kind’ decision …)
If the knight invites the stranger to sleep in his bedroom and the whole castle gets murdered because they were ordered to trust the stranger, then the knight will look like an idiot, at best.
But if the knight invites the stranger to sleep in his bedroom and is the only one murdered because he let the servants take all safety precautions they saw fit … then it is much more likely that there will be anger at the traitorous, ungrateful stranger, and the knight remembered for his selfless hospitality.
People will see through a “hero” whose “honour” is only a way of getting a good reputation for himself and who throws others under the bus while the risk to himself is minimal to non-existent.
On the other hand, there is almost no limits to how foolish honourable behaviour can be if the character harms no one but himself.
Go duel the guy who got your adopted daughter pregnant out of wedlock and refuses to marry her? Sure.
Propose marriage to a girl who is pregnant by some honourless man and needs her reputation preserved? Bravo!
Go to a Dark Lord and attempt to steal the jewels from his crown because the guy you owe a favour just so happens to need those jewels as bride-price for his true love? Fighting a werewolf with your bare hands in the process and inevitably dying? Great!
People might get a bit annoyed at a honour before reason character, but as long as the only one who suffers due to his actions is himself, a large portion of the audience will still love him.
(Other people suffering only works if those other people follow the same code of honour and approve of the hero’s actions. Elinor Dashwood suffers a lot because the man she loves is honourable, but it can be assumed that she loved him even more for being that way, seeing as halfway through the novel she is provided with a potential – but dishonourable – way of ending her suffering and doesn’t take it.)
I don’t think this was your point, and it may have been a coincidence, but I feel like I need to point out that every one of your examples involves violence and/or disrespect towards hypothetical female characters. The maids being “raped” and “murdered,” two cases of unwanted pregnancy from which a man must save the pregnant woman, a bride-price – these all leave an awful taste in my mouth. I’m reminded of the outdated and sexist concept of “chivalry.” I’m not sure why you gravitated to these examples in particular or whether it was deliberate, but I’d seriously urge you to think about why every single instance of “honor” involves using female characters as props to be bashed around or saved or bought. People can have honor codes without the involvement of tragic sexy lamps.
Your knight example is pretty unrealistic though. Here is why:
A knight would live in a castle. If there’s something a castle has no dearth of, it’s rooms. Traditionally, a stranger seeking shelter would either sleep in a room of his own, if he looks like he’s of higher status, or he would have slept in the stable with the grooms, if he looks like he’s poor.
Therefore, had a poor stranger wanted to rape and kill someone, his only choice would have been the grooms – and once he’d attacked the first, the screams would have woken the others and they would, most likely, have beaten him to death.
In the highly unlikely case of the stranger sleeping in the kitchen – maids usually slept close to, but not in the kitchen. They would most likely have had a door between the kitchen and their room(s) which they would, most likely, have closed securely with a stranger in the kitchen.
In the even more unlikely case in which the maids would have slept in the kitchen, the screams of the first maid attacked would have woken the others who would either have run off to get help or, if of a more pragmatic character and more strength, have taken up heavy kitchen utensils and beaten the stranger to death themselves. In no case would all maids have been raped and murdered.
Neither would a male stranger have slept in the same room as a group of maids, nor would he have slept in the same room as the (most likely married) knight.
Your other examples all come from a time when women were commodities.
Your adopted daughter was ‘damaged’ by having been impregnated. To ‘undo the damage,’ you had to force the man who impregnated her to marry her (or get someone else to marry her, knowing their first child would not be his). Alternately, of course, you could send your daughter away and have her have the child and hand the child to someone else to raise. The family reputation would have been damaged, had you not done something, and that could have meant trouble in the long run. Not really honour, therefore.
That girl who got pregnant by some guy who did a hit and run on her? You could just be marrying her because you a) know she’s in for a good bit of money or b) you know you can’t father children and need an heir. Not always about honour.
I’m not sure whether stealing the jewels and fighting a werewolf actually are in the same category. Stealing something from a dangerous person to settle a score elsewhere might make sense in the long run of things. The friend might feel indepted to you and, even if not, might be more likely to help you or lent you something in the future, because you proved reliable.
Fighting a werewolfe with your bare hands is plain stupid and if it kills you, you deserve that.
Ooh, that’s a great point. What jumps to mind is the mandalorian- our hero follows an extremely strict religious code of honor which includes rules we would view as very strange, such as not taking off his helmet in front of outsiders. But a main conflict in the story is about his honor vs practicality- the audience isn’t supposed to view “never taking off his helmet” as an inherently good trait, but as a rule which is important to him as an individual, and something he has to grapple with during his quest
I’m wondering if similar points apply when trying to make a more pragmatic character sympathetic? I would imagine that the more pragmatic character may have learned to balance their ideals with the practical demands of a situation like an enemy invasion while a more honorable character has not yet learned that.