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.
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!