Should We Just Kill Him?

The big battle has come, our hero is triumphant, and evil has been vanquished. What do we do with the bad guy now? Do we put him in jail, or do we just kill him? I don’t mean this to be a debate over capital punishment. Rather, I’m looking at what satisfies us as readers/viewers. Are we okay with putting the evil genius behind bars to contemplate his wrongdoings, or do we need the hero to plug him through the heart with his double-barreled ray gun?

I think the answer depends on several factors. What kind of villain was he? What kind of hero defeated him? What kind of world are we in, i.e. what are our genre constraints? And heck, to some extent, which direction is the wind blowing?

Let’s start with the villain. Is he a murderer or a financial swindler? If a murderer, was this a single crime of passion or a long series of calculated assassinations? If a swindler, did he go after your grandmother’s savings, or did he take down the Italian economy? And finally, was he an average guy doing bad things, or is he truly some evil genius who will forever seek to show off his capacity for mayhem?

As much as I said this wasn’t a debate about capital punishment, many of those same factors enter our literary calculations. If the villain was the guy next door who made a series of bad decisions, we’re more likely to be satisfied with locking him up for a lifetime of remorse. On the other hand, if he’s some sociopath bent on nuclear holocaust, I think we’re a little less satisfied with that plan of remorse. After all, he’s shown that he won’t feel remorse. He’ll just be plotting some other way to unleash Armageddon.

But in addition to things like recidivism and the scale of the crimes, we readers (and the hero) also make the decision based on personal feelings. Did this guy go after the hero’s own grandmother with his ponzi scheme? Was one of the slasher victims our detective’s innocent wife? For God’s sake, did that evil bitch run over my precious little six-legged space kitten?!!

These are things that would get you kicked off a jury faster than… well… I don’t know, because that’s pretty as extreme as it gets judically. We don’t let victims’ friends and families sit in judgment of the accused, but in fiction, this isn’t a jury. Our hero has the chance to be judge, jury, and executioner, and the more personal it gets, the further along that triple role our hero is going to go.

As much as we would never condone it in our real-world judicial system, if the stakes are sufficiently personal most readers find satisfaction in a hero’s righteous revenge. I could argue that this lets us exorcise that particular demon in a safe way, but I don’t think I can argue that the demon isn’t there to begin with. Maybe that’s all hindbrain stuff that we’re trying to evolve our way out of, but for now, both we and our heroes are stuck with it.

But not all heroes are wrathful revenge-monkeys with poor impulse control. Take Superman, for example. I’m not a huge comic collector, so I can’t speak to the eighty years of pulp canon, but from the movies and the old black-and-white TV shows, I don’t think I ever saw him kill anyone. For starters, he’s just a little too pure to kill anyone, or at least, too pure to act in vengeful anger. But also, he’s Superman. If the bad guy gets out, unleashes mayhem again, Superman can just throw him in prison again. Sure, some people get hurt along the way, but Superman’s hands are still clean.

Other heroes are happy to mete out vengeful justice on their own. Dirty Harry is a great example of this, particularly in the very first film. He has no qualms about killing the bad guy, and he’s got a 44 Magnum loaded with righteous wrath. However, as much as he is held up as the quintessential anti-hero, he still follows at least one rule. He won’t kill a defenseless criminal. That’s the deal with his whole “Do you feel lucky?” speech. He wants the bad guy to pick up his weapon to make him a legitimate target.

That particular bit of rule-following is endemic in another type of hero, who would like to consider himself as pure as Superman but is still willing to kill. This is the hero who defeats that bad guy and then walks away, only to have the bad guy rise from the debris to take one last shot at the hero. The hero, of course, puts the bad guy down for good, usually with an unquestionably lethal act that is accomplished with trivial effort, e.g. the gunshot precisely between the eyes from fifty feet. [As a side note, when putting down your bad guys, ALWAYS double-tap. Really, I think we’ve all been burned by this enough to know that we’re not done until the double-tap.]

But then you have some heroes who are unapologetically dishing out a chilled plate of revenge. I think of the original Mad Max where Max puts some guys behind bars for killing his partner, only to have them be let out and suffer an even greater, personal loss. The revenge orgy that ensues is enough to satisfy any grudge-meister, especially the final act of revenge. He shows no hesitation, no remorse, and absolutely no sympathy for the soon-to-be-dead bad guy. I won’t say that Max will go ape-shit if you cheat him at cards, but this is a guy that you don’t want to leave around for Act II if you can help it.

But then there’s the world around you. The Max in that last example was living out on the frontier of the Australian outback in a time that was either during or shortly after some apocalyptic war. The remnants of civilized society weren’t working anymore, and Max had a certain amount of freedom to hunt these people down. Score one for the genre, because after the apocalypse, it’s an all-you-can-eat revenge-flavored ice cream buffet.

Compare that to Superman’s world of Metropolis. The government is stable and happy to lock up these troublemakers, if only it was strong enough to catch them. Gee thanks, Superman! I mean, it’s kind of hard to argue against incarceration there. He caught them in the act, gathered up the evidence with his free hand, and to top it off, Superman makes a great eye-witness for the prosecution. (And to top it off, Lois poisoned the whole jury pool with an exclusive article.)

Dirty Harry (and Batman for that matter) split the difference. There’s still a functioning judicial system, but it’s imperfect and apparently growing worse. We’d like to put these bad guys away, but we realize that in this particular case, we just can’t trust that the system will work. Even then, they sometimes drop the villains off at the local precinct.

But there are also genre constraints that limit the hero even more than the judicial backdrop. Action films pretty much require the villain’s death, the more spectacular the better. Even beloved villains like Hans Gruber have to take the plunge. Meanwhile, some comic stories/films require that the evil genius live to escape and fight another day. Mysteries almost always require that the villain survive because the detective has to win by intellect, not by force. Even if he proves the villain’s guilt first, it’s somehow dissatisfying if that wasn’t enough, that some additional low-brow gunplay was required to be victorious.

Finally, I’d say that the political winds of the real world effect how we and the heroes see this. In the early years of the “War on Terror” in the US, I noticed a lot less sympathy for villains, and more and more heroes did “what had to be done.” This was also true in the late 70’s through 80’s as we experienced pushback from the peace-movement 60’s and ratcheted up the cold war with the Soviets. But in the 90’s and increasingly now in the 2010’s, I saw a lot more heroes going with the equivalent of Hawaii 5-O’s “Book ‘em Danno”.

It would seem that there are times when the unruly mob is giving a collective thumbs down, chanting “death, death” to the hapless gladiators in the arena, and sometimes we’re in a more forgiving mood. It’s easier to fine-tune that in movies which can be more timely with their audience, but it can leave some books out of step as they can find “fresh readers” twenty or thirty years later.

So, how about you guys? What villain were you glad to see splattered? Which ones got the mercy they deserved? And which ones got away or were unfairly squished?

Little-in-Big Stories

One of my favorite kinds of stories isn’t identifiable by ray guns, magic wands, or trenchcoats. It’s less about genre and more about structure. Specifically, I like to see the little guy in the big story. We’re used to seeing the President making tough calls or Captain Kirk charging into battle, but I find I’m drawn to the stories of the front-line soldier, the pilot’s wife, or even the young boy.

I still like to see the epic tales of sweeping conflict, but to me they often seem more real when seen from the role of a person not that different from me. But it’s not that these little guys are powerless figures, struggling to stay afloat in the tsunami around them. In a proper little-in-big story, the little guy is somehow drawn to the center of the conflict, and the fate of the world ends up resting on his undersized little-guy shoulders.

The Epic Volunteer

Lots of stories have this element, and they usually show us some of the bits with the big epic characters as well. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a good example of this. The four hobbit adventurers (Frodo, Samwise, Merry, and Pippin) are truly little guys in more than one sense. They’re not kings, wizards, great warriors, or even particularly fierce. They’re simply regular fellows like you are me, who when the weight of the world came down on their shoulders refused to buckle under and collapse.

But in Lord of the Rings and stories like it, our little guy heroes know how much responsibility they’re taking on. Certainly, the reality of their path can get harsher and harsher as the tale goes on, but Frodo had at least some idea what he was signing up for when he said he would carry the ring into Mordor. He didn’t know the way it was going to leech at his soul and nearly cost him his sanity, but when he stepped forward in Rivendell, he knew it was a Big Deal.

Destiny’s Hero

Other little-guy heroes don’t get that much advanced warning. They’re just trying to live their lives, but as events unfold they find their options increasingly cut off until they have no choice but to step forward and save the world or die trying. Harry Potter is a good example of this. He’s just a kid who wants to make friends and have a family, and he’s finding out that this wizardry thing is pretty fun. Yet in each book and over the course of the series, he finds that his fun-and-friends life is less and less of an option, until at the end, it is clear that he and he alone can save the world.

I confess I really enjoyed the slow build and even slower reveal of the Harry Potter series, but Harry didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter. He didn’t step forward at age eleven and volunteer to pit his soul against ultimate evil. Then again, at age eleven he didn’t have the strength of character to step up for that. He was scared, meek, and merely hoping to be let out from under the stairs. We got to see him grow into the person that would valiantly step up for that battle, and that was a journey worth watching.

Who Me?

And then there are the little guys who don’t get to have that weight of the world until the very last moment. Certainly, they have struggled through the epic events, and the crucible of their lives has forged their character, but they don’t get to see their true role in the tale until the last moment, when they are forced to act. Only then do they realize that the epic battle has come down to that one moment, and that it’s up to them to save the world or to damn it though inaction.

I can’t think of an example as famous as the other two, but I have run into this kind of little guy often enough. In Babylon 5, Vir Cotto had a number of such little guy moments, rising to the occasion when it became clear he was the only one who could. Asimov’s tale of The Mule features another such little guy hero in the form of Bayta, who little more than the pilots wife and friend to the musician-clown Magnifico, and yet when the critical moment comes, she becomes the hero of the tale. Another is C.J. Cherryh’s “Finity’s End”, where young Fletcher Neihart tracks down and confronts a conspiracy for his own reasons, only to have that action become critical to the larger story going on around him.

I enjoy all three of these kinds of little-in-big tales. Certainly, I like other tales as well – Captain Kirk has some excellent adventures – but these little tales will always hold a special place for me. It’s not just that I can relate to these mundane characters better. It’s that they make me feel better about myself. I’m not a king or a great warrior or even a starship captain, but these little guys step up to their heroic roles just as I like to imagine I would step up. They give me the chance to think about those epic life-and-death moments, and since they always face them bravely, they make me feel like I would too.

I suppose it’s because of that aspect that the third style of these little-in-big tales calls to me the most. I haven’t volunteered to carry the ring to Mordor, nor are events conspiring around me to force me into a legendary battle with forces of evil. But the world is changing around me, perhaps not quite as epically as in most tales, but it is changing, and this kind of story tells me that when push comes to shove, little guys like me CAN make the right decision and save the world.

And who doesn’t want to feel that way?

So, final thought to the readers… what little-in-big stories have caught your eye over the years? Try to keep the spoilers to a minimum, because I may very well want to read them.

The Most Annoying of Conflicts

Conflict is at the root of storytelling, and there have been some great ones over the years: stalwart good vs. primal evil, innocence vs. corruption, the power-mad vs. the freedom fighters, and so on. But today I’m going to complain about what I find to be the most annoying conflict of all: not talking. I see this conflict show up a lot between people who should be allies, but because they won’t talk to each other, they end up screwing each other over through pointless infighting.

Let me give you a couple of examples from a book I recently threw across the room. The two main characters are a femme fatale bodyguard and the man she’s protecting. At one point, she tells him to go while he insists on staying. This results in a willful battle between the two as he insists on engaging in some unannounced ritual, leaving them open to attack by a pair of opposition agents. Then afterwards, the bodyguard is laid up in the hospital while the protectee heads off to where the bodyguard wanted him to go in the first place.

Sure, we get a chapter or two of action and introspection out of it, but couldn’t we instead have had some more intelligent characters who actually talked about their opposing desires?

“It’s time for us to go.”
“Actually, I need to stay for a while.”
“Well, I need to engage in this little ritual. It’s important for my health. Let me explain it to you so that you can best protect me while I’m performing it, ok?”
“Sure, I’ll tell the rest of the team to wait for us.”

Admittedly, it’s not nearly as exciting, but it doesn’t make me want to smack the characters around for being stubborn idiots.

The next example from that same book involves those opposition agents who had attacked during the ritual. Our heroine managed to fight them off the first time, but they certainly make another appearance later on. We get, of course, another battle between our bodyguard and the opposition agents. The bodyguard wins, but in her weakened state another bad guy shows up to kidnap the protectee away from her. Only then did these opposing agents tell our heroine that they’re trying to protect the same guy she is and that the real bad buy is the one who just now showed up to kidnap him.

Again, we get another chapter or two of action and discussion, but couldn’t we instead have had some sane decisions by these other agents, like maybe warning the bodyguard early on?

“I know you don’t want to trust us, but we want to keep your guy alive too. Our intelligence tells us that the threats have been coming from Big Bad Jones. We’ll be working that angle, but you should be on the lookout for magical eagles in case we fail. Here’s my number if you have more questions.”

Yeah… that would have pulled the conflict out of maybe the first half of the book, so again, it’s not nearly so exciting. However, as it is, I got so annoyed with the stupidity of these heroes that I stopped having any real sympathy for them. Without that sympathy, I stopped caring whether or not they succeeded in their goals, so I would have been perfectly happy to see Big Bad Jones succeed in his poorly explained plan to destroy the world. At least Big Bad Jones had thus far been acting like a reasonable man. Plus he had the magical eagle thing going for him – how cool is that?

And so I stopped reading the book. There are something like four sequels to this book, but I won’t be buying them. Sorry, author, but you shouldn’t have made your heroes act like such pigheaded dolts in the first book.

Yes, I understand that not all characters are perfect. Yes, I understand the appeal of flawed heroes. And yes, I understand that things going wrong prevent the stories from becoming exercises in wish fulfillment. But I just can’t sympathize with a hero who withholds vital information for no good reason. Maybe I’m just being picky, but as your potential reader, that’s my right.

So, what character flaw/mistake/action will you not put up with in a protagonist?

Odd Jobs for SF/F Protagonists

I think we’re all familiar with the dashing starship captain and the powerful wizard who battles evil. These are both prime examples of the kinds of heroes we run into to science fiction and fantasy all the time. Their heroic friends include the squire who becomes a knight, the bodyguard who saves the world, and the rebel soldier who overthrows the empire. On one hand, these can become the same old and tired heroes, boring caricatures lifted straight from the manual of 101 protagonists. On the other hand, there’s a reason we see them so often. They are where the action is. It’s much the same reason we have so many police and doctor shows on TV. Those jobs regularly put them in the exciting places of jeopardy, where life and limb can fly off in unexpected directions.

And in truth, there’s nothing wrong with that.

I enjoy watching Captain Kirk as much as the next fan – though I do come down on Picard’s side in the classic debate – and that doesn’t automatically stop him from being an interesting character. Ancient wizards and cyborg bodyguards can have all the charms and foibles that endear us. Having an exciting job does not prevent that from happening, as long as the writer avoids using it as a crutch.

But there is a bit of a crutch built in. These protagonists with exciting jobs also come with some stock abilities that are useful in resolving the crisis. The starship captain does something with his ship. The wizard uses his magic. The bodyguard gets down and dirty with her fists. We readers expect that kind of thing, and writers typically deliver. You accept that the knight will summon up one last dreg of strength to finish off the hellion because that is what we’re used to. He’s a heroic figure, and you expect heroic figures to have heroic abilities.

But what about the garbage man? What does he do?

The garbage man is just a guy like you or me. He doesn’t command a starship with lethal weaponry. He can’t throw fireballs or summon demons. And unless he’s been studying martial arts for the last decade, he probably can’t fight his way into a high-security complex either. But he can drive his truck to the back of that complex and say the company switched schedules, and they’ll likely let him right on in. He can rifle through someone’s trash – did you remember to use the cross-cut shredder on that incriminating file? He can move through society with virtual invisibility, and if he does decide to kill you with something as mundane and boring as a gun, he knows where to hide the body where it’s never going to be found. He’s not a superhero, but he does have unique skills at his disposal, so to speak.

I’ll admit the garbage man is a contrived example, and I don’t know if anyone could build a series on William’s Waste Management of Wrath, but there are a lot of other jobs out there for our protagonists, and personally, I would like to see them more often.

I recently read the start of the Ishmael Wang series with a space opera hero who started off working in the galley and then moved into environmental systems. It wasn’t a story of heroic combat tactics, but it was still a very good read.

One of my favorite characters in the Harry Dresden books is Butters, a meek coroner who loves polka but has no deep reserve of magical power. And yet, he has still been known to kick to some serious metaphysical ass.

The protagonist in C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series is an interpreter. His training is primarily in such things as grammar and culture, and he spends a great deal of his time worrying about the impact of cell phones on the civil manners of his society. And yet, he still rises to the occasion, fighting for the worthy mutiny, putting down the usurpers, uncovering the secret plots, and in general saving the world. And of course, he does it all with the proper conjugation for each of those verbs.

And then there was a lonely mid-level administrator in Jack McDevitt’s The Hercules Text who did what he was told until it was time to make the moral decision, despite all the threats against him. He had no real power base. He had no political patrons. He was just a guy like me, working a job with only the authority to do what they told him to do. But he still found a way to be the hero.

I think that’s what I like most about these heroes with the unusual jobs. They’re not obviously heroic characters, cut from the mold of legend. They’re like me, but they’re the best possible me, doing what I tell myself I would do in their place. And in doing so, they give me hope.

How about you? What are some of your favorite protagonists who did not come equipped with their own starship or magical staff?