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Writing Excuses 7.1: When Good Characters Go Bad

Writing Excuses 7.1: When Good Characters Go Bad


Key Points: Why? Character change -- redemption or falling -- interests us! Also, fall and realization is cathartic. Plus, this can set up concern for the other characters. To start, show us their starting state, normal and good, and the choice that starts them down the path. Motivation and slippery slope. Dividing line or shades of gray? Don't tell the reader where the line is, let them decide. Does the character think they have crossed the line? Have they slowly eased over it, or been pushed to the edge and snapped? Does the gradual slip have a moment of realization? What about realizing that the rules, the code, itself is wrong? Consider the tragic flaw, and the archetype of the hero who falls from grace. Is this an Everyman falling? Remember that even villains are heroes of their own story. Make sure your character is motivated, and that the fall is foreshadowed. Use that anticipation.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Seven, Episode One, [Yea!] When good characters go bad.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Mary] Mwahahahaha. Sorry.

[Brandon] We didn't mess that up on our first try. That's good. All right. Good characters go bad. We're going to talk about large-scale arcs for characters in this podcast. Specifically, how do you take a character that the readers initially enjoy and love and turn them into someone fallen, someone evil, someone horrible, someone nasty?
[Dan] Is it a bad omen to start the seventh season talking about something good that gets crappy?
[Brandon] No, because we were never good in the first place.
[Mary] We're not that smart.
[Howard] Well, and your goal shouldn't be to take something good and make it crappy. Your goal should be to take...
[Dan] Oh. That explains all my problems.
[Howard] A character who is good and make us love that character all the more for the fact that they've turned evil.
[Brandon] Yeah.
[Dan] Or make us incredibly sad that they have turned evil.

[Brandon] Yup. So the question is, how do we do this? What is our... Well, why would we do this? Let's ask why first. What's the point?
[Dan] Character change is really, really interesting. It's really fun. Whether it goes in either direction. Someone being redeemed or someone falling from grace, either direction works really well as a very emotional arc. Because you're not just watching someone go from weak to strong, which is a common one, but you're literally watching them change who they are fundamentally.
[Brandon] Yeah. It's one of the main reasons why we read fiction, I think, is to experience characters and watch their progress in life. That progress is not always up.
[Howard] During our... I think it was our first WorldCon episode, back in season six, Pat Rothfuss pointed out that there is so many things that can happen to a character that are worse than dying. Having that character turn bad is something that we as readers will fear much more than them dying heroically.
[Brandon] Yes. Yes, indeed. In fact, I mean, this is the entire... What really made the original Star Wars trilogy work was the "Is Luke going to go to the Dark Side?" This concept as a conflict was fascinating. It was wonderfully gut wrenching. So of course, Lucas did it again in the prequels, and failed in many ways, I think. But we want to talk about how to do things the right way. So how do we go about doing this? What's our first step?

[Mary] Well, the first step is to give the character a choice that seems completely logical, that they have to make, but that just edges them down that path. It's that... The moment of... Well, there are no cars coming, I can just go through this traffic light.
[Dan] I'm going to go back even further, and say that the first thing you need to do to really set this up, is you need to establish that character and let us see them being good. Let us see their starting state.
[Mary] Fair enough.
[Dan] If you really want it to be really heart wrenching, then let us see them being very good or very heroic or very something, so that we get to love them.
[Howard] Heroic about not running the traffic lights. This is... No, seriously... This is a thing... Traffic laws. No, if people... You just gotta obey the law all the time. Then something changes, watches somebody zip through a light and is angry. Then... I don't know how you shift that... But yeah. At that point, when he or she decides to run a light... We the reader, it's a small thing, but we the reader will see that and say, "Oh, no! That's..."
[Brandon] You know, see, I think honestly, traffic lights is maybe the wrong way to go with this?
[Mary] It's a metaphor.
[Brandon] It was a metaphor? I think we're carrying it too far. What we're really, I think, we're really looking for...
[Howard] But my point is, you can start with something small that works in the universe, and, especially if you're building this across, in epic fantasy or epic sci-fi, building this across multiple books, it's perfect. Because you see a small thing in book 3, so that by the time you get to book 7, it's really no surprise that this character has proceeded this far down the slippery slope.
[Mary] I think part of that is actually finding what they care about, and making sure that they care about it deeply. Having those steps down the dark side the link to trying to achieve that goal...

[Brandon] Right. Right. I think that's a very good point. We want each of their steps to be logical, and we want us to wince along the way. Now my question is, would you make a dividing line between... These steps up to this line we see as being dangerous, but then there's the one step that's just completely over the line? Or would you say it's that first breaking the moral code that is over the line?
[Dan] It's hard to say. Using the John Cleaver books as an example, the infamous scene with the cat in Mr. Monster is always the scene that people will point to and say, "You know, that's where John fell. That's where he fell in the hole and had to crawl out later." But like you say, that journey began for him a wole book earlier when he decided, "All right. I'm going to break all my rules. I have a good reason for it, but I'm going to start being the kind of person I know I shouldn't be."

[Howard] I think we're casting the question wrong. I think that you, as author, if you've decided exactly where the line is, that's boring. Give us a foil character for the character who is falling, and have them discuss relative morality and shades of gray, so that one of them feels one way and one of them feels the other way. Leave that to the reader. Because regardless of where you say the line is...
[Brandon] Okay, that's a good point.
[Howard] The reader's going to pick their own line. I think that engages the reader a little more. Especially if you as the author have a particular sort of moral fiber, and you would put the line at point A, and half your readers want to put it at point C, if you beat them over the head with point A, you've lost them.
[Brandon] Yeah. That's a really valid point, I think. In the character's mind...
[Howard] Which is an amazing point for me to be able to make, since I've never actually done this.

[Brandon] Well, I think in the character's mind, also, there is something to consider. A lot of these are just considerations for you as a writer deciding. I think you decide is your character feeling that this is the point where I'm crossing a line or not? Your character may... You may want to write a character that they never think they crossed that line. You saw them step from being a sort of righteous warrior for what is right into horrible terrorist going after every innocent they can find. In their head, they're still the righteous warrior. Or you're gonna say... You're going to push them up against the wall, and have them snap and say, "Okay, I'm done with this. I'm done following the rules. I am just going to go for myself now." I think those are two very different archetypes.
[Dan] They are. One thing that I really like about the first one you mentioned, where it's kind of a gradual slip and you think you're still being good is the eventual realization. Long after they've crossed the line, they realize it. They do something and they look at themselves and go, "Oh, my goodness. What have I become?" Kind of thing.
[Mary] That moment in fiction is incredibly cathartic for a reader. That's one good reason to do this to your character, for that turn around. Like Boromir in Lord of the Rings, seeing his slip, and then the moment when he redeems himself is so moving.
[Brandon] Well, I think Boromir's showing us something else, which is another good reason to do this, is that Boromir falling actually sets the stage for us to really worry about all the other characters throughout the rest of the series. It was a wonderful sort of "Hey, look what can happen if you're not careful."
[Mary] A foil!
[Dan] Yeah, it was in some ways a foil to Frodo, to say here's how two different people deal with the temptation of the ring. Another great literary example of this is Othello, where he starts off as an incredibly good person and is corrupted over time by jealousy and eventually realizes, "Oh, no, what have I done?" You get that huge catharsis right there where he... The full impact falls on him.
[Howard] It's been so long since I've read it... The Portrait of Dorian Gray? Is a long study in that. Brandon, when you gave us those two archetypes, I'm not sure whether or not this is actually a third... The idea that "I didn't cross a line. I misunderstood the positioning of the lines. As I learned more about the world and realized oh, the lawmakers themselves are corrupt, therefore the law isn't valid, therefore these rules I've been arbitrarily following... This code I've been adhering to... The line isn't there anymore." A character whose voyage of discovery includes learning horrible things, and maybe learning... Making the wrong choice about them. Does that make sense?
[Brandon] Yeah, that does. I mean, there's so many different ways to take this. The issue with kind of talking about this is, you as listeners, working on your own projects, you're going to want to create arcs for your characters. We're just trying to encourage you to think of different types of arcs, and to remember that some of these arcs can go ways that the reader doesn't want them to. They don't want them to, but they will like the fact that you did it to them.

[Brandon] Let's go ahead and stop for our book of the week. Dan, you're going to promo a book for us?
[Dan] Yes. The book of the week this week is Hard Magic by Larry Correia. He's been a guest on the show a couple of times. I know we've talked about this book before. But now the audio book is out. It's narrated by Bronson Pinchot, cousin Balki from Perfect Strangers. But it's actually awesome. That makes it sound bizarre, but he's a fantastic reader. The story is great. It does have some kind of fallen from grace characters, so it's not a perfect analogy for our podcast, because you don't get to see them do it on stage, but... It's an excellent book. Larry Correia's a great writer. You will love it.
[Howard] Head on out there. You can kick off a free 14 day trial membership. Download Hard Magic by Larry Correia, our good friend and a fantastic writer, for free. By doing that, you help support Writing Excuses.
[Brandon] All right. Yup, we can continue to fly Mary out here to create podcasts for you.

[Brandon] Let's talk about tragic flaws. Since we brought up Othello, this is one of the classic Greek archetypes, the hero who falls from grace. It's Oedipus, it's many of these things. How important do you think the tragic flaw is to taking a good character and making them that?
[Mary] I always... I mean, I think, every character... Almost every character is improved by a tragic flaw. Everybody has something, to varying degrees. If you have someone trying to become evil and they do not have a tragic flaw, then they're probably actually a pretty good guy.
[Dan] Yeah. Even Dr. Horrible, which is the story of someone who... A super villain origin story. He has his tragic flaw, and you don't really realize it until the end. You look back and go, "Oh, okay. I can see what was going on here." You love that character, you think he's fantastic, but...
[Mary] That actually brings up something that I think we should talk about while we're talking about this, which is that in fantasy and science fiction in particular, a lot of the times, the things that our heroes do, if you transplanted them into this world... They would be terrible, terrible people. There's a lot of death and mayhem. In order to have a character go bad in a story, in order to make sure that that tragic flaw is visible, you do have to... Not only do you have to show them being normal at some point, but you have to show what the norm is in that society, and how they react to it and how other people react to their actions.
[Brandon] This goes back to what Dan said, you kind of have to establish the character early on and show them... You know, not even just being good. Show them being normal. I think that part of what will make a tragic flaw really work is... Why we just didn't want Luke to go evil, why we were so worried about Luke going evil, is he was an Everyman character, he felt like us. Him choosing the dark side is a little bit like us seeing the darkness inside of ourselves. Every one of us occasionally chooses that. We want to learn not to, we want to think we're better than that. So Luke having that struggle is so strong for us.
[Mary] Yeah. It's interesting that you can actually tell... And people have done this as a spoof... That you can actually tell that story with Luke as the bad guy, overthrowing the Empire.
[Brandon] Yes, you can.
[Mary] But it all has to do with where the point of view is and character reactions.
[Howard] In fact that whole Jedi admonition, "Use force, Luke!"

[Brandon] All right. So how do people do this poorly? If you've seen it done in fiction, or in film, or somewhere where it just hasn't worked for you, what's gone wrong?
[Dan] One of the things that we say about villains all the time is that a really good villain in general will think that he or she is the hero of [inaudible -- their own?] Story. Where you see a falling from grace story go wrong is that they will come to a point where they're like, "Okay, I'm just going to be evil now." They will make an on-screen decision to be the bad kind of villain that nobody is interested in.
[Brandon] I'm going to counter that a little bit because of the thing I brought up before, the person pushed to the breaking point. It's something like the movie "Falling Down" -- is that what it's called? -- Where a person pushed to the breaking point and snaps. You actually root for them as you know they are going evil. That character can oftentimes say, "You know what, I'm not... I don't think I'm going evil." But they do think "I'm not going to care anymore." That is essentially acknowledging "I'm going to go be selfish now. I'm tired of being the good guy." I think that can be played in a way that works really well.
[Dan] That can work, yes.
[Brandon] I think it can be played very poorly, though. I think this was... We like to harp on the prequels -- I like to harp on the prequels. I think they were very poorly done.
[Mary] Sad.
[Brandon] I think that's one of the things where it's just like "All right, I've decided I'm a villain now. So I'm going to now go kill babies." Rather than having a kind of a fall that felt realistic to me... And granted, you could say this is the Force. He's now been invested with the Dark Side, but that's not how it was presented to me. It was presented as he wants to do bad things for good reasons, because he wants to save the woman he loves, and that somehow equates to in the next step killing babies. That's just over the top.
[Howard] What's interesting about the prequels is that when I look at the general shape of what he outlined, it could have worked brilliantly. I think that the dialogue and some of the camera work and some of the editing and things didn't support what needed to happen. But I certainly think he had the right idea.

[Brandon] Well, let's back away from just harping on that then, because if it's a problem of execution in the concept... Let's look at our listeners, who are going to try this... What can they... How can they avoid making mistakes themselves?
[Mary] Well, to me it always comes back to knowing what your character once and everything kind of drives from that point. If your character is not sufficiently motivated, if they're making choices because you want it to happen, then you're going to run into problems. That's...
[Brandon] It can be just another problem of foreshadowing. Watch your foreshadowing. Let us... Put the gun on the mantle that this character is approaching an edge. Let us anticipate it. Don't just have them go evil... If you just have them do, you're missing out on the opportunity of all the anticipation of "Oh, please, don't do that."
[Dan] Yes. Which can be... I say this having built a career on that anticipation... That's very powerful. That is what a lot of people like about the John Cleaver books, is the constant tug-of-war, is he going to go evil or not? So don't forget that if you have a chance to put it in.
[Mary] Actually, as we're talking about this, I actually think that some of what we're looking at is not just what's happening with the character, but what's happening with the tone of the narration. In film, you have the musical score that gives you a clue. Which is a handy trick that we don't have, but we do have the tone of the narration. Dan, you were talking a while ago about the difference when writing horror, the sense in the language of being trapped. I think that that's one way that you can say these choices are bad. As opposed to these choices are heroic. Hurrah, let's kill people.
[Dan] Yeah. That's a very good point.
[Howard] Mary, when you said we want to look at the characters, what is it that the character wants... I think one of the easiest ways to set this up from the very beginning as a writer is to establish two or three things that the character really, really wants, none of which are in conflict. Then, as the story progresses, those things become in conflict, and the character chooses... To go back to the prequels for a moment... Chooses love of Padme over saving the galaxy from the evil of the Sith...
[Mary] I actually, when I'm teaching, use the original Star Wars as an example. What Luke wants is to be a great man like his father. He wants to get off the planet and make a difference. Unfortunately, the thing he has to do in order to achieve that is to kill his father. Sorry about the spoiler, guys.
[Dan] Dang it.
[Brandon] I think the statute of limitations on Star Wars is a little bit past. Okay. We're out of time. Let's go ahead and wrap this up. Why don't we throw at Howard a writing prompt?

[Howard] Perfect. You know what, I'm just going to build this off of the last comment I made. Come up with a list of three things that are very, very important to your main character that are all in alignment. Now, outline yourself some circumstances where one of those things is now out of alignment and can drive your character from the protagonist's side into darkness and eventual oblivion.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: anticipation, character arc, character change, everyman, fall, foreshadow, motivation, realization, redemption, slippery slope
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