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Way With Worlds: Heroes and Villains – The Deadly Hero

This was originally posted by Steven Savage on his blog, but has allowed me to republish it here as I think it’s useful for roleplayers! This is part of Steven’s Way With Worlds series of articles. -David

Duke Nukem standing on pile of bodies

So we’e talking heroes and villains. Usually at some point we’re talking conflict and outright violence in this case, even if its not physical. However when it gets physical, I want to address a rather poorly handled archetype which I call The Deadly Hero.

The Deadly Hero is that character who is a killing machine who leaves a wake of bodies, but is also considered the hero (if only by the author and fans). Now admittedly if said bodies are soulless killer robots and such, probably no harm no foul, but usually they’re living creatures and sentients. Oddly, in much writing it doesn’t seem to matter.

You know the story. It’s an FPS game come to life as enormous amounts of corpses pile up and the character is still considered the hero, still perhaps considers themselves heroic, still acts the part. After a while however something seems wrong, seems off . . .

It is. The Deadly Hero kills worldbuilding as well as legions of people.

The Crux of The Conflict

So what’s the problem? The good guy kicks backside and wins? That’s how it works? So why does this seem . . . off in our worlds?

Beyond gore, gratuitous action, and so on I think the Deadly Hero who acts without repercussion or affect grates on our senses of continuity. After a while the bodycount is like a videogame score, and there’s just no fallout from it.

The world doesn’t matter, the setting is unreal, and the Hero all the moreso for the contrast.

Just consider the impact of violence in our real world.

  1. Violence is unpredictable. A running battle of spells in a crowded city is going to have civilian casualties – having violence be super-surgical and precise seems wrong, and the more there is the less believable (unless you go out of your way to address that).
  2. Violence produces reactions. I don’t care how heroic you think you are, that huge pile of cadavers might make me wonder if you’re the good guy, and I can’t see their badges that indicate they belong to Evil Inc. until the autopsy.
  3. People assess risks. The violent, even the good, may make us wonder if they’re safe. If you’ve got super battle psychic powers that may be well and good, but the secret organization you work for is going to notice the levels of death and maybe wonder if you’re safe to work with . . .
  4. Violence affects people. Ask anyone who has been in a fight, gone to war, killed. Read a biography. Study PTSD. Violence affects us personally, and the person who commits violence is affected as well.
  5. If you’re not affected, something may be wrong. A character who kills without mental and emotional repercussion may be insanely dangerous -or just insane.
  6. Violence takes effort. I mean if nothing else you have to rest, recharge, and buy bullets.

The Deadly Hero, I think, rubs people wrong as it’s death without repercussion or even lip service. A story without repercussion is a story without a working world, and the hero feels abstract and removed from the setting. At that point it’s just a list of things happening against a meaningless backdrop.

Also the Deadly Hero way too often is just a form of wish-fulfillment. The badass without repercussions is a form of pandering – and a sadly obvious form of pandering at that. Poorly written is bad enough, but outright pandering really means your worldbuilding is for naught, its just setting up targets.

I recall once someone talked lovingly of ‘The Punisher” comic. To which I noticed that, realistically, the character would inevitably kill a lot of innocent people (if only by accident) and that everyone who showed up dead would not necessarily be a known criminal and thus upset the public.

They didn’t get it.

Avoiding The Trap

Looking through glass

SEE ALSO: Dark Mary Sues

The Deadly Hero is a trap that’s a bit too easy to fall into, and I’d credit the prevalence of this kind of story in the media. There’s also media that veers into this territory but doesn’t go all the way – but following in the footsteps of said media means you may veer all the way.

But if your world and a realistic setting are important, you want to avoid the trap of the Deadly Hero – and a common one it is. Here’s a few pieces of advice

  1. Make sure violence has appropriate repercussions.
  2. Make sure the hero’s reactions to violence are appropriate.
  3. Make sure other characters in your world react appropriately to violence.
  4. Make sure the cost of weapons, armor, repair, etc. are worked into the story.
  5. Think of what a hero is. If you are wrting an admirable character, you’ll need to explore their reasons and reactions to violence – which is a fascinating experience as a writer. You’re poorer if you don’t – why would someone kill, and for what reasons is a great part of a tale and a world.

In short you avoid the trap by making sure the world works and functions appropriate, diving in to the repercussions and richness of the setting and character. In time, this makes not just a believable story, but a better world and characters.

A Side Note: The UHB is still annoying

When I first wrote this column I noted a character I really was tired of was the Uncaring Heroic Badass or UHB. The UHB is the grim, deadly, antisocial, unlikeable character who is the hero that the author wants us to root for even though they’re an a-hole.

My opinion hasn’t changed. The UHB is really a power trip consisting of:

  1. I’m tough and can defeat anyone. Don’t you want to be me?
  2. I don’t care about anyone or anything. Aren’t I cool for not caring.

Really, the UHB isn’t a hero. They’re a sociopath in a costume, meant for pandering, and still freaking annoying.

Fallout From The Flareup

Writing a violent and deadly hero is totally possible – as long as you understand the repercussions of violence and the character. This requires deep thought – and avoiding tropes.

If anything, I’d say tropes about violence are some of the worst challenges we face in writing (along with sex, religion, and politics). It’s almost like we get invested in them, and we need to overcome them.

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers and community at www.musehack.com, publishes books on career and culture at www.informotron.com, and does a site of creative tools at www.seventhsanctum.com. He can be reached at www.stevensavage.com.

  • K

    Kill one, you are a murderer.

    Kill thousands, you are a conqueror.

    Kill them all, you are a God.

    • Very good point! That reminds me, have you seen the Noah film from last year?