Tag Archives: morality in fiction

Skill and stuff as the arbiter of goodness

One think I think about pretty regularly when reading is what separates the “good guys” from the “bad guys”. There are a couple of ways that this usually works. The simplest is by author fiat (these are the good guys because they are the heroes) but it’s actually fairly uncommon, as there are usually other signifiers. For my purposes, I’ll break them down into three general categories, although they are all fairly coextensive: relationship to the status quo, moral virtue, and skills n’stuff.

In most mystery novels the status quo is the arbiter of goodness – the good guys are the ones who protect the status quo, the bad guys are the one who threaten it. It’s one of the reasons I’m not a huge fan of the genre. There are certainly mystery novels that do otherwise (The Millennium trilogy was in some ways an explicit attempt to challenge cultural complacency about extreme ideologies) the basic mystery novel formula is deeply conservative. The superhero genre has some of the same issues, although it wasn’t always that way and authors seem equally likely to use the characters to the opposite effect. Sff as collective genera are much more willing to be subversive. Star Wars is the most well-known example of this: the heroes are the people actively fighting against the status quo.* It exists everywhere there’s an “evil empire”.

It’s probably most common to divide the good guys and the bad guys by dint of their moral behavior. The good guys are the one who exhibit “good” morality – they don’t murder, they don’t commit property crimes against innocents (usually), etc. etc. I’m planning another post on this eventually so I’m not going to go into too much depth here. I’ll just say that there are times when this trope is subverted: The chronicles of Thomas Covenant, The three musketeers, and Blood meridian come to mind immediately. I’m sure there are more. It’s a technique that is used much more often in books and movies than it is in video games, where “good guy by fiat” is pretty much the default for player characters.

It’s the third method of distinguishing the good guys from the bad guys that I’m interested in talking about here – that we know who the good guys are because they are the best at what they do or because they have the best stuff (or both). It’s something that I haven’t been able to stop noticing once I thought of it. The good guys always have the best toys. It’s almost necessary in order for the good guys to win (see Star Wars again), otherwise it would skretch** credulity to see the scrappy underdogs defeat the overwhelmingly superior force.

It happens other places, too. It’s a mainstay of naval novels, that the heroic British/Manticoreans have the superior firepower and/or much more highly skilled crews than the nefarious French/Havenites whose successes are largely attributed to running into the wall so many times it eventually collapses on them. It’s so common that the hero is extra skilled that it goes practically unquestioned.  It’s one of the things that really drew me to the October Daye books – it’s immediately made clear that Toby is vastly less powerful than the average fae citizen and is even less powerful than many changelings. This weakness forces her to behave differently, to pick her battles, and to find creative solutions and/or enlist powerful allies. It goes a long way in making the books more interesting.***

It even happens in books that explicitly pose moral questions – while I’m not very fond of Brandon Sanderson (and sometimes it feels like I’m the only one), Mistborn raises some interesting questions about the morality of the fantasy novel hero (and of the evil overlord), but even there the heroes have abilities that surpass virtually everyone else.

It’s especially common in video games, but since most video games are, in their secret hearts, power fantasies, it makes total sense. One of the strengths of the Metal Gear series is, like Mistborn and unlike the vast majority of games, it examines the differences between power and “goodness”, and it’s rarely clear whether or not Snake is actually doing the right thing or is on the right side. Like Mistborn, Metal Gear also explicitly addresses the moral context of the hero’s casual killing of the “bad guys”.**** George R.R. Martin also takes pains to avoid this trope, and it’s one of the reasons he has the reputation he does.

The hero just being “better” at whatever the plot requires seems to be pretty common, especially in genre fiction. It works because it plays on the culture of hero-worship and it provides a convenient justification for a happy ending. It’s a trope that has existed virtually forever (neither Gilgamesh nor Enkidu is exactly a moral exemplar, and the Biblical King David was essentially a bandit). Sherlock Holmes is one of the easiest “modern” literary figures to point to here, since it’s essentially his entire gimmick. It makes for exciting stories. Still, it represents a pretty significant departure from the extraliterary world.

It’s something that I enjoy pondering when I read – why are the heroes the heroes? It’s a question that books are well suited to addressing. It’s an issue that’s especially important in science fiction and fantasy, where the relationship between the literary world and the extraliterary world is more abstract than in “realistic” fiction. It’s caused me to notice how often the main characters in the books I read end up playing god, or at least stand in judgment of those who aren’t like them. It’s not exactly a comfortable realization, but I think it’s a worthwhile one.

*There’s an argument to be made that the rebels of Star Wars aren’t actually fighting the status quo, since it’s essentially a conservative rebellion, seeking to return to the old status quo rather than instituting a new one.

**That was supposed to be “stretch”. For a full fifteen minutes I was convinced that there was a k in the word stretch. I have no idea how or why that happened but I’m leaving it because skretch seems like a cool word to me. It has a Jim Henson kind of feel to me.

***I’ve read all of the books in the series that were published as of December 2014, and what I say here isn’t strictly 100% accurate for various reasons that I can’t go into without revealing way too much about the books.

****I’ll look into this in more depth if I ever write the post about the moral stuff.