Warning: Strong opinions ahead. And it’s long, too. Strap in.
I like my good guys good. Complex and conflicted? Cool. Messed-up history and/or in need of redemption? Want. Going through some terrible transformative sh!t that’ll properly mess them up forever? Gimme. But they still need to be good.
Killing defenseless people, even bad guys, isn’t a good guy trait. Read on to find out where this is coming from.
In case you didn’t know, a little-seen independent film titled The Force Awakens opened a few weeks ago. In it there’s a scene where ***MINOR SPOILERS*** a certain Storm Trooper Captain is forced by several rebels to disable something that lets other rebels blow up a really big, evil, dangerous something else. At the end of the scene, exactly what’s done with the afore-mentioned Storm Trooper isn’t expressly stated. In discussing this with a friend, I realized we are, as a species, doomed. Why? Not because we keep building planet-destroying super weapons our adversary consistently blows up (seriously, the ROI for Death Stars and the like must be awful!), but because we now think it’s OK for a ‘good guy’ to murder a ‘bad guy’ whenever it’s convenient (murder defined as the unwarranted slaying of an unthreatening–in particular, unarmed and/or helpless–person. Self-defense is not considered for the purpose of this post).
To illustrate where I’m going with this, here’s the (paraphrased) exchange:
Him – “… And why would she just turn the shield off?”
Me – “What else was she supposed to do? And it’s just easier to have her do it, I guess.”
Him – “I thought that was stupid.”
Me – “What bugs me is, what did they do with her after? That’s not shown.”
Him – “Oh, I just assumed they shot her.”
Me – “… What?”
Him – “Yeah, I figured they shot her.”
Me – “Dude, they didn’t shoot her. They’re the good guys. The good guys don’t just murder unarmed people.”
Him – “It’s what I would have done.”
Me – “No way. There’s no way they shot her.”
Him – “What else could they have done?”
Me – “Tied her up, or even knocked her out. No way they shot her.”
Him – “I would have shot her.”
Me – *confused/alarmed/saddened face*
Speaking to writers as both a reader/viewer and writer myself, let me be blunt (here come those opinions I warned you about): unless you’ve laid a ton of groundwork and setup some kind of foil or out (such as ***SPOILERS*** everything Katniss suffered before she shoots Coin), your good guys killing unarmed people is bad bad bad. I have a bunch of reasons why, but let’s go with my top three:
Audiences should root for your good guy
In a classic good versus bad story, your audience needs to connect with your good guy. Purely on a craft level, having them kill an unthreatening person (even a bad guy) risks turning off a good chunk of your audience, who should be hoping and fearing for you good guy. If this happens, no matter how much you tell your audience the killing was right or justified, no matter how much you have other characters understand or sympathize or forgive, you may not get the audience back. Why? Because bad guys kill helpless people, not good guys. If your good guy acts the same as your bad guy, what makes her good? Answer: nothing. She’s simply on one political side instead of the other. No one roots for that. We root for the good guy in the hopes they’ll overcome obstacles and make the right decision in the end. That’s our modern expectaion.
And, no, “She’s complex,” is not a good enough answer, even if you write, “Though her sacred training taught her to respect all life in the universe, to prevent more violence, she knew she had no choice but to kung fu kick the tied-up soldier’s scrotum up through his brain.” Stop it. Your audience will see right through that crap.
You want complex? ***SPOILERS*** At the end of the recent James Bond flic, Spectre, 007 had the globally bad dude dead cold. The world would obviously be better with that guy gone, and James would’ve probably gotten a lot of satisfaction from killing the guy who’d f*cked with his life for years, but does Mr. Bond pull the trigger? Nope. He shows he’s in control and better than the villain by not-popping the guy in the head. That’s complex, relatable, and human right there.
It’s looks like bad writing
When I encounter a scene where a good guy does something inexplicably out of role (character archetypes exist for a reason, people), like killing an unthreatening opponent, my first reaction is to blame the writer. Sorry, it’s true, and I know I’m not alone on this.
You as the writer put your good guy in a position to make a choice, and when you had them pull the trigger, it looks like you took the easiest course for you–the course that eliminates your need to figure out how to deal with the bad guy in some other way that might add more complications to the story.
And, no, having them or another character say, “Killing the unarmed, restrained Storm Trooper was the only option,” doesn’t fly. Again, stop it. Good guys find a way to make the right decision instead of the easy, expedient one. “It was the only choice,” is you justifying what you, the writer, did. You couldn’t come up with an alternative or just wanted to move the story forward, so you had your good guy pull the trigger so you could move on. The result is typically a glaring character inconsistency (see point 18) that might be a cannon ball (as in blows-sh!t-up) for your whole narrative. This can make your audience dislike your good guy, and maybe even you as the writer. I don’t have to tell you how bad that is.
Another reason it’s bad writing is it probably indicates another problem: not enough conflict.
If there’s not enough conflict, your story may feel dry and slow. While nothing amps up the excitement like someone pointing a gun at someone else’s face or holding a knife across someone else’s throat, you need to make sure that serves your story and hasn’t been put in for shock value. Whenever I see the writer trying to shock me with violence, I punch out. Cold, emotionless slaying of a defenseless anyone, and your whole house of cards goes up in flames. Bring your good guy to the point of crossing the line and show them somehow pull themselves back, however, and you’ve got me all day.
No, it’s not ‘what you would have done’
Thankfully, the vast majority of us have not killed someone, and the vast majority of us could not look into another human’s eyes and pull the trigger. We like to think, especially in the face of a threat to our loved ones, we’d be bullet-flinging, knife-hurling, kung-fu-kicking badasses. The reality is most of us could not mentally handle inflicting lethal force, let alone on a defenseless person. If our characters should be as real as possible, why would you project that nonsense on your good guy? If you couldn’t do it, why would they?
And, by the way, killing someone because they hurt someone you love is not f*cking romantic.
Man, this one drives me nuts.
Thank God no one has ever said to me, “I’d kill for you,” because I hate running and I’d have to run as fast as I could from any nutjob who’d say that.
Having your good guy get mad/upset/focused because something bad has happened to someone they love is fine. That’s how most of us would react. But people who kill because that person wronged someone they care about go to prison or mental hospitals. There’s a reason for that: they’re dangerous. Have the kill-ee in your story be someone unarmed/defenseless and you’ve turned the crazy up to eleven.
If you think that’s sexy or romantic, please get out more, eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, and up your dosage.
Now, do we have characters who kill but are still considered good guys? Sure. It’s the unarmed/helpless thing that crosses the line. That’s why there’s a major difference between how Spider-man and the Punisher are perceived, for example. Spidey webs bad guys to lamp posts and leaves them for the cops, while the Punisher ties them to chairs, tortures them, and then shoots them in the face. Spidey is a hero while the Punisher is a sociopath. There’s room for each, of course (hello, Dexter), but they belong in very different kinds of stories.
To wrap-up, all I’m saying is if you’re good guy didn’t have her entire family murdered and her only way of dealing with that is explosives and automatic weapons, if she wasn’t put into an arena to murder or be murdered on broadcast T.V. and then sees her sister blown-the-f*ck up in front of her, etc., don’t have her shoot the defenseless Storm Trooper.
Thanks for reading,