How To Avoid Bad Storytelling

The one trend in writing that I truly cannot grasp is the writer’s attempt at making the reader feel sympathetic towards the villain. Somehow we are supposed to excuse the villain’s behavior because he was only trying to feed his starving family or she was only trying to protect her loved one. This brings to light the peculiar notion that we are mere products of our society, with little to no influence over our own lives. It takes the power away from the individual and puts them at the whim of his or her environment, which, in my opinion, is shoddy storytelling. A villain is such because he or she chooses to be that way. They know that what they are doing is wrong but they choose to side with the choice that ultimately harms others, often for the villain’s gain. This is what makes the hero such a fascinating character. The hero knows the power that evil has to offer but he or she resists by choosing the hero path. It all comes down to choice, but writers will tell you that the traditional good versus evil story is boring if you write it that way. I say it’s unfaithful to human nature to take away your character’s ability to choose good or evil because who are we if not the choices we make?


8 thoughts on “How To Avoid Bad Storytelling

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    1. My biggest problem with subjectivity in morality is that it allows the individual to get away with murder under the guise “simply doing what he/she thought was the right thing to do.” So, for example, we could not say that what Hitler did was wrong because, in his mind, he was doing what he thought was right for Germany. That doesn’t sit too well with me, and I personally lean more towards moral absolutism, where certain actions are considered inherently good or evil.

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      1. Of course I agree that there shouldn’t be any subjectivity within morality, but unfortunately there is. (don’t get me wrong here, I am certainly NOT trying to justify anything that Hitler did!) At the end of your post you mentioned the hero losing his ability to choose between good and evil, but what if the choices before him are all evil ones? I think that when a writer chooses to have you feel sympathy for a villain, or when they make the hero do bad things, the author is exploring what a person might do when put in a very difficult situation. I think this is good/interesting storytelling. Seeing how far you can push a character before they break is asking the question to the audience, “What would you do in this situation?” And this can be very compelling. The best example I can think of is the “Employee of the Month” episode of The Sopranos. An amazing moral conflict, in that case the hero wins out. But it could have been very different. It seems likely to me that the Villains are the ones who made the wrong decisions. Which means they likely had a normal life before. I have a normal life now and can’t claim impeccable decision making. What would I do if put in a position with only bad options and no time to think it through? I dread to think.

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  1. Very good points. I don’t mind if there’s a villain who didn’t have to be that way, but making villains that are too sympathetic is just bad writing. I think people romanticize villains too much. Seriously, just look at most Star Wars merch and you’ll see more pictures of Darth Vader and some Stormtroopers more than Rey or Luke Skywalker. You also have the whole Draco in Leather Pants effect where fans give villains a pass or misconstrue them as just “misunderstood”. If said villain is attractive, it sometimes excuses their actions in the fan’s mind. It really bugs me whenever writers make villains like that.

    Also, I’m going to add to your point by saying that some villains can be unintentionally sympathetic and heroes can get away with doing evil things because they are the good guys. That’s called Protagonist Centered Morality or PCM for short. Some examples would be Mr. Crabs from Spongebob bullying Plankton to the point of suicide in the abysmal “One Course Meal” episode. You can also have Deckert from Blade Runner shoot and kill an unarmed woman, never mind that the villains are runaway robot slaves that Tyrell Corp botched anyway. A controversial example of PCM would be Mufasa starving out the hyenas as punishment. Regardless of what those animals did, starving anyone or anything out in a food desert is totally genocide like how the Native Americans dealt with during the Trail of Tears, African Americans at The Devil’s Punchbowl in Natchez, MS, or the Jews who were too famished to be gassed in the concentration camps. Heroes are supposed to be morally superior and writing PCM elements is a special pleading strawman that boils down to the writer saying “It’s okay if they do this or that because they’re good.”

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    1. I was not expecting such an elaborate response, but you brought up some really good points. I think it all boils down to the writer’s perception of good and evil. Are good and evil external forces or is it subjective? The problem I have with morality being subjective is that we cannot look at, say, Hitler, and claim that what he did was “wrong” because Hitler thought what he was doing was right. This opens the door for moral anarchy, in my opinion, since we can do whatever we want, claiming “We only did what we thought was right.” What do you think?

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      1. Thank you very much. I agreed with many of your points. I think a protagonist could be a reflection of the author’s own morality for better or worse. You actually brought up a point I forgot to mention. With the Hitler situation, you’re totally right about him believing he was right despite the obviously evil things him and his regime did. Everybody believes they are the protagonist in their own life. People justify their own vices whenever people question them. It’s also why some of the most effective villains have been ones that believe they are the good guys instead of those mustache twirling “I’m so evil! Muahahahaha!” type of bad guys. If someone believes that they are Doug the right thing despite them doing wrong, that makes them even more dangerous, but also realistic.

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