December 11, 2017, 07:15:14 AM

Author Topic: Characters who change between good and bad  (Read 795 times)

Offline Bradley Darewood

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Characters who change between good and bad
« on: November 29, 2017, 07:29:49 AM »

So I love making the readers hate someone and then being like "woo hoo you were wrong you predjudiced bastards!"  so going from evil to... well not as evil seems to work out well, but going the other way...

I was just reading this book where a character who's a crafty underdog who I was totally rooting for turns out to be suuuuuper petty and evil and I was like whaaaaat and threw the book across the room and couldn't read it anymore.  So like I've got MCs with shifty allegiances too so I was all wondering if that might be kind of a problem.  I mean it's one thing if you find out they were awful all along and a totally different thing if you show them deliberating and struggling with the decision to become a bad guy, but still... how do you pull it off and delight your readers with the unexpected instead of alienate them and make them hate you


Offline CameronJohnston

Re: Characters who change between good and bad
« Reply #1 on: November 29, 2017, 09:37:39 AM »
I always throught David Gemmell was a master at showing a spark of goodness in the hearts of 'evil' characters. Sometimes it is just a single moment where they choose to do a good deed, or refuse to do a bad one to somebody they have come to care for. He made those small moments hit like a sledgehammer. Or in something like Waylander he has the ruthless assassin become something more, and offers them the unexpected opportunity to be a hero for once.

I think going from evil to good is far, far easier than a character going in the other direction.  Because we like to see those moments of unexpected mercy, but if we are really rooting for a decent hero and it turns out they are absolute arseholes, well, that's not so much fun. Maybe if your unexpected act of evil is at the expense of an even worse arsehole then it becomes OK? A character struggling with difficult and unpleasant choices is fine in my book if we see why they had to make that choice.
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Offline ScarletBea

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Re: Characters who change between good and bad
« Reply #2 on: November 29, 2017, 10:50:45 AM »
I think we can include Abercrombie's Glokta here too.
He's a baddie, yes - but he can also do unexpected good things.
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Offline Peat

Re: Characters who change between good and bad
« Reply #3 on: November 29, 2017, 12:35:34 PM »
*stares at current manuscript* I... err... ****.

I dunno man. Its hard and I'm having a hard time thinking of examples. As already said, people like seeing villains become heroes. Watching heroes - people you empathise with and admire - become villains is hard, really hard. Usually they get short life spans, snuffed out with readers cheering because EFF YOU, or readers cheering because of one great last redemptive moment.

Lets see... (warning: minor spoilers about WoT, SoIaF, The Dagger and the Coin; major about Codex Alera

Spoiler for Hiden:
Rand al'Thor is about as good an example of how its done. A nice lad from the back country becomes a cruel tyrant with a warped sense of humanity. How did it work?

a) He got better.
b) We spent a lot of time in his head, seeing his justifications and self-disgust (but are they truly a villain if disgusted by their actions?) (Besides, so many complaints about Rand whining).
c) It was kinda the point of the whole series - Rand getting buried by the pressure and coming out the other side a better man.
d) Its mostly done to people who deserved it

I think we can see similar arcs in SoIaF too, particularly with Dany, although there's cases for Jon and Arya too... but... neither is an outright villain (besides, so many complaints about Jon whining).

I believe some would hold up Daniel Abraham's The Dagger and the Coin as an example of doing this well, but given how he lost me when the originally sympathetic Lord Dawson was revealed to be a complete and utter unrepentant snob/bigot with no self-awareness, I can't say it worked for me.

Butcher goes further in revealing one of Tavi's class mates to be an enemy spy, but given that she's quickly revealed to be a spy who'll help the good guys, that doesn't really count

So... good guys wandering in darkness? Doable. If the reasons are strong, if there's still a degree of sympathy, you're on a fairly quick route to hit town. Actual traitors to the cause of good? ... I don't think I've seen it done. It would take a long series to do it (I think) but I'd love to see it given a go.
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Offline The Gem Cutter

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Re: Characters who change between good and bad
« Reply #4 on: November 29, 2017, 12:47:26 PM »
Martin uses a simple technique, described in Just Write's YouTube on empathy: we define a character's moral value by comparison. So GRRM makes us like Jaime Lannister by putting someone worse on the stage at the same time as giving Jaime some "good" moments and poof! He's suddenly not so bad. As for the reverse, going from good to bad, I don't know. I would toss the book across the room. Too much like real life for me.
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Offline cupiscent

Re: Characters who change between good and bad
« Reply #5 on: November 29, 2017, 09:51:47 PM »
Anakin Skywalker, yo. ;)

Flippancy aside, my major disappointment with the prequel trilogy is that it leaves out a whole lot of his descent--we see the big decision points, but not the grind of the war and the slow turn to the quicker, easier dark side that goes along with it. So his turn to the dark seems a little unsupported, a little bit whimsical and whiny, whereas I'm given to understand it was much more of a long, slow slide made of a hundred and one little decisions. And therein, for me, lies the key to turning a good guy bad--the reader needs to follow along, and if not agree then at least see the rationale for each step downward.

I'm reminded here of one of my favourite pieces of television, that being the original House of Cards. Francis Urquhart starts out as a sort of favourite uncle--sly, a little sharp, saying those things that we all think anyway, bringing us as viewers in on the joke. He keeps a very tight bond with the audience all the way through, which means that as things get darker, and as he starts to get vicious, vengeful, murderous, we are complicit. There's a point where he turns directly to the camera and chides us: where did you expect this was going? Really, you've known all along. You liked it before. And now here we are.

It was beautiful.

Offline tebakutis

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Re: Characters who change between good and bad
« Reply #6 on: November 29, 2017, 10:20:12 PM »
Anakin Skywalker, yo. ;)

Flippancy aside, my major disappointment with the prequel trilogy is that it leaves out a whole lot of his descent--we see the big decision points, but not the grind of the war and the slow turn to the quicker, easier dark side that goes along with it.

That's one of the reasons I'm so glad we got Clone Wars. Despite the rough start, it had five full seasons of showing the gradual steps Anakin Skywalker took that would lead him down a dark path, as well as introducing my new favorite EU character ever (Ahsoka!).

Comparing the example of Clone Wars to your example of House of Cards, it does seem like good descending into evil requires a long arc, with many steps along the way, to be convincing. You could also easily make the same comparison for Breaking Bad and Walter White - by the end of the fifth season, Walter was *not* the same character he was at the start due to a number of small, believable, and chilling moral compromises, and I was 100% on board with believing how it happened.

So I guess it's easier to sell evil turning quickly good that it is to sell good turning quickly evil. Is that part of our human psychology, perhaps? We assume it's easier to be good than to be evil?
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Offline Steve Harrison

Re: Characters who change between good and bad
« Reply #7 on: November 29, 2017, 11:09:22 PM »
I like to blur the lines between good and evil, but I work roughly on the premise that:

A 'good' person is someone who tries to do the right thing most of the time, but sometimes fails and does something they are ashamed of.

A 'bad' person is someone who thinks they are doing the right thing all of the time.

Offline SarahW

Re: Characters who change between good and bad
« Reply #8 on: November 30, 2017, 08:27:25 AM »
My approach has tended to be to make them seem so determined toward their goal or task, that despite being the hero with a noble goal, the lengths they will go they're treated as villainous in their efforts to quash the bad guy. Particularly of the noble extremist type.

Offline Ray McCarthy

Re: Characters who change between good and bad
« Reply #9 on: November 30, 2017, 09:57:04 AM »
My bad characters started good but drifted or jumped into it by making decisions, or not making ones they should have made. One of the Morrígna (in a story) points out 'we are all born into sin'. One of her two sisters pokes her and says, 'don't be going there!'. The Morrigna in my story aren't exactly bad, but they have a very bad relative.
One very bad character seems to reform, though later there is a suspicion she is involved in some sort of criminality.
Other bad characters don't have enough their history in the books for the reader or other characters to know how long they have been doing bad stuff.

Sometimes an apparently decent character (or real life person) just lacks the opportunity to be bad. Like not becoming a dictator or megacorp owner. We rarely hear the stories of the office / factory / shop worker that keeps the law and is polite but would love to be running Facebook or be a Dictator setting up prison camps. The Walter Mittys that dream of great evil but have no resource to do it.

Offline Peat

Re: Characters who change between good and bad
« Reply #10 on: November 30, 2017, 10:21:28 AM »
Does Anakin count when every SW fan knows how it ends? There's no shock there, no "THEY DID WHAT?".
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Offline Ray McCarthy

Re: Characters who change between good and bad
« Reply #11 on: November 30, 2017, 12:55:45 PM »
Does Anakin count when every SW fan knows how it ends? There's no shock there, no "THEY DID WHAT?".
IMO that film (all those three) degrade the SW experience and best ignored, so Anakin is irrelevant :D
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Offline tebakutis

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Re: Characters who change between good and bad
« Reply #12 on: November 30, 2017, 03:09:24 PM »
Does Anakin count when every SW fan knows how it ends? There's no shock there, no "THEY DID WHAT?".

I thought we were just discussing whether a character going good to bad (or bad to good) was convincing/believably written, irrespective of the shock value. In that case, Anakin's turn to the dark side in III is baffling if you only watch the movies, but believable if you watch I/II/Clone Wars/III. The benefit of a full series to show his turn to the dark side helps (not to mention I actually *liked* Clone Wars Anakin).
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Offline Peat

Re: Characters who change between good and bad
« Reply #13 on: November 30, 2017, 04:45:51 PM »
Does Anakin count when every SW fan knows how it ends? There's no shock there, no "THEY DID WHAT?".

I thought we were just discussing whether a character going good to bad (or bad to good) was convincing/believably written, irrespective of the shock value. In that case, Anakin's turn to the dark side in III is baffling if you only watch the movies, but believable if you watch I/II/Clone Wars/III. The benefit of a full series to show his turn to the dark side helps (not to mention I actually *liked* Clone Wars Anakin).

I read Bradley's post as being about how to carry the reader along with your revelation that the nice guy was in face a total bulbous bellend - which is usually quite a shock. And in that case, knowing that the nice guy is gonna get a big shiny black hat is a really big point of difference.

Fair point that Anakin's story is a famous example of The Fall and might be good material, but I do think there's got to be a certain Caveat Emptor there. Although maybe that's how to do it; warn your readers really early its gonna happen.

Offline SarahW

Re: Characters who change between good and bad
« Reply #14 on: November 30, 2017, 06:54:04 PM »
There is also the inverse: A truly decent individual becomes so propagandized by the establishment, their original character lost in public memory, that only church scholars and universities students remembers the true character of martyrs and saints.

This is one approach I took.