Thursday, May 13, 2010

I Demand That You Meet My Needs!

I was wondering what to post today when I came across this piece. It seems the combination of altruism and wanting justice is so deeply built in it can be observed in babies. Me being me I immediately wondered if longitudinal studies would show a connection between the babies with least empathy and sociopathic behavior, but that's a can of worms I'll deal with elsewhere and elsewhen. I don't have time to go chasing those worms today (long story involving Life Gone Feral and Job Gone Feral playing together).

What I'm interested in for today's post is this: how much classic fiction of all flavors involves the bad guy getting punished? Rather a lot, as it happens. It's only recently that the fad for non-judgmental stuff started poisoning the well, and gee, it runs so much against the grain that even babies approve (for baby values of approval, which probably means aren't upset by) of bad guys being punished, and presumably good guys being rewarded.

We, as a species, clearly want justice.

When we can't get it in our lives - which is inevitable, the world being inherently unjust - we use fiction to restore our sense of 'fair'. Especially when anyone who tries to get justice or fairness in life by imposing it is going to end up with megalomaniacal dictators making everyone else equally miserable. It's one of those nasty consequences of human fallibility. You can add it to the laundry list.

Since divine justice doesn't show any signs of manifesting in our regular lives (or at least, I haven't seen any bullying bosses/coworkers/politicians/used car salesmen/insert villain of choice being struck by random lightning lately), we have to meet our needs through - you guessed it - fiction. I'm sure it's dreadfully primitive and barbaric and all to want people who hurt others to be punished, but there you go.

And of course, we can rationalize ourselves into the most amazing places where someone can slaughter millions "for their own good". The last I heard no-one ever conclusively decided on the question of whether, if you sincerely believe that not belonging to religion X will condemn someone to eternal torment, it's justifiable to kill the people of country Y who will never, ever believe what you believe. (Not naming names, but certain people in the Middle East have decided that the answer is 'yes'. So do a few people elsewhere. One or two. And if you believe there's that few I've got a nice bridge in Nevada I'd like to sell you).

Certainly, the books I've enjoyed most have been when the bad guy - whether irredeemable evil (usually those are kind of unsatisfying once they stop being the shadowy figure behind the Bad Things) or one of the ones who's managed to twist and self-rationalize into evil - gets what I feel he - or she - deserves. And of course the heroes of the piece are rewarded appropriately.

My own writing has a funny tendency to spend a lot of time with the folk who walk the knife-edge between having - for whatever the reason - to do horrible things for a good purpose and doing horrible things for a not-good purpose. And of course, a lot of just what makes it good. Or bad. The Vimes's of the world and their darker cousins who can't keep the beast away, so they try to control the damage by aiming it at a greater evil. That's a question that fascinates me.

What about you? What are your most satisfying endings? Do you want the hero rewarded and the villain punished, vice versa, or something in between?


Anonymous said...

Oh yes. Must punish Bad Guys.

Bad Guys sometimes escape, but they should be battered and humiliated, thoroughly defeated as they flee.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

In real life, bad things happen to good people and bad people get rewarded.

At least in books it can be the right way around!

Amanda Green said...

Kate, great post. I want the evil bad guy to get his in the end (pun intended) and the good guy to be on top. What I don't want is for an author to employ -- and over-employ -- deus ex machina to reach the "proper" ending. But that, I guess, is for another post...hmmmmm, maybe I need to consider that for Sunday.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Maybe we write because we want to play benevolent gods. Or not such benevolent ones. [G]

Also, I think that Amanda has been reading my current WIP.

Synova said...

In several of Louis L'Amour's books the villain is a woman. In that milieu she's protected. The law might get her in the end but more likely will not. The hero can't shoot her in a gunfight or defeat her in a fist fight, so something else has to happen. Sometimes if she gets away it's without whatever it is that she wants most. At least once he had a multi-book villainess refuse to leave a treasure and assumed to get "gotten" by Apaches. In at least one she rides off with her loot and while the hero never knew some cowboys many years in the future find her skeleton on the range and we're led to believe her cohorts shot her.

But whatever happens, he does a good job of having it proceed from her own actions and events rather than being some random accident, and whatever happens, the bad guy (or gal) gets her comeuppance.

Synova said...

I've never liked "sad endings." I think they can be done well... the heroic sacrifice, etc., but I don't want to read something, no matter how it twisted my emotions around on the way there, that doesn't end with a cheer, with a victory, and with the implication of happily ever after.

If I want realistic or "disease of the week" I can watch the news.

Unfortunately, while writing, it's a real struggle to go down that dark path on the way to victory. I always want to go around.

Stephen Simmons said...

I want the Bad Guy to get his/her comeuppance. Which doesn't just mean punishment or loss, it means fitting punishment or loss. And the knowledge, before the curtain falls, that they deserve it, and have brought it on themselves. Like Vader, who took every step toward the Dark Side out of his love for Padme, and his pursuit of preserving her life, only to ultimately make her fear and loathe him in the end. And, even worse, to kill her by his own hand.

My current WIP has two sets of villains, both working toward what they perceive to be the "greater good". The problem I'm having is keeping my heroine from drifting across too many lines herself in the process ...

Synova said...

"The Vimes's of the world and their darker cousins who can't keep the beast away, so they try to control the damage by aiming it at a greater evil. That's a question that fascinates me."

I think they were trying for that a little bit with the new show "Justified." I don't know how much it comes through but it seems to me that the hero is supposed to have chosen to place himself in a situation where he gets to kill people, where he'll be justified.

I think it's a fascinating question to explore. A long time ago I played with a theme, just a little bit, that included an exchange where my heroine explained that we weren't good inside, trying to fight off the evil around us, but that we were prone to evil and the controls of civilization were something we put on top of that... our "goodness" was applied from the outside.

Maybe this goes better under the discussion of villains. I donno. But maybe it goes here as well because while I want good to triumph and evil to meet poetic justice, my "needs" also include a certain ambiguity. I don't want the characters to be asking themselves stupid questions about the morality of their own actions, but I certainly want them asking questions.

Like the guy in Justified said when his child-hood (and now convict) friend accused him of taking a job where he can kill people because he hates his daddy, "I'd like to think I'm not entirely unaware of my motivations in life."

Kate said...


Oh yes. And their defeat must be appropriate, and something brought about by their actions.

Kate said...


I think that's why we write books. So there's a world somewhere that gets it right.

Kate said...


Oh, yeah. The proper ending needs to happen because of the interaction of what the characters do.

Kate said...


How many gods have their creations argue and laugh at them? I must be doing it wrong, because mine certainly don't behave the way you'd expect of someone who's in the presence of a more or less deity-ish presence.

And your current WIP is getting it in the end, is it? (runs)

Kate said...


That's a good set of examples - the punishment doesn't necessarily have to be on-screen, so long as it happens. And yes, preferably because of something the bad character does.

Kate said...


There are a few cases where the "sad ending" is so well done I wouldn't ask for anything different. Most of the time, though... bleh.

If I wanted gloom, doom and misery I'd read the news.

Kate said...


Oh, yes. In the words of the Mikado, "to let the punishment fit the crime" is essential. What happens has to feel appropriate, and be brought about by the characters themselves.

Darth Vader's redemption comes to mind - along with justice for Palpatine's crimes (although personally I thought the prequelilogy sucked). Another excellent example is the way Vimes put down Angua's brother.

Kate said...


It's a fascinating area to explore. Not the stupid questions, and not the really dumb "you hate your daddy" nonsense, but the much more elemental struggle between the animal instincts (which are to kill interlopers and potential threats) and the rather thinner layer of "human" that civilization adds.

There is no such thing as the "noble savage". There's just savage. Noble comes with civilization, starting from the realization that the tribe one valley over is all people just like you.

Stephen Simmons said...


Yes, most of the Star Wars prequel series did suck, at least by comparison to what we'd already seen. But the story element of Vader's fall (taken by itself) really was Lucas back at his best, imo. (ymmv)

Chris McMahon said...

Yes - I like the bad guys to get their just deserts & I like to see the promise in the hero realised. Although I want to see internal struggles as well, and complex characters on both sides of the fence.

Dave Freer said...

Don't even get me started on modern disease 'non-judgemental'. As a secies we are judgemental. That can of course be reasoned with and changed rationally, but it's still a judgemental decision. Everything - from crossing the road before or after that car, to eating that last Tim Tam is a value decision. In many cases these days it's an unthinking sheepish decision - which would have had Darwinian and digestive consequences once. We make judgement calls. We have ideas of what is fair and right. And I am damned - to make a value judgement here - if I am going to waste my time and money on a book that doesn't reflect that. So why the hell do they keep pushing them at us?

Mike said...

Quick thought -- the longest running Japanese shows that I know of are the jidaigekki -- the samurai dramas. Mito komon is still going strong, and it started in 1969. The plot of almost every show in that series consists of the old man and his sidekicks coming to town, discovering bad guys doing bad things, and at the climax, revealing that in fact they are very powerful people, and you bad guys are done for. Oh, and you good people -- here's your reward. Hisatsu shigotonin hasn't been as continuous, but started in the 70s. Plot summary -- bad things happen, and the regular police can't take care of it (lack of evidence, no links to the real leaders, etc.) So someone (often dying) pays the "secret assassins" who proceed to kill the bad guys. There are other examples, but most of the series had that payoff of justice is served -- and people loved it.

Frankly, that "the world is out of joint, complications ensue, and tada! Justice is served, and the world restored" has to be one of the plots that almost everyone likes. It makes us feel better to see that good is rewarded and bad punished, even if it is just fiction.