Wednesday, July 27, 2016

It's Not Illegal If Your Main Character Does It!

I have always had a sweet spot for stories about revenge. Whether it's Frank Castle donning the death's head skull and waging his one-man war on crime, or Frankenstein's monster killing everyone his creator loves because he backed out on his promise, I could not get enough of these stories. I tried. I really tried, but there is something so viscerally appealing about a wronged party getting a piece of their own back that it became my book candy of choice.

So, of course, when I got to high school (the angstiest of the angsty periods in most writers' lives) and took creative writing, that was what I wanted to write about. Fundamentally good characters, pushed past their limits, until they have to come for their own in blood and pain.

Basically the plot of every Mel Gibson movie ever.
It was freeing, to be allowed to write that kind of story for class credit. However, one of the first pieces of constructive criticism I ever received was from the teacher in that class. It was a single question, and a question that I think all authors who get a little too caught up in their stories should remember.

"What's going to happen when the cops catch up to him?"

Your Story Doesn't Exist in a Vacuum

Play a game, sometime. Go to Netflix, pop on any 80's action movie you can find, and count the number of laws being broken. From illegal carry and use of a firearm, to reckless endangerment, to out-and-out murder. Sometimes in the triple digits, if you're a fan of Stallone or Lundgren. And yet, when the film is over, ask how many times those crimes are addressed. Sure, sometimes the lead dies heroically at the end to save a beloved family member, but more often than not it's the hero in a hospital bed, being told he can go home in a week or two. Good job, you sure showed those gangsters/private military contractors/corrupt public officials what for.

That isn't just a little hole in your plot. That is something you could drive a convoy through.

Side-by-side, even.
It isn't just revenge stories that suffer from this problem, either. From swashbuckling space operas, to black bag spy thrillers, too often writers will just hand-wave legal repercussions in favor of characters doing badass things in badass ways. Because, let's face it, if even a layman's grasp of the law was easy, more of us would have gone to law school. We became authors so we wouldn't have to deal with all that nonsense, and we could just make up our own worlds.

However, it's important to remember that breaking the law is something that adds serious drama to your story. It's a mark of the stakes being raised, and it means there's even more pressure on your protagonists. Because not only do they have to accomplish their goals (whatever those goals are), but they have to do it knowing they can't turn to the authorities for help. Or, worse, that if the authorities get wind of it, they'll have another force to deal with on top of their antagonists.

Normal people who go outside the law are going through a transformation. Those who already exist outside the law (mercenaries, assassins, and others) are exotic in ways that normal protagonists could never be.

Think It Through, And Do The Hard Work

There are going to be laws in any setting you set your story. Even the dystopian hellscape of Mad Max has laws, bleak and terrible though they might be. The whole concept of Beyond Thunderdome is that the law, though functional, has been written and enforced by maniacs. It's a central part of the film, and acts as a kind of framework for the events that transpire.

Even the law of the jungle is still a law.
This goes deeper than just, "did your main character break the law?" though. What it is really about, and what your take-away should be if you've read this far, is that all your character's actions need to have reasonable consequences. That includes both their good actions, and their bad ones.

For example, if your protagonist is a violent bully, always waving around a gun or getting into fist fights, those are not qualities that should endear them to anyone. It certainly shouldn't get them promoted. If your male lead is constantly ignoring when partners tell him, "no," and yet he's seen as strong and romantic, take a step back and ask if that isn't a euphemism for, "rapey." And, if someone is constantly putting themselves in violent situations, ask what that does to their mental health. John Rambo was a man whose experiences broke something inside of him, and that made his actions (at least in the first film) extremely tragic. It's also what led to the extreme escalation from both sides.

That's cause and effect in action, right there.

Does that mean all your protagonists need to be well-balanced, law-abiding citizens? Of course not! It does mean, however, that when they do something, it's your job to create believable reactions, or explanations for a lack of reaction. For example, when your protagonist shoots three mob enforcers in a diner, and then isn't even questioned by the police, why is that? Is it because no one saw him? There was no evidence? His name never came up? Is it because the cops don't care, and are writing it off as gang-related so they don't have to spend resources tracking down the killer? These are all options, but you need to tell your reader why things happen the way they do if you're going to preserve the sense of reality in your world.

Internal consistency is key, and it is the greatest law that governs your work.

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  1. See, this is what I love about the "laws" that certain RPGs put into thier worlds. CWOD was full of em. "You can't do that, the Elders will all gang up and get you." Kind of stuff. A lot STs will either hardware that or try to force a punishing outcome on the player, rather than taking it as an opportunity to forward the drama. Yes, being a katana wielding bandanas means you won't be loved in court, but at the end of the day, someone has still got to go up to said bandanas and tell her or him, "your not invited to the party." What low level, disposable NPC is going to get that fun job, and what will said badness do then? Crying is an option, but so is revenge...

    1. oWoD large group games like LARPs tend to use that to keep the ability to have a sandbox while avoiding players turning your game into Grand Theft Vampire. Same reason they usually ban Influence: Military, because once a "funny haha" Malkavian played by an immature player gets a rocket launcher, your game is not going to be a serious drama ever again.

      That said, you raise a great point. The consequences can be a whole new adventure.

      In an RPG there's three ways to use laws and consequences. One is as ST fiat hammer to stop antisocial play. The other is a nudge to the players to stop acting like irredeemable murderhobos. The third is to enrich the plot and force them out of their comfort zone.