Friday, January 27, 2012

The Unforgivable Sin, Part II

One week later and I don’t think I’ve actually gotten any further along in this thing, hah, and I’m really not sure I’m doing this topic any justice. We’ll see.

It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have. - William Munny, Unforgiven

In movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Star Wars, our heroes leave a trail of bodies in their wake a mile wide, yet we never blink. Why is that? Heroes like Indiana Jones or Han Solo or Luke Skywalker get a pass largely because of three factors: first, we know from the beginning that they’re Good Guys (although Han Solo is a little ambivalent at first). They’re fighting for the Right Side, for Truth, Justice, to save The Girl from the clutches of Evil. We have to root for them, there’s no choice in the matter, so we forgive them for the carnage. It’s justified.

The second reason is this: who are they killing? Nameless, faceless, anonymous bad guys. And Nazis. You can never go wrong if you’re killing Nazis. And when they do actually kill a bad guy with a name, it’s someone who is so bad and so evil you cheer when it happens. Belloq. Major Toht (i.e., That Creepy Guy with the Glasses). Governor Tarkin. The deaths in these scenes are bloodless (with a few exceptions), and they’re throwaway characters, like the red shirts on Star Trek.

Finally, at least in the little clip from Raiders of the Lost Ark, deaths can be played for laughs. Gunning down a man on the street isn’t funny when it happens in front of your house. When it’s presented in the way it was in Raiders, it is. Funny deaths are forgivable.

We get into rougher territory when we get into the other films, however. In Unforgiven, we kind of root for Eastwood’s little party, because the bad guys in question cut up a prostitute’s face, and the local law did nothing. The women here can’t get revenge directly, so they put money up to get justice. Revenge plays well with audiences, so we’re already on Eastwood’s side at the start. The Schofield Kid, the guy that rounds up Eastwood's William Munny and Morgan Freeman's Ned Logan - up to the point in the film where he shoots the man in the outhouse, has been a really annoying character. He’s brash and cocky and talks trash. He’s scornful and boastful. He’s the kind of guy you wouldn’t feel sorry for if he took a bullet, and, if he did, you’d say, “He had it coming.” But…if you watched all the way to the end of the clip, the character is revealed. He was all talk. He’d never killed a man before, and we see what he goes through as the reality of his actions comes home to him, and he falls to pieces. With this kind of transformation, we can forgive him.

Nancy made stated it very well in her comments to last week’s post:
“it's all about the journey the character goes through both before he does The Terrible Awful Thing, as well as afterwards, and how he acts on his remorse and regret.”
And that’s what it really comes down to, isn’t it? The journey, the impact, the transformation.
One of the great things we can do as writers is provide subtlety and shading to our characters. We could go for the broad brush strokes, a la Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars, but it’s more interesting to have characters with depth and complexity. Nancy’s character shocked me with his actions. It was a sharp turn that I never saw coming. Once he made that turn I really had to wrestle with whether or not what he did was ‘in character’ or not, and if I could forgive him. Best of all, it made me think. There's a place for the fast riding thrills in books and movies, but I like to think.

Have a good weekend, all.


  1. Great post, Jeff. I took a film appreciation class in college (it was a religious school), and we were watching one of the westerns and then talking about it. The film was "The Oxbow Incident" and it has a posse chasing these four guys. You learn about the terrible things the bad guys did and are cheering when the posse finally captures them. They don't even take them in for trial. They hang them right there. The only problem is they got the wrong guys.

    Our instructor posed a lot of thought provoking questions that I still think about. Books can do the same thing. Like you, I like to think. That's one of the reasons I love Brandon Sanderson. He definitely makes me think.

  2. What is really weird is that right before your last post, where you put up that Indiana Jones clip, I had JUST seen it on cable the night before. My fiance was flipping channels and landed there right at that scene. I saw those movies a million times when I was a child but as an adult that particular scene jarred me. I really didn't like it. I don't think killing is ever funny. Thus, my problem with making murder cutesy in cozies but whatever. I think even people who have actually justifiably killed someone (i.e. in combat or to save someone's life or in self-defense) have serious issues afterward. It's really not something that should be treated lightly--I think. But I think what you really hit on in this post is that if you're going to do these things in your work, you should give them some depth. Give your characters some depth. It IS all about the journey. I think all truly great novels are the ones that leave us with more questions than answers--not about the plot but about ourselves and about life. Great post!

  3. Interesting post. I never thought about humor making something forgivable, but you are kind of right about how that changes the perception. For Indiana Jones, I was more thinking it was justifiable because this guy was attacking him, so cheating in self-defense was excusable, but still, you're right that humor can make us see anything, even murder, differently.

  4. You're so right. After sides are established, "good guys" often have a free pass to kill crowds of nameless, faceless "bad guys" without being held accountable (by the reader). Other scenarios require more orchestration. As Nancy said, readers need to see the journey. They need to see the cost of that bloodshed.

    Have a great weekend! :)

  5. I love when a character makes me think! And yes, I think you're right-- we blink less when they are nameless, faceless red-shirts, when there is little blood. And I also agree that the character's journey or transformation has a lot to do with how well we take it. This was a fabulous post!

    (But I don't think I ever rooted for Eastwood’s little party. I think I may have chucked the DVD when it was over.)

  6. I think that a big part of it is that God has given us an innate desire for justice. It isn't just that a character is killing bad guys, but he is killing people for whom justice requires death. The Nazis killed people, so justice required their death, but the protagonist killed someone for shoplifting we would have a big problem with that. He would no longer be a good guy but a bad guy.

  7. Thanks for the comments, all, always appreciated.

    It's funny, I've been thinking especially about movies with regard to this topic, I'm not sure why. Maybe they're just more vivid in that way. The self-defense thing that Robin mentions is a pretty good point. It is one of the cases where we allow people to 'get away with murder', thus it's excusable. And, let's face it, all those Nazis would be quite happy to knock off the good Dr. Jones. Since it's 'kill or be killed', we generally let him off the hook. As Timothy points out, the revenge factor is also huge. In the 70's, with crime rising all over, some of the biggest movies played very much to that revenge factor. I think of the Death Wish series, for example, or the Dirty Harry movies (those weren't exactly revenge-based, but people loved seeing a cop take the law into his own hands since The System was ineffective). People just at that stuff up.

  8. The journey indeed. That is the important one to understand.


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