A WAY WITH
THE PARADOX OF THE BADASS
By Steven Savage
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Oh, we've seen him or her. Deadly cool hard-as-nails, unflappable. Juke boxes start when he hits them right, people back down when they see that fire in her eyes. Focused as a laser, immovable like the core of the world; James Bond, Batman, Shaft, Black Canary. The badasses.
We know them, of course. Now the problem is writing them.
Earlier, I addresses the heroic paradox of the violent hero, and noted a particularly egregious archetype I called the Unlikeable Heroic Badass (UHB) - the borderline sociopath that some authors assume people should love because of their personality problems. The UHB is one of the results of what I call the Paradox of the Badass - namely, writing that kind of focused, tough character can lead to two errors if one isn't careful; godboying and sociopathic characters, sometimes both.
So let's talk about that paradox - and in this case, we are NOT just talking about Shaft. (Feel free to kill me for that joke).
THE TWIN PARADOXES:
What is the Badass? To me, the Badass is the focused character who is precise, knows their goals, firm in their convictions (perhaps to obsession), and hard to stop. The Badass is not necessarily benevolent - but they are driven and often have some level of self-awareness, even if cynical. They usually have reasons for what they do, even if people wouldn't agree with them.
Unfortunately, in poor writing and poor continuities - and human error - two errors tend to emerge in creating badasses:
If you've read/seen a good deal of media, you've seen these two "Faux Badass" takes before. You can also see how the "Faux Badasses" can completely warp your continuity - any godboy is a continuity-wrecker from the get-go, and the more subtle Sociopath requires the writer to warp people's reactions to such characters to keep the story going.
So, how do these happen?
One of the problems with creating a believable tough, focused character is that people view failure by such characters as a flaw in the character themselves. Because it is perceived that a character cannot be a true Badass/tough person/whatever cannot fail, the characters become and are written in unbelievable manners. Soon said character's toughness becomes defined as "never failing and tougher than anyone else to boot." We all know how unbelievable that can read.
Defining a character by "never fails" will eventually result in utterly ridicules writing as you are forced to contrive and contrive more to preserve the character's image. Eventually of course, the endless contrivance destroys the image of the character, and you end up failing at what you attempted.
To make a believable touch, focused character, I find the following traits work best:
The second common problem in creating an effective badass is that people assume a focused, driven character must therefore be sociopathic. This involves taking the focus and drive of the character and making it the only part of their character to the exclusion and even detriment of all else. Throw in some of the violence often associated with the badass/tough-and-focused archetype and you easily end up with a character more likely to be in an institution or dead than in a story.
Now this is fine if your story deals with such things, but its not when your story becomes "he just kills a lot of people and doesn't care and stuff." As noted in the previous column on heroism, actions have results - and creating a character who does extreme actions without the repercussions of extreme results wrecks continuity.
Usually, stories come down to ignoring the repercussions of the sociopathic once-badass, or trying to make up excuses. The common excuses for why the characters personality and actions have no repercussions often are:
In writing your super-tough focuses character, be aware of the culture and setting they live in - and make them aware as well. Write them realistically - and write those who deal with them realistically.
THE VICIOUS CYCLE:
These two major problems with developing an effective Badass get worse as they often play into each other: the feared character that leads to the godboy.
You take your new badass, and realize that such a character is rather frightening to some - and so, to make it believable they'd survive, you make them more powerful/skilled. However, this means that some would find the character more fearful. So, another increase in power is required to explain how they continue to exist. Meanwhile you keep making a character who is more and more feared and thus more and more separate from society . . .
Next thing you know, you have a character who's incredibly powerful, feared, and completely isolated. You're stuck in an arms race that ends up making the character useless to write, uninteresting, and overblown.
The problems that often plagues the creation and writing of a good badass character are power and writing a socially believable character, occasionally with the two problems combining.
Attempting to merely ape the classic badass characters of the "powerful and doesn't care" routine isn't going to result in good writing. It's going to result in unbelievable characters - so instead, focus on writing good characters, and be aware of potential flaws in writing.
The Learning Kingdom - An online learning resource that I use for its listservs - daily sources of history, odd facts, holidays, etc. A great way to get new inspiration and ideas.