My good guys murder people. They slowly carve runes onto them to help defeat the bad guys. Sure they try to use "society's worst" people for the rituals, but realistically that doesn't always happen.

This is revealed to the main character and when the MC pushes, the good guys are unapologetic about all of it (similar to how the first paragraph is written). Of course MC shuns them and dissociates himself with them.

My goal is to make the MC come to view the good guys as Good Guys.

Eventually, MC realizes that the killing is necessary and comes to accept the good guys. But I can't get him to go from accepting what they're doing as necessary to then believing they're Good Guys. How can I make this leap? What am I missing?

Edit: In response to a comment, I'm not asking a "what to write" or what my plot should be or how the world should work. Rather, I'm trying to make a character pull a full 180 on their perspective of "right" and "wrong" or what is "good." I've begun the turn and am (what I feel to be) about halfway--my MC has accepted what's happening as necessary but still feels uneasy about it. I'm asking about how I can push a character over the edge and twist their beliefs while making it more believable than "He woke up the next day thinking they were good." What should I focus on to make this believable? At the moment, I feel like anything I do will be clearly fake.

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    Maybe there's no need to make the leap at all? A story that raises a question like "Do the ends justify the means?" and doesn't take sides about the answer, sounds more interesting to me than a story that comes down clearly on one side. – user37208 Dec 4 at 18:32
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    @scohe001 Your question does not ask: How do I go about, if I have a problem with motivating a change in how one character evaluates the behavior of another character? That would be a "how to write" question. Instead you ask: "How can I get my character to" (that's your exact words) change his assessment? And that's a "what to write" question. You don't use your writing as an example for a question about a general approach to writing. What you want is a solution to your writing problem. And that's asking what to write. – user57423 Dec 5 at 3:22
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    This question is being discussed on meta: Why doesn't this question get put on hold for asking what to write? – Neil Fein Dec 5 at 22:51
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    You've read 1984, right? – Strawberry Dec 7 at 11:57
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    This comment thread is getting pretty long, it might be best if people take any further discussion to this meta thread, or to chat. – Neil Fein Dec 8 at 17:32

13 Answers 13

up vote 24 down vote accepted

How can I make this leap?

The MC needs proof he cannot deny. Perhaps, by his own hand, he doesn't just shun them, he takes action to prevent this ritualistic murder from happening. What are the consequences of that?

There better be some consequences, or these ritual murders are not accomplishing a damn thing!

But there are consequences, weird consequences that cause extreme pain or even death to innocents, perhaps to children. And the weirdest thing about these consequences are that they are precisely what the "good guys" told the MC would happen; and they are too magical or weird for the good guys to have done this harm themselves.

In short, the MC believes this is proof the good guys were right. Once he knows that, he can still try to squirm and see if there is any other way to prevent the consequences without having to commit torture and murder. Perhaps that is part of the plot, him trying and failing to find an alternative (or eventually trying and succeeding).

But the turning point is accomplished; at this point the MC has left his "normal world" and believes the good guys are on balance doing good, and he needs to join them. How long all of this takes depends on whether you have a bigger plot in mind. Just the conversion of the MC could be a story, but it could also be a short intro into a larger story if he has a bigger problem than this to solve.


Edit: All that already happened...

The question was how to move the MC from seeing the killings as necessary, into participating in the killings.

But the answer is the same, it is still by showing the consequences of NOT killing. He thinks it is necessary? Then invent a reason that makes him the only one that can do it. One or more of the good guys dies, or gets incarcerated or otherwise taken out of the picture, so there isn't enough of them to safely capture and kill a criminal.

Your MC has to step in, or the consequences kick in. Force an emergency on him. If he truly believes the killings are necessary, he will blame himself for whatever innocents suffer if he doesn't step up when he is needed.

  • Hmm this has already happened. I tried to express this in the original question with: "Eventually, MC realizes that the killing is necessary and comes to accept the good guys." The MC has already fallen over the edge and has even accepted what they do as a necessity, but they're not comfortable with it and still don't entirely accept it as "right." My question is how I can push the MC further to cross that bridge. – scohe001 Dec 4 at 19:44
  • @scohe001 Ah. I got sidetracked. But the answer is the same, it is still by showing the consequences of NOT killing. He thinks it is necessary? Then invent a reason that makes him the only one that can do it. One or more of the good guys dies, or gets incarcerated or otherwise taken out of the picture, so there isn't enough of them to safely capture and kill a criminal. Your MC has to step in, or the consequences kick in. Force an emergency on him. If he truly believes the killings are necessary, he will blame himself for whatever innocents suffer if he doesn't step up when he is needed. – Amadeus Dec 4 at 19:59
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    Ooh I really really like that. Force him to stand in the good guys' shoes. I could even have someone else (a reflection of who the MC once was) see the MC stepping in and then let the MC deal with the judgement. You should definitely add that to your answer!! – scohe001 Dec 4 at 20:01
  • I believe the show Dead Like Me had an episode that served as the capstone to the main character's initial arc of refusing to collect souls, if you're interested in a pop culture example of this happening. – Trevortni Dec 4 at 23:42
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    Supernatural would be good source material for ideas along these lines. – R.. Dec 5 at 3:29

According to Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments, proper moral sentiments may be defined as how a disinterested observer would think someone ELSE ought to feel in a given circumstance. Given that yardstick, I am not myself convinced that your MC is wrong. My own reaction is that anyone who isn't horrified by committing brutally cruel murder is morally deformed - no matter how important it happens to be for that specific carnage to continue.

It sounds as if your character's moral compass is functioning correctly.

Organic characters don't always feel or act as the author intends. In the case that your characters grow organically, you have to negotiate with the character, and accept that you can't always steamroll them into occupying exactly the place the plot called for them to occupy at a particular point in the plot's progression.

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    Given that yardstick, I absolutely think the MC is wrong. Sometimes war and killing, even brutally, is necessary, and if we didn't believe that we'd be ruled by the psychopaths that ARE willing to do anything for power and wealth. So clearly Adam Smith's theory is useless whenever two people disagree, or indeed if the vote is not unanimous. And just because brutal killing is at times necessary, does not automatically mean the people committing it are not horrified by the act, they are just doing what they believe is a necessity. That's at least part of what PTSD is all about. – Amadeus Dec 4 at 20:58
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    @Amadeus I thought we were talking about some sort of contrived "human torture and sacrifice to STOP the arrival of the Elder Gods who will destroy everything" scenario, not normal human war. That's a whole different conversation. – Jedediah Dec 4 at 21:56
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    I don't see why it is a whole different conversation; soldiers in any army end up committing atrocities; when we (USA) used atomic bombs in Japan the majority of people we killed were infants, children, women, elderly, and other non-combatants, not soldiers, and the same for those not obliterated by the explosion that suffered and died with burns, blinded, and radiation poisoning. The same for fire-bombing in London and Germany. IRL that is "normal human war", what we resort to in desperation, be the enemy a human or a god. Even a human can threaten to destroy "everything". – Amadeus Dec 5 at 13:08
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    Nuking a city in Japan to force Japan to surrender IS fundamentally different than mutilating and murdering Joe Schmoe non-Cthulhu-cultist (but maybe a cop-killer or something) to hold Cthulhu at bay. At least in my mind. One of my reasons being that the selection of who "deserves" ritualistic murder is arbitrary. We should at least feel awkward about nuking Peru to stop Japanese aggression, no matter how good or bad we feel Peru is. But, as you pointed out, the yardstick I introduced for evaluating someone's sentiments will not result in the same conclusion being drawn by every observer. – Jedediah Dec 5 at 14:03
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    @Jedediah but wasn't the choice which japanese city to nuke also arbitrary? What made the children in hiroshima and nagasaki more deserving to die than the children of other cities? We should at least feel very wrong for killing a bunch of uninvolved civilians to stop an army... - nuking a city to stop a government is the same (but a million times worse) as killing a citizen to stop an elder god owning the city in which the victim lives – Falco Dec 5 at 14:12

I know this will provoke some people, but: Good guys don't murder, can't murder.

Murder is "the unlawful killing of another human without justification or valide excuse, especially the unlawful killing of another human being with malice aforethought."

What you're talking about here must - at best - be killing, because you are putting a very specific constraint on those people: They're the good guys and in our society murder will never be seen as good.

And this is not about semantics. I'm not saying "haha, you used the wrong word", I'm saying you think in the wrong terms. Wrapping your head around "Murder is good" will be hard for the reader and that IS an understatement. Any effort put into letting the MC come to realize "their murder is good" is therefore wasted. You need to convince your reader, if you really want the MC to accept the good guys as that, or otherwise the disconnect between reader and MC will be too big (unless they're sociopaths, then they'll probably be fine with murder).

So how do you convince the reader that the good guys are the good guys? That is the important question. Because if you want to explicitly define your MC as a hero/anti-hero/villain/anti-villain you can only do that by defining what is good and what isn't to the reader. If you don't, the readers will do that for themselves, in the confines of their own moral compass. And you have no power of that. They might see it the way you intend to, but I wouldn't bet on it.

The first clue to that is: How did you convince yourself that they're the good guys, other than simply saying "I define them as good guys"? That, will not do.

EDIT:

As an after-thought: You will never be able to create a world where murder is allowed or accepted, without the reader (violently) rejecting it. This world would be so fundamentally different to ours, that there's no other option for the reader.

Let's take a popular example: Dexter. Dexter's saving grace for many people was, that he only ever killed criminals who - in the eye of the general populace - deserved to die. For the average viewer he had a legitimate reason to kill them (not murder, phrasing). I personally hate that series, because I think he hadn't. And people, in general, who think he hadn't had a legitimate reason, tend to disconnect with and dislike him. You will never convince those people that he was a 'good guy'. And if he had killed an innocent without very good reasons, the character would've been instantly disliked by a lot of people. There's a list of "innocent" people Dexter killed and lo and behold, he always had a "good reason". Some where drug dealers or rapists, others he killed in self-defence and at least one person he killed on request of said person. Here's the link: List of "innocents"

A perfect example. The series creators had to convince the viewer that Dexter was the good guy. Not by any non-contrived scene or event, but by appealing to the viewer's moral system. The reader is the key, not the main character.

  • Your definition of murder is restricted to a just and modern society. What if there's no law? Or, what if the law says "everyone who has blue eyes must be executed"? Louis XVI's death on the guillotine - was it "lawful", or was it murder? How about his kid son's death? What if you're in a "Wild West" setting, and the law is what you make it? Is catching and hanging a rapist in such a setting "malice aforethought"? "Murder" is bad, but the definition of 'murder' can be very fluid. – Galastel Dec 5 at 8:58
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    @Galastel It doesn't matter. The definition of murder doesn't change for the reader. Create a world, where killing is legitimate, it doesn't matter. The reader lives in a world where it isn't; his moral system is built on that world (our world, our current society), not the world you create in your story. Again, you have to convince the reader that the killing was justified and good, not the MC, to make it convincing. – wickermoon Dec 5 at 9:11
  • Oh, wow. My interpretation of Dexter is very different than yours -- I love the series, but I think Dexter is very explicitly a destructive psychopath whose best-case-scenario is "how do I hurt the world least". Doing real good is never really an option for him. That's why his driving motivation is despair and loneliness; what he wants is to be normal and have human relationships, but every season, we see that he's too warped and stunted to ever be accepted by anyone whose opinion is worth anything. (Up through S4; then Melissa Rosenberg left... :-/ ) – Standback Dec 6 at 21:02
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    I mostly agree, and would like to add: While many people would agree with killing certain criminals (a death sentence), less people would agree with torturing them to death, as the OP intends – because when his "good" guys "slowly carve runes onto them", that isn't just killing, it is sadistic. – user57423 Dec 6 at 21:54
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    @Standback Yeah, I get what you mean, probably agree, too. I never really watched the series because I dislike the premise of it, but for the series to work, the viewers had to like Dexter, a protagonist that kills people -> hence the connection to OPs question. – wickermoon Dec 7 at 19:27

The way I see it, it isn't about forcing the issue that the good guys are good. If you instead look to the avenue of dehumanizing the victims, it's far easier to rationalize the actions of the good guys, even to the point of supporting them. There have been multiple examples in history of where this technique has been used against a group of people. But, on a lighter note, this technique is used in all sorts of books, tv shows, and films. Look to examples where, as an onlooker, you exclusively support the good guys as they kill. even killing humanoids:

  • Supernatural, they kill vampires, werewolfs, etc, and despite them being human-adjacent, with a lot of shared characteristics, you don't think less of the MCs for killing them.
  • Firefly, Reavers "Human's gone mad on the edge of space". They're human, you feel nothing when they die.

Of course, another avenue is, they're preventing something so profoundly bad, that they only can be good guys. They are sacrificing these people for the good of all life. If spun properly, this can have the same effect, especially if you explore the psychological toll it takes on these characters. Show them haunted by their actions, or a flashback to a past where they cared, and they become identifiable as good.

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    Creepy and unpleasant, but not wrong. – Galastel Dec 5 at 13:28
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    I really like your point of showing a flashback where they cared to make them more relatable. Great idea! – scohe001 Dec 5 at 16:39
  • While I agree that this will work (history has proven that it does), it's a cheap trick, in my opinion, and will not sell well with a more...sophisticated audience. Not criticizing the poster here, it's solid advice. But I would personally try to avoid using that little trick. – wickermoon Dec 7 at 19:30

Killing is never good and shouldn't have a (purely) positive effect.

Killing comes at a price for the killer

Sometimes killing is a necessity, for example for a hunter-gatherer tribe when they kill their food or when a veterinarian puts down an animal that is beyond healing and would only lead a life of extreme suffering. But the hunter-gatherers have rituals in which they thank the animal that it gave its life for them and allowed them to live, that is, they ascribe some voluntary aspect to the victim to absovle themselves of the wrongness of killing. And the doctor as well only stays sane by believing that killing his patient is the best for that patient.

The only other time when killing can be legitimized by the killer is when killing a perpetrator is the only way of averting a danger from society, such as in war or in the death penalty. Then, a complex system of legislation and jurisdiction absolves the soldiers and executioner of personal guilt, but it comes at a price:

  • soldiers and executioners are often shunned by parts of society

    German author Kurt Tucholsky, who himself was a soldier in Word War I, coined the statement that soldiers are murderers in 1931, and until today that slogan is a fundamental attitude of the peace movement worldwide:

    enter image description here

    Executioners have often been held at a distance by their society. In medieval Europe, for example, their houses were placed outside of the safety and society of the city. This is an image of the executioner's house (Henkerhaus) in Salzburg, Austria, which clearly shows this social exclusion and loneliness:

    enter image description here

Whether your "good" torturers – for "slowly carving runes" into the bodies of other human beings is torture – will be only avoided by their community in the way the medieval hangman was avoided, or if they are seen as inhuman savages in the way that we abhor the ISIS beheadings, will depend on the story you want to tell, but it is unlikely that their community will unequivocally view them as heroes.

The second price, besides social ostracism, is a more personal one. Your killers will need a very strong ideological belief (similar to that of the ISIS executioners), if they want to remain sane after their deed. Many soldiers suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder, and not only because of the danger to their own lives, but often because of the deeds they found themselves forced to commit to survive. Policemen and -women, when they had to kill a perpetrator, are given psychological support because killing is an extreme stressor for the killer. If someone chooses the profession of torturer in a modern society, where other means of subsitence are abundant, they must have a certain kind of personality where either emotional coldness or a fanatic belief in some ideology will legitimize their deeds for them, and if they have the slightest doubt their deeds will traumatize them.

Here are only two articles about the traumatizing experience of having to kill:

I am sure you can find more in-depth information if you research this topic.


As a reader I would only sympathize with your protagonists if:

  • the killing was unavoidable to avert the horrible death of numerous innocents
  • the executioners/ritualistic torturers suffered for their deeds by being ostracized and emotionally broken (you could of course show how they later came to terms with their deeds)

I see three ways:

  1. A dramatic/traumatic event: You want to change your MC dramatically, so a dramatic event is a believable reason for that. The dramatic event would be probably something like the MC having to act like the good guys. He might refuse, and suffer a huge emotional loss because of it. The person he's trying to spare probably dies a horrific death as well (or worse). Anyway, thats for you to decide.

  2. The good guys were more similar to the hero than he thought. They appear cold on the outside at first, but they feel the same way he does. They don't want to do it, they have nightmares because of it, they cry out of guilt. So you don't have to change your MC.

Both of these, basically make the MC more like the good guys. Most people don't think of themselfes as a bad person, so when he is doing the same and feeling the same as these guys, he accepts them as good guys. Even if he sees himself as a bad human, then he and the "good guys" are as good as it can get in this world (or he would do someting differently).

  1. Lay it on thick. Use standard techniques to make people likable. For example: They love animals, they help people in need/distress when they gain nothing from it and no one will know they did it. They are loved by their family.They are funny. And so on... theres a reason why these techniques work. Show that they themselfes are willing to take the same sacrifice as they force on others. And most importantly to come back to an earlier point: They feel bad about what they do. I am not sure if that fits with your story, because you said they are "unapologetic" but I feel like that leaves lots of room.

I think it's almost impossible to make them accepted as the good guys, if they don't feel bad about what they are doing.

  • Such an event could be one of the good guys sacrificing himself without second thought to save humanity. - And the consequences, each of them would willingly sacrifice themselves, but they need to live on and perform the rites, so they have to kill others - not for themselves but for humanity. – Falco Dec 5 at 14:16

Assuming the MC also believes himself to be on the side of good, another way of stating that the MC believes what they're doing is "good" is to say that the MC would do the same thing if he were in their shoes. So, make him make that choice. If he has to accept that killing someone himself is a necessity, and he's still "good," then by extension, they are as well.

Make it personal to the MC. Anyone can say they wouldn't do that when analyzing it logically from the outside. But what if it was to save his spouse, or his children, or his best friend, or 1000 complete strangers vs 1 life? What if the 1 life was freely given, and the person was willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good? Would he deny them that and doom everyone else?

What if, in the end, the MC decides the good guys need to kill HIM?

Ritualistic murder is all about compromise.

First, your main character sees a reason not to shun and dismiss the ritualistic murderers completely. Maybe he has a goal that can only be achieved by slowly carving runes into somebody until they die. Maybe he wants to change the system from the inside; either to minimize the amount of ritualistic murder, or to help guide it towards more deserving targets. Maybe he's surrounded by people that believe in the murdering strongly enough that he can't openly speak out against it.

This is reinforced when it turns out to work. Maybe the "good guys" aren't perfect, but by golly, look at them getting things done. Meanwhile, perhaps some other group of people is trying to do good without any murders involved, and they turn out to be completely ineffectual, only capable of trite moralizing and having to be rescued by the ritual murderers.

Once your main character has taken so much a single step towards accepting ritual murder, have that step be one step too far. Anyone else who thinks that killing people by carving runes is bad should decide that by failing to decry ritual murder at every possible opportunity, the main character is as good as one of the ritual murderers himself. (If your main character refuses to take this first step, this can be due to a misunderstanding instead.)

Meanwhile, the ritual murderers welcome the main character. Some of them are perfectly nice people aside from the torture. Maybe they even punish excesses, and look down on anyone who looks like they're enjoying the ritual murder too much. All other options failing, the main character has to work with the "good guys" to accomplish anything.

It's nice if the main character can point to concrete good things he's achieved, and moral lines he hasn't crossed, only to have the people that are inexplicably anti-ritual-murder dismiss them entirely. This will certainly drive the main character further into the ritual murdering crowd, and as a bonus the readers will get defensive on his behalf.

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You shouldn't have your MC think they are "good". In the context they may be necessary, but there's no society where torture and murder are good acts. The unapologetic torture-murder you describe will be a moral event horizon for every reader.

Perhaps the faction can negotiate for what they need. Offer a deal to death row inmates, those about to die of disease, or die of old age their life in exchange for something they need more than their brief remainder of time on Earth with a "your life cannot be taken, it can only be given" requirement to the ritual. Essentially the faction promises to help undo their criminal wrongdoings or ensure a loved one left behind will be taken care of in exchange for the victim's ultimate sacrifice. An offer to be a hero with their dying gasp.

This would not make the faction good, they're still horrifically killing people who don't deserve to be tortured to death. But it makes them sympathetic, distances them from cold-blooded taking of a life against the victim's will, and paints a picture that they value and honor those who they sacrifice no matter how wicked they were in life.

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Some ideas:

  • show proof that those rituals DID achieve something good
  • may be..rituals are really needed and victims ARE consented ? (if they knew they will be killed anyway because they are "society's worst" and they sacrifice will help people, why not consent? . Don't say it's not possible - think of kamikaze)
  • show proof that victims are really "society's worst" and/or they condemned by law/etc as such AND their families are paid for this.
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    The kamikaze were young men that were devout in their belief that their emperor was divine, and thought they were giving their life with honor to protect their country and the people they loved. They were not their society's "worst." Most of society's worst are incapable of feeling sympathy for the pain, terror, despair or grief strangers, that is why they have no problem causing it for their own selfish gains, be that pleasure or money. It's implausible they will accept their fate and consent to being killed to benefit these same strangers they are incapable of sympathizing with. – Amadeus Dec 5 at 12:54

Make the consequences personal.

Most humans are fundamentally selfish. No matter how altruistic someone believes themselves to be, they're still going to be more invested in things that they feel a connection to.

Sure, MC knows the bad guys are bad, but while they're only doing bad things to other people, it's hard to see them as bad enough for stopping them to be worth the price of ritual murder. Then MC does something (whether accidentally or deliberately) to disrupt one of the good guys' rituals, and that gives the bad guys an opportunity to do something that leads to the death of a close friend or family member. Now MC realizes how important the good guys' actions are, and has both guilt and revenge as powerful motivational forces for supporting them.

You could probably lead the reader and MC in with a "Just this once" situation, and then have you have broken the problem into a fuzzy one of when to kill people not just whether to.

You could start by killing the absolute worst in society to save something the reader and MC cares deeply about. It would also be more persuasive if the sacrifice is the guilty party of what they are trying to protect. As an example killing a drug addict who took a bribe to assist the dark forces, and in order to make it right they are going to kill him sounds a lot more reasonable than if they request an unrelated murderer from prison who has been quietly in his cell for the past seven years.

Doing something in the heat of the moment is also more acceptable, eg killing a knife man before he kills someone is different to capturing him safely and then taking his heart to save his victim. Your character could make his first sacrifice kill in combat with the sacrifice or as the evil is closing in on him.

I personally think that once MC accepts that there is such a paradigm as "Killing can be good", he busted. He has become the enemy. Once you adopt the methods of the "Bad" you too have become one.

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    I feel that this is overly reductionistic; it also projects assumptions not made by the OP, such as "the ends never justify the means". Has the WWII allies soldier become the WWII Axis soldier? Or pretty much every soldier or warrior or spy. – sharur Dec 6 at 17:04
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    This isn't an answer it is a comment, Can you expand on how this answers the question? – PStag Dec 8 at 15:36
  • This isn't a strong answer, though it's an okay comment. I'll give you a chance to revise it and will "skip" on the question of deleting it. – Cyn Dec 8 at 16:02
  • This does not provide an answer to the question. Once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post; instead, provide answers that don't require clarification from the asker. - From Review – Galastel Dec 8 at 17:41
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    The question is about how to portray something that's morally wrong in a positive way, so just saying "that's morally wrong" isn't an answer. Fictional works have portrayed all sorts of reprehensible things in positive ways. Many older works glorify sexism, racism, and homophobia in ways we now find disgusting. Lolita has a narrator who glorifies paedophilia. – F1Krazy Dec 8 at 18:39

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