A literary trope in a story is like a cliché with impunity. It’s a recognizable convention, but if the author knows what to do, it can be used to great effect. Any writer looking for ways to add useful details and situations to a narrative will find tropes helpful. As such, this series of posts analyzes the endless well of information that is TVTropes.org (from a literary perspective).
The Literary Trope: Even Evil Has Standards
TV Tropes defines the trope as follows:
One of the easiest ways to highlight just how bad something or someone evil is: have an otherwise-remorseless villain reject it.
Sometimes there are things that even terrible people refuse to do. The Joker refuses to work with Nazis. Honest John, the criminal fox in Pinocchio, does some terrible things to the poor puppet, but even he wouldn’t turn children into donkeys.
When you are writing for evil people, they become so much more interesting when we learn both how far they would go and how far they wouldn’t go.
Why You Need “Even Evil Has Standards”
Your narrative, should it contain villains who are ‘evil’ (as many fantasy and science fiction narratives do), will benefit from more well-rounded villains.
Though I don’t see this example on TVTropes, my favorite instance of this is from The Sopranos. One of the things that makes Tony so appealing as a person is his ability to ruthlessly kill pretty much any human being–while being incapable of harming one hair or feather on any animal’s head.
The show explores this at great length, but that huge contradiction of feeling total compassion for animals and nothing for humans makes Tony instantly compelling.
How to Make Sure this Literary Trope Doesn’t Become a Cliche
A few guidelines:
- Play it for Laughs: this trope is a gold mine for comedy. It is both poignant and hilarious when Tony Soprano gets all mushy about puppies and ducks. Use this for levity when you can.
- Take it Seriously: But don’t just use it for laughs. If you only pick things that are incongruous because it’s funny then you are missing the depth. Think seriously about what your villain would find abhorrent and offensive. It’s worth knowing these kinds of things as you write them.
- Use it to Build Up Other Characters: As TVTropes indicates, this is mainly helpful in letting you develop other characters in comparison to your villains. If you introduce a character who is willing to kill a child until your main villain objects then that tells the audience something about this new character (and your original villain).
Basically, if this is only played for laughs then it is just a trope or a cliche. But if you balance the serious with the funny, you’ll have far more intriguing villains as a result.
What are some other ways you can use “Even Evil Has Standards” to bulk up your villainous characters?
- The Bechdel Test
- Disney Villain Death
- The Common Tongue
- Chekhov’s Gunman
- Mr. Exposition
- Cassandra Truth
- Bad Dreams
- One Dialogue, Two Conversations
- As You Know
- Laymen’s Terms