Way With Worlds: Heroes and Villains – Planet Of Morons And The Idiot Plot

Atomic Bomb Test

(Way With Worlds runs at Seventh Sanctum and Muse Hack)

Ironically I was about to wrap up my heroes and villains series when David Brin dropped an asteroid-sized essay in my lap.

He notes rather brilliantly that a huge part of our media is the Idiot Plot, that the story is often about a few people who save the world because everyone else, all of society, are a bunch of idiots if not evil. It’s not just Suspicion of AUthority, he notes its socially corrosive.

Now Brin’s article on its own is well worth reading. I’m not going to recapitulate it here because he did a great job. Also I probably couldn’t do it justice.

But I’m going to address the issue as a matter of worldbuilding, because the Planet of Morons, the Idiot Plot, is a serious problem for worldbuilding. That’s what I cover.

Also this idea doesn’t work for building a world.

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Way With Worlds: Heroes and Villains – Forget Good And Evil

Wrong Way Sign

It seems that we often end up discussing Good and Evil when we are talking Heroes and Villains, antagonists and protagonists, and often for pretty good reasons. Let’s face it Good Versus Evil is a prime conflict and element of many stories, and we want to read/play/experience interesting characters.

However, after awhile, it seems that it really becomes boring and trope-ridden. We talk Good and Evil but don’t think about it, signifiers are thrown around randomly, and titles like “heroine” or “villain” seem to stand in for actual moral issues. It’s mummifying good and evil, propping up heir bodies, and treating them as marionettes.

A friend of mine once noted that smoking was always used as a sign of evil in media. That was an example of how sometimes good and evil just becomes a pile of signifiers.

So when we think Heroes and Villains, here’s a bit of a challenge of you.

Stop thinking Good and Evil.

Start Thinking Why And How.

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Way With Worlds: Heroes and Villains – Self-Serving Self-Sacrifice

desert tree barren

Sacrifice is a part of literature and part of our lives. The act of giving something up for other reasons, perhaps making the ultimate sacrifice of ones life, is part of us really. We value the act of giving things up at time because it provides surety, clarity – and a view into someone’s character.

In fact, we know it from worlds and stories all too well. It’s a common part of our heroes – but also in villains who redeem themselves or at least have some integrity

You know the drill:

  • The heroic sacrifice of some starship captain or engineer that guides their ship into a deadly run on the enemy – and may not even be saved at the last moment.
  • The person who dies for a cause, getting nothing in return.
  • The hero or heroine that trows themselves on the grenade-equivalent or detonates the bomb-equivalent by hand to save his or her buddies/country/world (pick at least one).
  • The villain, who at the last moment, realizes what a giant moral vacuum they’ve been and dies to correct it.

You can easily name at least a half-dozen other examples. It’s woven throughout literature, through film, through comics, through legend.

However there’s time the sacrifice seems . . . off.  It sets your teeth on edge for some reason. It seemed false. It seem contrived. It didn’t work for some reason.

And because it didn’t work, it bugs the hell out of you as a reader or player of the game or whatever. Something is wrong in the world.

In worldbuilding, when self-sacrifice happens, like anything else, it should have a reason. If there’s no reason for it to exist, it’s just going to come off wrong. Yet at times, it seems we shoehorn it in there, or it seems to fit yet . . . it doesn’t.

Here’s some warning signs to look out for that tell you that the brilliant self-sacrifice of your hero, or the touching sacrifice of your reformed (but now exceedingly dead) villain, aren’t.


Sacrifice and self-sacrifice are tropes in literature and  settings, and thus done a bit too easy. We throw in something into our plots and panels and game options that “fits” as it fits what we think should fit, but it just doesn’t work in our world.

It’s ay, way too easy to throw in a scene of self-sacrifice, just as sure as it is to put an all-too-familiar action scene in a movie, or a stereotype into a story. Sacrifice is a language people understand – but like selecting the wrong word in a conversation, it doesn’t work if it’s not appropriate.

Look out for putting in acts of self-sacrifice just because “the situation calls for it” or “it fits the story” because it should fit the characters and the world.

Selfish Motives Of The Character

Self-sacrifice is an act of transcending the self for something greater- it’s about giving up literally everything one has for a reason greater than one’s own life. Now those reasons may be questionable or crazy or ephemeral, or just plain stupid (at least to the survivors), but the act of self-sacrifice is literally giving up of self.

It’s not the same as sacrificing the self for something.

However the character motivations may really turn out to be selfish. Consider other motives for self-destructive behavior:

  • In order to make someone sorry.
  • In order to become famous or remembered.
  • In order to escape a problem by appearing to “go out” in a heroic manner.
  • To fulfill fantasies of martyrdom.
  • As an act of self-hatred, essentially as suicide that doesn’t look like it.

Now these motives may indeed fit whatever character you’re creating who’s about to detonate the McGuffin Orb or whatever. If that fits, then by all means it’s consistent with your setting for them to go out. But it’s not heroic, it’s not noble – and frankly other characters will probably suspect.

Now that could be fascinating (“he saved the world, but he was also an egomaniacal jerk, how do we react”) but be careful of dressing up self-serving sacrifice as something else. It will grate horribly.

Selfish Motives of the Author

Now in no way do I want to cast aspersions on you and your world. But sometimes let’s face it, we do stuff in our stories because we like it, and sometimes that includes how we write characters, and how they die.

We can be motivated to put in an act of self-sacrifice assorted ways:

  • To just get rid of an inconvenient character. That’s coping out, and believe me, people will notice.
  • Because the character is a Mary Sue/Gary Stu/Author’s pet and we want people to love them/feel sorry for them. Usually it’s transparent enough it annoys people.
  • Because we wrote ourselves into a corner or built or world i a way we didn’t expect. Usually a big boom solves some of that, but there’s only so often you can play Crisis On Infinite Earths before you kind of strain your credibility.

When it comes to really good worldbuildng, I think we have to take pride in our crafting a good world, and learn how to make it work. Inserting our own motivations in too far, violating our own continuity, damages our settings. In the case of something as deep as self-sacrifice, it can be outright annoying.

Giving Up The Wrong Sacrifice

So, when your heroes and villains make the ultimate sacrifice, make sure it fits them, that the reasons are good, and that t fits the setting. Sure they may be wrong, stupid, suicidal, but at least portray them properly. It brings a truly visceral feel to the story and avoids cheapening your scenes.

Best of all, when you deliver a tale or a game or a world where these moments of self-sacrifice truly ft, it keeps those involved int he world, the readers and gamers, engaged. It makes the world real and organic and alive – even when characters in it are dying.

That after all is what you’re trying to do.

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at https://www.stevensavage.com/.