A way with worlds: 22 - The Paradox of the Badass
by Steven Savage of Seventh Sanctum
Page 1 of 2
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
Unfortunately, in poor
writing and poor continuities - and human error - two errors tend
to emerge in creating badasses:
- The Godboy. The Badass
becomes an unstoppable machine of (fill in the blank, but
usually sex, violence, or both). They never fail, screw
up, outdo everyone. They also remain wicked cool all the
- The Sociopath. The
Badass pretty much does whatever they want (and gets away
with it), people love them or fear them but never
challenge them. Being a badass, people will someone not
question the fact the character, say, just machined
gunned an entire small town.
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 character picks
their battles (note the element of being focused)
- The character picks
their skills and abilities and self development (again
- The character is
realistic about limits and results and keeps them in
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
Copyright© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 Steven Savage, sffworld.com. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.