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How can you Write good guy Characters that don't possess Empathy?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Erebus, Jan 27, 2021.

  1. Erebus

    Erebus Minstrel

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    The scp foundation is an world wide organization given the task of protecting the world from dangerous anomalies. These artifacts or individuals pose a threat to the normalcy of our reality, and are contained at specially designed facilities to be studied. This research usually requires prisoners, referred to as D-class. These prisoners are considered disposable individuals who are used in experimentation with scps, in order to determine the extent of its abilities and powers, and how much of a threat it poses. D-class are taken from various countries around the world with ties to the foundation, who send them death row inmates and individuals scheduled for execution, or simply undesirables who these countries would consider convenient to disappear.

    Foundation members are the good guys of the world protecting it from the horrors not seen by normal society, but their methods are often atrocious. Researchers often force disposable people to participate in dangerous experiments, which often end in a slow, horrific death or at the least permanent injury. D-class are often subjected to prolonged torture and suffering depending on the scp, and are made to undergo other experiments if they are lucky to survive. They are given no sympathy or mercy from staff, who see them as easily replaceable stock. Its one thing for people to not empathize with a John Wayne Gacy or Hitler-like characters, but many of these prisoners come from nations with various ethical standards. This can include a woman who was sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia for an affair, or a student revolutionary from China, and other people who would be protected under human rights laws, or even children. At the end of the year, the foundation routinely executes all surviving D-class in order to make room for new batches, as these people would be an inconvenience to release into society after their sentenced term.

    The callousness of the researchers and other staff members seems odd. These are people who can ruthlessly send a man or woman to a horrible death, and then go home to their families to maintain a normal life without any side effects. They can take part in regular society and seem decent, good people while at the same time work for an institution that practices industrialized murder. While one can justify to themselves that it is done in the name of world security, its hard not to portray this as psychopathic behavior. How can one rationalize this contradiction while still maintaining the good guy image?
     
    ShadeZ likes this.
  2. Eduardo Letavia

    Eduardo Letavia Troubadour

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    Unless all of those researchers and their bosses are all psychopathic or nazi-like people, I would find hard to believe that none of them wouldn't care at all for those prisoners and how immoral their research methods are. Maybe you should find a way to hide from the researchers the reality of their experiments. You've already hinted a possible solution when you said industrialized murder, then make it the research so industrialized and automatized that, at most, those scientists only get cell samples or conveniently anonymized information (filtered through an AI for instance) of their human guinea pigs and the results of their experiments.
     
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  3. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Sage

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    You don't have to rationalise this at all. Its normal human behaviour, albeit behaviour which most people would rather not talk about. It was Sophocles who first wrote "the end excuses any evil" (it's in his play Electra). Research shows that all that's needed for people to behave in the way you describe is for them to believe that they are morally right and that they're working for the greater good of the world in general and their bit of it in particualr. It helps if there is a leader who can build this feeling that what they're doing is right, but it isn't neccessary. After that, people will quite happily do these things at work then go home and live normal lives with their friends and family. For nasty real life examples showing how easy it is to get a group of people to behave like this, look up the Stanford Prison Experiment or maybe the Robbers Cave Experiment.
     
  4. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Sage

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    Plenty of Nazis (and ICE agents) went home to their families that they love and cherish. I imagine many people joined the Nazis/ICE because they love their families, their communities, and their country so much that they would do anything to protect it from Bad Things. When you think of the other people as less than people, it's a lot easier to do horrible things to them. The people at the SCP Foundation do the things they do because they want to keep their families, country, and reality itself from being destroyed. Yes, I'm sure there's individuals who have problems with it, but you can be amnesitized or otherwise have things done to you to help you cope.

    Also...the SCP Foundation isn't a normal narrative. There is no singular hero, there are SOME characters that are seen in multiple entries, especially the earlier ones, but there is no standard cast. We do not get deep in the heads of the people who work there, we do not actually know what they think and how they feel about all this. It's entirely possible that everyone who works there is a twisted effin' cycle path, it's possible they all have no empathy, or they're all Actual Nazis and the D-class are all [insert minority group here]. We don't know! And that's the point! So it's kind of unfair to compare it to other narratives.

    Also don't look up the Stanford Prison Experiment, it's a really bad "experiment" and doesn't really prove anything.
     
    Eduardo Letavia likes this.
  5. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Sage

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    Yes, well. Applied Social Psychology is my research field. Whilst the Stanford Prison Experiment was, from a scientific point of view, badly set up, badly run and was never peer reviewed (the later BBC Prison study is far better), it did show how one leader can make whole bunch of people behave like animals (which, it has to be said, was not what Phil Zimbardo set out to show). The latter point was in fact a specific conclusion of the BBC Prison Study. If you'd like a real life example, consider the Abu Ghraib scandal.
     
    Eduardo Letavia likes this.
  6. Eduardo Letavia

    Eduardo Letavia Troubadour

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    Both of you have given very good points, ChasejxyzChasejxyz, Mad SwedeMad Swede , and I think that is not just that the SCP Foundation is cut out of a certain kind of moral or psychological cloth, it's the society it comes from that allows that institution and others to be that way. Also, we can think of how many cultures throughout history have self-justified to allow to themselves to do all kind of atrocities: slavery, racial segregation, religious wars...

    I remember reading in the Wing Commander novels how extremely xenophobic and classist the Kilrathi were. For those not in the known, the Kilrathi were a civilization of highly advanced, cultured and extremely elitist large feline bipeds that felt they were entitled to hunt everything in the galaxy. Also, if I remember correctly, they could be cruel to their own, although of this I'm not so sure. Yes, this is an example of a species viewing itself as superior to any other in their galaxy (until they clash with those pesky humans, of course), not of one species treating some of their own awfully, although in the end the trick is the same. The "righteous" ones otherize anyone who perceive as too different or disruptive and, therefore, they'll use such moral excuses to justify their atrocities and get along with it just fine.
     
    Last edited: Jan 27, 2021
  7. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    While you can write characters who don't possess empathy, and while we can point to any number of cases where otherwise normal human beings behave in atrocious ways, it's worth noting that all the examples given are examples of horror. They're examples of people behaving in ways from which most of us recoil and condemn.

    So, the writerly question, I would say, is that you can't write them in ways that will be sympathetic to the reader. You can write them in ways that make the reader recoil in horror. You can write them in ways that fascinate the reader, or the sort of reader who is fascinated by stories about psychopaths (a disturbingly large population). But if you intend to make them seem sympathetic, then you can't just leave them in that initial state. They'll have to change and grow, to become empathetic. One standard approach is to have them discover the truth. They start out seeing only one tiny corner. They catch a glimpse behind the curtain and from then on theirs is a quest for truth.

    It really depends on the sort of story you wish to tell and the kind of character you intend to portray.
     
    Eduardo Letavia likes this.
  8. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Sage

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    Hmm. OK. Don't quite know how to put this. But. These people are not psychopaths. Far from it, they are normal by all psychological measures. From their point of view their actions are both rational and justifiable. They know the truth, they know whats going on - and they still do it. It is this which makes it so frightening for those on the outside who see this, and its frightening because they are so normal. They have friends, families. You might be among them. They are sympathetic and they may be very empathetic to their colleagues, friends and family. We (the rest of us) try to deal with this by externalising things, by saying they must all have been evil monsters. But they're not, they're just like you and I. Normal. And as the Robbers Cave Experiment proved, any one of us can be induced to behave in exactly the same way. It is this last point which makes it so very very hard to accept - most of us don't want to think that we could ever behave like that. But we can, and in a given set of circumstances we will.

    People who do this sort of thing are amongst the most difficult to portray well, precisely because they are so normal. What they do in their work is only one part, often only a small part, of who they are. You can't only focus on one (work) aspect of their characters, because its likely to lead to a very flat and cliched portrayal.

    If you're going to write about this sort of thing then my suggestion would be to focus on what these people do when they are forced to face what they've done after the event. Do they try to come to terms with it? If so. how? What makes them do this? Do they continue to see it as rational and justified? If so, what do others do about this? (Bear in mind that they probably won't accept your judgment.) Do they refuse to even talk about it?
     
    Eduardo Letavia likes this.
  9. CeruleanSpade

    CeruleanSpade Acolyte

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    It's my impression of the SCP universe that they deliberately use the worst criminals as their disposable personnel. Although I'm not too terribly familiar with the lore, so that may vary from author to author.

    Anyway, what you're seeing really isn't a total lack of empathy. What you're seeing in these stories is extremely selective empathy. Going with my assumption above, the protagonists likely really don't have much sympathy for convicted criminals. Or have been conditioned to see them as expendable. So they don't have empathy for these meat shields: what they have empathy for is the people they believe they're protecting by doing the horrible things they do. The stories are usually set in a very grimdark setting where painful death is just accepted as happening to just about everyone in the organization(scientists frequently die in the course of their research), and the protagonists have just come to the conclusion that they can sacrifice a relatively small amount of people that supposedly won't be missed to protect the entire world.

    Also, considering the whole thing is set up so that anyone can write a story in this setting instead of being a restricted and copyright IP, the level of grimdarkness and good guy image can vary from author to author. It's just sort of been accepted that it's weighted towards the darker end of morality.

    TLDR: Characters don't have to have empathy for every single other character/everyone in the world. Part of character motivation is deciding what it is they care about, and it doesn't have to necessarily be for people they work with or have authority over.
     
    Last edited: Jan 28, 2021
  10. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    >they're just like you and I
    I have to say first that I've only barely heard of SCP, so I'm not speaking with any authority about that world.

    But in story terms, I have to disagree. These characters are not like you and I because you and I don't work there and we are horrified by the actions of those who do. Just because the external appearances--family, home, etc.--are the same doesn't imply anything about the characters themselves. Otherwise, Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer could claim to be "just like" you or I. The whole of the person must be considered, especially in story-telling.

    Anyway, I do recognize that the conventions of the SCP universe are not mainstream. So maybe portraying psychopaths as normal is part of the conventions. I'm responding more to the question as posed by the OP. A good-guy character without empathy is a difficult one to write. The ones that work (to me) are the ones where the character *appears* to be without empathy but who grows over the course of the novel. There are many examples of that. In any case, the real question isn't about the character, it's about whether the author can get the reader to feel *sympathy* for the character.
     
  11. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Maester

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    A few things came to mind reading this.

    Readers are weird in what they will and will not accept from main characters. Robin Hood is a popular character, and yet, he was a thief and a murderer. You can easily write a story where he's the bad guy. And yet, people don't care, because he "uses his powers for good". There's plenty of books and movies about thiefs who are the good guys. Think Ocean's 11 for another example. Here, the guys aren't even good. They're gready and willfully break the law. And we cheer them on. Why? They're funny, they're the protagonists of the story and the other guy is portrayed as a terrible person. So, you could just write the story and see what happens.

    How important to the story is this whole setup? Is it just the general setting, where some story happens, or is the whole point of the story the experiments. If it's just the setting, you can gloss over it and not pay too much attention to it. You'll still have some readers think "Hey. they're torturing those prisoners! WTF?" but most will simply accept it as part of the setting and focus on the story.

    If it is (one of) the focus point of the story, then you had better set it up in such a way that the alternative is worse. If at the start of the book there is a scene where one of these magical thingies goes out of control and kills children, kittens or a whole city then the reader will understand that something needs to be done about this. They will be more accepting of the fact that a system evolved to deal with this.

    Also, is the setup set in stone? You could change it slightly to a system where instead of using people against their will and then discarding them, you turn it round and have people volunteer. What if the death-row inmates get a chance at redemption if they participate? They might still die in the process, but if they survive a year then they are free men again. It would still be a brutal and dystopian system, but you go from Nazi-concentration camps where you torture people to they were dead anyway and deserve it, and now they can redeem themselves and get a second chance at life if they do this.
     
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