Pragmatic Horrible (Or, My Favorite Kind of Character)

Hi there!  No content today.  Instead I want to babble about something I ended up pondering during most of my day-job: my favorite kind of character.  Some would look at the post I’m about to write and say ‘no, H., that sounds like your favorite kind of villain‘, but I beg to differ.

Probably because I’m a little bit Pragmatic Horrible myself.

Let’s start with a definition.  I used the two-word format of Pragmatic Horrible the way Dungeons & Dragons players use two-word alignments.  D&D alignments have a Lawful-Chaotic and a Good-Evil axis, so that you can have Lawful Good people, Chaotic Evil people and a variety in between.  In a snarky way, you can also have variant alignments that seem to fit certain characters better, like Chaotic Stupid for someone who just does whatever the heck they want with no regard for the consequences, or Stupid Good for someone so sparkly-eyed and idealistic that they have no idea of the mess they leave behind.

Pragmatic Horrible is obviously not on either of the D&D axes, but it does involve a confluence of traits on a similar sliding scale: a sort of Pragmatic-Idealistic scale, and a Hopeful-Horrible one.  A worldview rather than a value-judgment.  I’m making this all up, so bear with me.

It should be easy to imagine an Idealistic Hopeful person, whether they be sunshine and rainbows or a more down-to-earth volunteering type or just someone who thinks the world is a good place and can get better.  More classic heroes can be like this: they’re good people trying to save the world.  Likewise, a Pragmatic Hopeful person is fairly standard: someone who believes the world can get better but needs to act in a more combative or darker capacity to make it so.  Think your lighter shade of anti-hero, working toward the best but willing to do a few practical ‘bad’ things along the way.

Idealistic Horrible, on the other hand, is sometimes referred to as a Well-Intentioned Extremist: someone willing to do terrible things ‘for the greater good’, and who may even be right — in a way — but has gone far overboard in the attempt.  Characteristic of this type is the belief that they are right in their actions, no matter how terrible: that their perfect end justifies the means.  They make good villains because we all have this controlling urge inside us, I think…  The one that says ‘my way is the best and if only everyone else did what I said, everything would be great for everyone who matters’.

Then there’s the Pragmatic Horrible.

TVTropes calls this character the Necessary Evil: someone who believes they have to do the damage, pick the bad choice, kick the dog, but does not tell themselves that they’re right to do it.  In fact, they know they’re wrong.  They do what they do because they feel someone has to.  Perhaps there is a wrong that needs righting, but the only way to do it is violence and chaos.  Perhaps it is time that the magic kingdom falls, though it will mean the death of high culture and a certain way of life.  Perhaps it is the only way to stop a greater threat.  Regardless, the character doesn’t shirk the blame — the character might even embrace it.  They’re doing bad, and they regret it, but there is no choice.

I can’t tell you how much I like moral torment in a character.  It makes me squee, okay?  And Pragmatic Horribles are the best at it.  They are self-aware, they are sane, they are often both smart and vicious — in a word, scary.  And they may not apologize, but they know they’re gonna get it for what they’ve done, and that they deserve it.  It’s a great dynamic when set against an idealistic hero, a nasty clash when against a more pragmatic one, and completely awesome when it’s as a villain-protagonist against the Well-Intentioned Extremist.

I will give you an example.  One of my favorite recent books, character-wise, is Vicious by V. E. Schwab.  I’ve mentioned it before in my Best Reads 2013 post, but it’s relevant here because the protagonist Victor Vale typifies this character, and I loved the book as much for his mind as for the story.  He and his former friend Eli both gained super-powers through traumatic near-death experience, but their powers are both defined and twisted by those traumas — and in gaining them, Victor accidentally caused the death of a mutual friend.  Eli decides that all powered individuals are evil except for himself, as he has a power that he is convinced is ‘pure’, and so goes off to kill all the other powers for the good of mankind.  Meanwhile, Victor spends some time in jail, learning to be bad.

The thing about these two is that Victor takes all the responsibility onto his shoulders.  The death of the friend was accidental, but Victor takes it as his fault; likewise Eli’s empowering and subsequent murder spree.  Victor’s intent, upon breaking out of jail, is to track down and deal with Eli — to finish what he started, not for the sake of Eli’s potential victims but because of this sense of duty and despite the mayhem he (and surviving powers) may cause.  Victor is also aware that he is slightly sociopathic; as the son of self-help gurus, he’s been evaluating himself and the world since childhood, and can see a hollowness within himself — something he can either use or compensate for, but something he also sees in Eli.

Eli refuses to acknowledge it.  Eli hides from it and tells himself he’s a good person, he’s righteous, he only does what’s necessary.  Victor, aware that all the damage the two of them has caused was wrong-headed and senseless and that his own behavior is morally reprehensible, walks straight into their conflict because he knows it has to end no matter the cost.

I can’t not read that.

There’s a saying people like to repeat, something like ‘bad people don’t know they’re bad’, the same way we think crazy people don’t know they’re crazy.  But I know when I’m doing something bad, and sometimes I still do it.  Who doesn’t?  I don’t think it’s unrealistic to conceive of a character who knows they’re on the wrong side, who hates being there, but who still follows that path because they feel it’s the only way.  Who would gladly change directions if only they could see the option and believe it could work — that they could be Hopeful.  But who can’t just blindly take the heroic option and trust to luck.

This is my problem with a lot of quarantine- or rescue-style movies.  The hero has someone they want to save, but in order to save them they have to risk the entire world.  Inevitably there’s some military guy somewhere ready to drop a bomb on the place, and someone else going ‘no!  give Mr. Hero more time!’  I understand this as dramatic cinema, but my sympathies are with the military guy with the bomb.  He has a terrible duty.  He doesn’t want to do it.  But he will, because there’s no better option — just the magic four-leaf-clover the hero tends to pull out of his butt at the last moment.

In the real world, sometimes the only option is to drop the bomb.  And the guy who does it doesn’t feel good about it.  He may try to explain it to himself but his heart won’t agree.  It wakes him up at night.  He wishes he could go back to fix that thing that’s now broken inside of him, but he can’t, and if eventually someone points a finger at him and says ‘I hate you for this’, he’ll say ‘you have every right’.

I like that guy.

Scar from Fullmetal Alchemist goes here, I think.  Not all the time, but certainly with Winry.  Ed Harris’s character in The Rock.  Ozymandius in Watchmen seems to want to be this guy, but he gets too caught up in his own cleverness, his own sense of superiority, to really sell it to me: he seems less a fixer and more an architect, trying to bend the future around an apocalyptic vision that could happen at any time…or despite his actions…or never.

I don’t like the delusional ones.  I don’t like the ones who bring down a bad establishment only to take the next step and become the establishment.  Part of this character-type is an outsider’s perspective, a not-fit-for-polite-society vibe.  Just like revolutionaries often turn around and become as bad as the regime they replaced, a Pragmatic Horrible who gains power can easily slide into Ozymandias self-delusion and an affected kind of regret — not something truly felt but just mouthed to justify one’s actions.  Maybe Ozymandias did feel that way, but what we see of him is a man on a throne.  Lonely or not, he has already set himself above the rest of the world and its laws before he finalizes his plan.

There seems to be a necessary underdog vibe to these characters, which is probably why we don’t see a ton of them as villains.  I mentioned Ed Harris in The Rock.  I forget his character’s name, but he was a military officer trying to hold the city at gunpoint, not for himself but for acknowledgment of fallen soldiers.  He saw no other way, and though he was acting badly, he took steps to limit the possible damage.  In essence, he was trying to sacrifice himself for those he had failed — another theme that comes out a lot in this character type.

But it’s hard to have an action hero walk up and punch this kind of guy in the face and get the audience to cheer.  He’s a desperate man who doesn’t want to hurt anyone, but who has to do something, and only sees a path through threat of violence.  There had to be another set of villains who took advantage of Harris’s plan in order to wreak real havoc.

There’s a sense of anguish — or even despair — that underlies most of these characters in a way that few others feel.  Their solutions hurt them as much as their problems.  It’s probably weird that I find this admirable, but they’re some of my favorite characters to watch.  And with them, redemption is unlikely but it never feels unearned.

That’s my two cents, anyway.

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About H. Anthe Davis

Worldbuilder. Self-published writer.
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6 Responses to Pragmatic Horrible (Or, My Favorite Kind of Character)

  1. I like that pragmatic-idealistic hopeful-horrible way of thinking about characters – it’s an interesting way of thinking about characters’ ideals and drives without necessarily including whether they’re a good or a bad person. And like you I do a like a pragmatic-horrible, though I need the contrast with characters elsewhere on the spectrum – a world full of pragmatic-horribles would be boring.

    I’m not sure how pragmatic Ozymandius is though – hasn’t he really tipped over the other side into his own ideal for the future? He certainly has a certain zealotry for his scheme.

    • I’m wishy-washy on him — mainly because people seem to think he fits the Necessary Evil trope. He seems too self-aggrandizing for it, though. And I don’t like him. He kind of pays lip-service to the thought that he’s doing what is necessary, but I doubt that he really feels it anymore. If he ever did. He’s such a paternalistic character. Watchmen doesn’t really give us enough of his internal life to say whether or not he’s deluding himself, and I admit that I skimmed the Ozymandias Before Watchmen issues because I wanted to throttle him for his egotistical bull.

      So yeah, I’d say he wants to pose as the pragmatist, but is actually the other.

  2. Erica Dakin says:

    The first pragmatic horrible character that springs to my mind is the Operator in Serenity. The interesting thing with him is that he knows he’s a monster but he believes he’s doing it for the greater good, yet the Alliance are in and of themselves well-intentioned extremists.
    And dammit, I want you to write a role-playing game now. >.<

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