Monthly Obscure Trope Series Double Feature — He Who Fights Monsters & The Moral Event Horizon

Today’s tropes are brought to you by the heroes that are so brutal and questionable that they’re almost villains. 

Let’s preface this with a quick distinction between heroes and villains, and protagonists and antagonists. 

Every story has a protagonist and an antagonist, but not every story has a hero and a villain. 

What does that even mean?

In short, a protagonist is the main character of a story. The antagonist is the person in their way. For now, let’s ignore that the antagonist could be the environment, circumstance or some other abstract force working against the protagonist, and focus exclusively on a character vs. character example. 

On the other hand, the terms hero and villain are very similar. The hero is the main character of a story. The villain is acting against the hero. BUT these two terms are also loaded with moral implications. The hero is a good person. The villain is a bad guy or outright evil

A story about two rival sports teams may showcase one team as the protagonist. The story follows the players and we learn about their hardships, all so that we will root for them over the other team. The antagonist team might be the reigning champs or even dicks, but they probably aren’t evil in the classical sense. Whereas in Lord of the Rings, the Fellowship of the Ring are clearly good and Sauron is clearly evil

Now that we’re done with that long preface, let’s talk about today’s tropes: He Who Fights Monsters & the Moral Event Horizon

Let’s start with the first one. This trope has roots in Friedrich Nietzsche’s, Beyond Good and Evil. “”He who fights monsters should see to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

What separates a hero from a villain? Well, the villain will clearly go to horrible lengths to reach their goals. They’ll lie, cheat, steal, kill, torture, etc… The hero won’t do those things, even if it puts them at a disadvantage when confronting the villain. 

But what if the hero was desperate? What if the hero needed to lie? What if the hero cheated? What if the hero kills the villain? Well, that’s when things get interesting. 

Depending on the story, heroes will do some horrible stuff to beat the villain. Batman, for instance, has no qualms about breaking surveillance laws or even breaking kneecaps to get information. But he won’t kill! 

Once again, this depends heavily on the story. Some heroes are fine with lying. Some heroes are fine with stealing. Batman’s okay with kneecaps. There is always a line that the hero will not cross, lest they stare too long into that abyss and become a villain themselves. 

So, heroes can do some bad stuff if it means beating the villain. There is a line that the hero cannot cross… And that brings us to our second trope. 

The Moral Event Horizon is named after a phenomenon with black holes. Without going too much into it, a black hole is a sun-like object that got so damn big, its gravity so massive, that not even light can escape from it. Nothing escapes from it. Fly too close to a black hole, cross that event horizon, and there’s no way to escape. 

The Moral Event Horizon is the moral line that is so reprehensible that if the hero crosses it, they become irredeemable in the story and in the eyes of the reader. If the hero crosses that line, they become a villain. 

It bears repeating that this depends heavily on the story—however—some things are irredeemable no matter what story we’re talking about. Depending on the rating, killing may be okay. John Wick kills a shit load of people and we all root for him. But if John Wick did horrible things to women, children, or puppies, you can bet any of those would be too much for 99% of all watchers. Some things are irredeemable. They cross the Moral Event Horizon. End of story. 

Much of the rest depends on the story and the rating of the material. Lying might be horrible in a children’s book, in Game of Thrones it’s a means to an end. The latter is actually a good story to look into for this sake, since so many characters do horrible shit, but only a few truly cross the Moral Event Horizon. 

So, there it is. Can you think of some other good examples of characters turning into that which they despised? Maybe someone who was supposed to bring balance to the Force but left it in darkness instead? 

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