Are we the baddies?

Of all the tropes, my favorite is the one where somebody discovers their organization/ religion/ country is actually evil, switches sides, and brings it down. By “favorite,” I mean I basically can’t write without it. If you’ve never in your life realized everything you were raised to believe was wrong, are you even an adult? Can a book have moral nuance if we are never led to empathize with someone on the other side?

Works using this trope include Avatar: The Last Airbender, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, The Hunger Games, the newest Star Wars trilogy, The Giver, Good Omens, and Monsters, Inc. I have a theory that it’s so popular lately because many Americans have discovered that the country we’ve been raised to idolize has carried out scores of major atrocities we were never taught about in school. When you read about how transparently evil, say, internment, was, you start to see how the bad guys in stories were backed by ranks of people who simply didn’t know, or didn’t realize it was wrong. And how you can somehow live with the evidence of evil around you and still manage to miss it.

I do think, though, that it’s possible to mess this trope up. Making it too easy and not dwelling on the difficulty of coping with this realization is one way. Finn’s arc in Star Wars has this flaw. Finn abandons the Empire in about ten minutes, early on, and this never affects him again in any way. He’s been conditioned from childhood to be loyal and . . . just stopped being? What exactly makes him different from all the other troopers who didn’t defect? How does his conditioning cause him anguish later?

If I were writing it, I’d have had him have one remaining childhood memory which surfaces when he defects — for instance, what if the innocent person he was supposed to shoot reminded him of his barely-remembered father? After he defects, let him struggle with things the other rebels easily understand: getting to choose what you have for dinner, hugging a friend, making snap decisions without consulting anybody. It’s hard to adapt after leaving what amounts to a cult!

She-Ra handles this better. Adora realizes the Horde is bad early on, but there are aftereffects. She doesn’t know what a birthday party is and has to fake like she knows what the others are talking about. She misses her old friend, Catra, and is constantly torn with the feeling that she’s been disloyal. We continue to see that some in the Fright Zone are decent and doing their best, even while others are using the opportunity to be horrible.

There are so many things you can include when working with this trope. One is the failed revelation: when a character first has all the information to make their loyalty switch, but rejects it. In real life, this tends to happen a lot of times when making a major worldview change. The old worldview is tied up with too many things: your respect for mentors within the group; your image of yourself as a good person; your desire to be loyal; your fear that you’re just finding excuses to get out of doing hard things. So the first time you learn your side is kind of evil, you rationalize it and keep going. Reading about a character doing this, we can get frustrated: but you had all the information you needed! But hang tight, it’s just going to take the character time to integrate the new information. After a few rejected revelations, eventually one is going to stick — well, if they’re the hero.

Another is the random trauma reveal: main character tells a funny story of back when they were in the Evil Army, and everyone’s like . . . actually that’s super dark, man. Our character doesn’t realize how traumatized they are because everything they experienced was normal to them. Oh, so floggings aren’t funny? Huh, now that you mention it, I guess they’re not . . . why did I laugh at the time? We can see that our character has a twisted, upside-down view of reality which wasn’t all healed at once when they laid down their blaster. It’s going to take them some time, surrounded by good guys, to unlearn all that.

Once our hero starts trying to take down their ex-organization, more trouble ensues. On the one hand, they have all the knowledge and skills to take it down better than anyone else. On the other, they’re likely to be recognized. Plus, they’re vulnerable to being brainwashed back in. What if they meet an old friend, who says “hey, let’s get back to our old evil activities!” Will our hero be able to resist, when it’s put to them like that, by someone who knows them so much better than their new friends do? Maybe they’ll go along with it at first, and we worry they’ve gotten sucked back in, but actually they’re faking. Or maybe they cave for real, but a few minutes later they’re reminded of what they learned earlier in the story and get back to destroying the evil empire.

However you use this trope, make sure you unpack it. Don’t just jam it in there and move on. Changing your whole worldview is a massive change, but one many readers relate to. We’ll notice if you mess it up.