Good Guys Start Last

One thing I’ve noticed about a lot of stories is that the protagonists rarely make the first move. Where there exists a conflict with a villain, the hero(es) will almost invariably leave the first move to said villains, with a few notable exceptions.

One reason for this is that in general, defense codes as closer to good than offense. Good guys protect themselves, bad guys strike out at whatever happens to be in the way. The good support the status quo, unless the status quo is itself bad (we’ll get back to that in a bit); bad guys rock the boat. Similarly, one could make the case that making the first move in the conflict is a sign of ambition, and ambition is not often treated well in fictitious characters.

What it really boils down to, though, is quite simple. Striking out at someone who’s minding their own business and did not offer any sort of provocation is not good. Therefore, heroes (or at least, ones meant to keep the audience’s sympathy) don’t do it—there needs to be something that their opponent did to set them off. Granted, that something isn’t always on screen: you have some, usually in the form of almost invariably malevolent creatures, who can start it just by existing in the wrong place, and others who simply made their first move in the backstory rather than onstage (in which case the story begins when the heroes can actually do something). Retribution past what is immediately necessary also seems to be the hallmark of the antagonist; the hero solves the problem, minimizes the chances that the problem will repeat itself and calls it a day, while the villain solves the problem (usually by destroying its source), looks at anything that might remotely present a similar problem, and preemptively strikes against that as well.

There are, on the other hand, a few exceptions. If the character isn’t in conflict with another character, but just pursuing a goal or dealing with complicated good fortune or the like, there’s no wronged party being made the first move on: thus making the first move isn’t a bad thing. This also goes for situations in which the character is on an unrelated mission but just happens to blunder into the villains’ plans. And, of course, there’s what happens when the hero sets the entire story off by screwing something up; situations like this pretty much mandate the hero playing white.

Some people might also be somewhat hesitant to have the hero make the first move in stories in which the villain mostly controls the environment (dystopian fiction comes to mind). In cases like this, a first move might end up being more defensive than offensive, shuffling a potentially endangered character from one place to another or shoring up a weak point. It still gets people moving, but doesn’t reek of unprovoked assault.

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