If you grew up watching the prime time soaps in the 80’s or the Aaron Spelling funfests in the 90’s (Oh don’t pretend like you didn’t love Melrose and 90210) you know that nothing could peek your interest and get everybody talking like the big betrayal. When a character we love decided to give up the goody two-shoes image and let the bad boy or bad girl inside run amuck for a season or two.
There may be no better place than professional wrestling to show how to turn a good guy bad. The heel turn, as us rasslin’ fans like to call it can come for a variety of reasons, some work really well, and some don’t work at all. While wrestling may not always get the recognition it deserves as a legitimate form of entertainment, it is just that. And if we look past the reputation and some of the more…questionable…aspects of it, all writers can learn a little bit more about writing from wrestling.
So with that in mind, here is how you can successfully turn a good guy bad, based on what I’ve learned from watching pro-wrestling for over thirty years.
Shock the audience
A reader or viewer loves to be surprised. When that “holy cow” moment hits and all you can do is gasp…that’s when you know the magic is made. Way back when, in 1996, when two former WWF/E wrestlers “invaded” TNT’s WCW and laid out the promotion’s top stars, Hulk Hogan made his triumphant return to save the day. Only he joined the bad guys instead. Not only did he join the bad guys, but he told the fans to “Stick it” and caused a near-riot while the ring filled up with garbage. I kind of choke up a little remembering how well the scene was executed. No one predicted it and it not only came off flawlessly, but it’s a moment that completely changed the way pro-wrestling is presented today, even twenty years later.
…but still give them clues
So while no one saw the Hogan turn coming, in hindsight, it made perfect sense. And that’s what made it work so well. Hogan was still viewed as a “WWF” guy. His character was written the same way in WCW that it had been written in WWF. So while the writers in WCW were feeding their former top guy to Mr. Say Your Prayer and Take Your Vitamins, the fans were starting to get tired of it, and as the novelty of Hogan in WCW started to wear off, the increasing number of boos were starting to show up on TV. In response, he was pulled off TV for a little while to hopefully make him seem fresh again. At the same time, the storyline of two of the WWF’s biggest stars invading WCW had begun. The fact that Hogan was getting booed and was still a “WWF” guy in the eyes of the fans, made his heel turn, while unexpected, seem completely logical.
Stay consistent to the character
This one was a little more difficult to do with Hogan because as a good guy for over ten years, his gimmick was that he’d get beat down to where he was almost defeated, but then channel the energy of the fans to become nearly invincible and defeat his opponent. I remember my friends and me wondering how he’d be able to realistically lose (in wrestling the bad guys always lose in the end) since he had been “invincible” for so many years. The answer was the obvious one. As soon as he became a bad guy, he could no longer feed of the audience to gain his invincibility, so he just turned to breaking the rules like all good bad guys instead. I know that may sound dumb, but it actually made sense and was consistent with his character.
Give them a realistic motivation
Motivation. You can’t have a good guy just randomly decide to turn evil. It won’t work with the audience. Sadly many of the heel turns in today’s WWE have no real reasoning behind them. But the ones that do have a real reason work. And work big. To go back to Hogan, he clearly explained his motivation the night he turned. He got sick of hearing the boos in the audience and felt that they had turned on him. So when his friends from “up north” (which was more or less code for WWF) came along he decided to join them.
Outside of wrestling, this may be the most import part of a heel turn. A character needs to have a reason to turn his back on his original moral code. That reason could be just about anything, as long as it involves a person, or other noun, that the character holds dear.
Don’t insult the audience
Finally, when writing a turn from good to bad, make sure you’re not insulting the audience. And by that, I mean you need to have a good reason for turning the character, and it needs to be obvious to the reader in hindsight. If the turn seems unrealistic, if the character has no real reason to break his moral code, or if you simply do it for shock value with no plan for how it affects the rest of the story, then just don’t do it.
And there you have it. Wrestling ain’t always Shakespeare, as the kids say, but when it’s done right, it can be just as literary as anything else you see on the big screen, the small screen, or in between the pages.
So thanks for bearing with another wrestling-related post. And thanks for your continued support of the site.
If you’ve got any examples of how watching wrestling has influenced your own writing, leave a comment. I’d love to hear it!