The straw man argument is where somebody tries to prove their point by attacking a twisted or exaggerated version of their opponents proposition.
Stories are often an exploration of a certain idea and the pros and cons of that idea – the story’s theme. It’s quite possible for a story to put up straw men as part of that theme. I call that straw man theming. I feel that’s bad form and a type of writing smell.
What is it?
The villain in a story is often somebody who has a world view that is diametrically opposite to that of the writer. That’s fine.
It is, however, not fine to make the villain into a psychotic killer or violent rapist without any other reason than their political convictions.
This can be a difficult line to walk, because a villain should logically have strong convictions and negative traits – they’re the villain, after all. But unless they are completely bonkers, they should be logically consistent. If a writer connects the negative traits of a villain to their ideology without strong arguments to justify this for themselves, they are on a slippery slope with the straw man at the bottom.
Another way to slide a straw man into a story is by having characters in a story adhere to a certain viewpoint and then have a string of negative ‘consequences’ happen to those characters without adequately explaining why this would be the result of their viewpoint.
Note that villains are actually far more compelling and far more scary if they are not straw men or straw women. An over-the-top unbelievable villain is less engaging than a reasonable one with ideas that are wrong but believable.
Straw man theming examples
In The Girl who Played with Fire and its sequel The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Stieg Larsson clearly has it in for Nazi sentiments in Sweden and its corruption of the government (yeah, the sequels to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Of course, the main villain is not just a Nazi, he’s also a human trafficker, rapist, wife beater, and all-around psychopath. I’m very much against fascism, racism, and sexism, but in these two books they are all tied together in a way that the bad guys become caricature Nazis. Larsson is deliberately setting up a straw man to fill out his anti-fascism theme.
Much as Nazis are portrayed in a lot of other books and movies, by the way. Again, I’m in no way a Nazi-sympathizer, but the difference between Nazi soldiers in World War II and US soldiers in Iraq (running camps like Abu Ghraib) is not as big as we sometimes want to believe. Most nazis were people in a bad situation, and yes, very wrong, but we’ve straw-manned them so much that invoking Nazis or World War II is a way to kill all reasonable discussion. One of the reasons I loved Inglorious Bastards is that this movie gives a far more balanced view of things, while still making the underlying point that fascism is terrible.
One writer who also springs to my mind is Terry Goodkind. I stopped reading the Sword of Truth series after the eight book in the series, Naked Empire, because his books are nothing but soap boxes for Goodkind’s Libertarian agenda. Full disclosure here, I’m not a fan of Libertarianism or neo-liberalism. Although, I think the point stands regardless. In Naked Empire there’s an entire tribe of people who have embraced pacifism. This tribe of people has -as a result- seen a steady decline in intelligence, art, technology, and even morals, up to a point where they are meekly enslaved by the first bad guy that comes along. They are a straw man for Goodkind’s opposition to pacifism, and his hatred for those protesting the US war in Iraq.
How to fix it
Represent your villain’s point of view fairly. This not only improves your story by making your villains more believable, but it also makes your theme stronger. It’s easy to counter a straw man, it’s harder to counter a valid argument.
Of course, this is easier than it sounds. The trick is to make each step that the villain takes be reasonable to them. Remember, the villain is the hero of their own story. They believe their actions are justified, inevitable, or right. Some of the most scary villains are those that are truly dedicated to their cause.
Another option is to make sure the bad guys are not just bad. This is exactly what Inglorious Bastards did with some of the Nazis, by having them celebrate the birth of an officer’s son. It’s where Terry Goodkind screwed up, by making the ‘bad’ guys whiny losers that have nothing going for them.
In an ode to Mr. T: Treat your villain right. Your theme, if it’s as strong as you want others to believe, can take the heat.