Concepts Are Cheap

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

♫Justice is what he claims to fight for, but it's a mystery - what does this 'justice' mean? He hasn't got a clue!♫

Space Hunt Drake Redcrest's Theme (Vocal Version, English), Chibi-Robo!

Can't think of a convincing personal motivation for your hero, no problem. There are lots of useful words out there. Useful words like 'freedom' or 'justice' or 'peace' or 'mankind'! Or 'love'! Or 'hope'! Or 'good'! Yeah!

"Freedom" stirs up lots of warm fuzzy feelings in people. Better yet, any villains who oppose our freedom-loving hero must be, by definition, evil. Better than that, freedom is an abstract. If nothing specific is added, a reader can fill in the blank with whatever they want.

Concepts Are Cheap is the natural result of writers stuffing their narratives with lots of glossy one-size-fits-all words, rather than inventing motivations which emerge organically from the character's experiences. Like a cheap meal, it leaves you empty two hours after you've finished the work. Sure, the hero might have just told the villain that 'freedom' is better than 'tyranny' and then struck him with his laser sword, thus (violently) winning 'peace' for all 'mankind'. But why? Why did he care? Why should we care?

And would anyone but a Card-Carrying Villain say that tyranny is better than freedom?

Values Dissonance can hit with some of these concepts. For Science! was a cheap concept in The Fifties (positive or negative, depending on the sanity of the scientist).

Compare Meaningless Meaningful Words, For Great Justice.

Contrast Justice Will Prevail.

Unrelated to High Concept.

Examples of Concepts Are Cheap include:

Anime and Manga

  • Mobile Suit Gundam 00 skillfully uses this trope as a plot point. It turns out that the point of Celestial Being sending hundreds of people home in bodybags in the name of "peace" was to create a peace by making themselves the entire world's common enemy.
  • One problem with Gundam Seed Destiny. On one hand, one (possible) protagonist has the Destiny Gundam. And his opponents are piloting machines with the names Freedom and Justice.

Comic Books

  • Back in the day Superman spent a lot of time demolishing substandard ghetto housing, exposing political corruption and standing up for the rights of immigrants and the little guy. He was a New Deal superhero! But politics is bad for sales - even corrupt politicians buy comic books, after all. So Superman started to fight for the magnificent generality of 'truth, justice and the American way', and so long as he restrains himself to hitting supervillains in the jaw, it doesn't matter. No two people can agree on what Superman 'really stands for' anymore, but they all agree it's very heroic. "The American way" part is also often dropped in modern stories, although it's usually only Americans who complain about this.
    • Originally Superman fought for truth and justice and was in a constant battle against evil. The Truth, Justice and the American Way part came in in the 40s for the radio program and it was more of an anti Nazi thing than an anti commie thing. Though it definitely became anti communist.
    • Even his powers and costume were different during the early years from the his established identity. That doesn't make it any more sensible to deviate radically from what the character has been for most of seven decades.
  • Spider-Man fights crime for the grand glorious cause of Responsibility: he has the power to do it, so he has to do it. (It does spin out of his Origin Story, but still.) This may mean that he was doomed to become a superhero no matter what: he was introduced as a young genius almost on par with the other super scientists of the time like Hank Pym, Reed Richards and Tony Stark. Thus, he had great power, and thus, great responsibility.
    • Not too long ago (right after the above happened) during a team up, Stark calls out Peter for wasting his genius. Peter retorts that he can't exploit it because then his villains will be able to come after his loved ones. He's saying this while standing in the ruins of Stark's company which was destroyed by a super-villain to get back at Stark, which Stark chose to allow in order to save his employees. So you can see Peter's point.
  • Inverted by the morally gray characters of Alan Moore. V (V for Vendetta) not only fights for "freedom", but puts into practice. In Watchmen, Rorschach and Ozymandias, in very different ways and results, devote their entire lives to their ideals, at the cost of distancing themselves from the morality (and, in Rorschach's case, hygiene standards) of everyday folk. Ozymandias firmly believes that Utopia Justifies the Means and that a few million deaths to prevent the rest of the global population from dying is an acceptable sacrifice, while Rorschach believes that not even Utopia justifies the means, and that global extinction under the truth is better than peace through a lie.
  • Periodically, Captain America will become disillusioned when he realizes that even he doesn't really know what representing "America" really means. Usually when a Republican's in office.
  • The Justice League villain Prometheus was designed as a sort of reverse Batman, whose parents were Bonnie and Clyde-like criminals gunned down by the police before his eyes. Why did he take on the Justice League? Because his parents death instilled in him a deep and abiding hatred of justice. It's entirely possible it was meant to be as trite as it sounds, but most writers (and readers) don't treat it that way.
    • Spinning off from Prometheus comes the mini-series "Cry for Justice" where, suddenly, every single major character becomes this. They spend the entire series demanding "justice" without ever bothering to define what it means or how it's different from what the other heroes are already doing. Their actions are also closer to that of another concept altogether.


  • The Star Wars prequels abused this a lot, which might be forgiveable in a free-wheeling Space Opera story, except that they tried to hang a lot important plot points off it too. Anakin is introduced as a slave: we don't see his performing any slave duties (working in a shop could just be his job for how he's treated), or the effects of slavery on him, or any motivations as a result of his experience, but it earns the tyke sympathy points. Obi-Wan declares his loyalty not to any political party or leader, but to 'democracy'. The Sith are dangerous moral relativists, except when they're rigid moral absolutists, but in the end they only seem to be whatever term the story can hang off them to make then eeeevil. It also goes to show you that a lot of fantasy and Space Opera backstories do not make sense.
    • It's even worse when you consider the Narm line from Episode III during the Anakin/Obi-Wan: "Anakin, the Chancellor is evil!" "From my point of view the Jedi are evil!" which is just randomly throwing moral relativism in there for some extra drama, not because it actually fit (since there wasn't an indication Anakin actually thought that before, aside from being ticked at how the council treated him).
  • Evita had a bit of this. Late in the film, when Eva is dying, her and her fascist dictator husband Juan start talking about how their "dream" may never come to pass. It's never really revealed what this dream was supposed to be, unless it turns out it was "Enjoy and abuse the Presidential office"(in which case, Mission Accomplished).
  • The films The Patriot (with Mel Gibson, not Steven Segal) and King Arthur (2004) threw the word "freedom" around, which just made the weak scripts all the more apparent. Even Braveheart nearly fell into this, were it not for at least a couple of lines giving context they were fighting for ("beg forgiveness for a hundred years of theft, rape, and murder"[1]). Although movie-Wallace's crusade just started out as an act of personal revenge against the man who killed his wife, then somehow morphed into "Freedom for Scotland".
    • Contrast the play and film 1776, which made sure that not only did we know what kind of freedom the founding fathers sought, but that we even knew what it meant to them individually.
  • One of the worst offenders has to be Christian in Moulin Rouge, who seems to basically think that because he and Satine believe in Freedom and Art and Love, the universe has to bend around them and everyone is obliged to give them stuff for free. Neither does it ever seem to occur to him that these concepts aren't always compatible with each other, such as Art having to make a sacrifice for Love or Satine being free to love someone other than him.
    • Despite the movie celebrating these concepts, it does end with Satine dead and Christian living as a depressed, heavy-drinking, penniless and struggling writer, which is pretty much what his father warned him would happen if he ran off to Paris. You know, his unpleasant father he was trying to escape.
  • Patrick Bateman in The Film of the Book American Psycho gives a monologue on the important problems that we need to face, eventually dissolving into a bunch of vacuous rhetoric. Naturally, he doesn't actually care about these things, so his speech is just a huge Lampshade hung on the use of this trope.

Bateman: There's a lot more important problems than Sri Lanka to worry about. We have to end apartheid for one, slow down the nuclear arms race, stop terrorism and end world hunger. We have to provide food and shelter for the homeless and oppose racial discrimination and promote civil rights, while also promoting equal rights for women. We have to encourage a return to traditional moral values. But most importantly we have to promote general social concern, and less materialism.

  • Parodied in Megamind with the "You can't trap justice..." riff.
  • Batman usually fights for an ill defined "Justice" like many of his contemporaries but in the Dark Knight Trilogy much of the plot is about Bruce exploring, discovering and refining his concept of justice and his boundaries (for example, Lucius challenges him on his decision to implement an nigh-omnipresent security system throughout Gotham and Bruce decides to retire it after the current crisis.)


  • Remarked on in Interesting Times when Rincewind explains why he doesn't support "worthy causes".
    • Also see Night Watch, wherein a rant by Sir Samuel results in the rebels fighting for truth, justice, freedom, reasonably-priced love...and a hard-boiled egg. The egg, at least, can be had by morning.
  • Don Quixote is a deconstruction of this trope: In the first part of the novel, he wants to be an Knight Errant For Great Justice. In reality, he is The Hedonist and all his efforts are really guided to live his dreams, but he doesn't accept it because he is an Hypocrite . In the second part of the novel, his motivation changes For Happiness. But this time Don Quixote is an honest man that must admit at the end of the novel that his efforts didn’t help anyone and her Chivalric Romance dreams were shallow.
  • Discussed in Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel. Robophobic detective Elijah Bailey scoffs at the notion that law-enforcement robot R. Daneel Olivaw has a "justice circuit," saying that justice is too abstract a concept to be programmed into a robot. When asked to define justice, Daneel says "That which exists when all laws are enforced." While that would not be any human's concept of justice, it is perfectly adequate for a law-enforcement robot to function.

Live-Action TV

  • In the BBC series Robin Hood, the main character would often use King Richard as his rallying cry. This posed problems within the context of the show, which because of its modern PC sensibilities, took a negative stance against the Crusades. Therefore, the storylines ran on an odd paradox: King Richard was good, but his actions were bad. Many of the storylines revolved around trying to bring King Richard home, yet when the outlaws travel all the way to the Holy Land, Richard is revealed to be a rather weak, misguided King, raising questions as to why Robin was so slavishly devoted to him in the first place. The King even tries to have Robin and the gang executed, but by season three, everyone has reverted back to the mind-set of King Richard = good, peace, justice.
  • Mohinder's voice-overs at the beginning of each episode of Heroes can be summed up thusly: "Destiny, blah, blah, fate, blah, blah, life and all its mysteries, blah."

Tabletop Games

  • In Dungeons & Dragons priests have different levels of restrictions, ending in this.
    1. "Common" clerics: they are versatile, usually serve a deity and associated church in many roles, which includes supporting allies of that deity - and have those allied powers grant them something in return. They aren't required to jump through too many hoops, but it would not do to offend any of those allies, or give mortals a bad impression, so clerics have to be careful.
    2. What AD&D2 calls "specialty priests": serving one specific deity and doing work thereof. They don't care quite that much about public relations in general, but are watched more closely by their patron. Though for them it's less about limitations and more about dedication.
    3. Pantheon or polygot (in Spelljammer terms) priests. They mostly act outside the main areas of influence and preach for the whole team - praising one can implicitly glorify or at least popularize his Worthy Opponent, let alone allies. If you tell myths e.g. about Odin, you got to mention Loki, and vice versa. Naturally, most pantheons are varied enough to have relatively few "absolute" restrictions; the main problem is being disliked by mainstream priests for refusal to take sides. They are mostly active outside the centers of worship.
    4. Priests who devote themselves to ideals - some broad concepts rather than a deity. There are even priests dedicated to atheism! This allows to act pretty much however one wants as long it can be said to not violate the concept rather than worry about how his or her patron deity feels. The main drawbacks usually are having little or no followers or hierarchy backing them, no one to "watch over" them, and rituals that rely on contact with one's deity or servants thereof are either unavailable, tricky or risky (one may apply to "whoever this may concern", but who or what will answer this time?). For planewalking priests, there's also lack of power keys - if some magic doesn't work on this plane, tough luck, ideas don't package bits of their power and hand over to their champions. Granted, they also don't hand out missions on inimical planes in the first place.
    • Of course, views of some deities can be just as broad as those of a patronless cleric. The extreme case are Elemental Lords, unconcerned with mortal affairs in general - for example, Kossuth simply doesn't care whether a priest praises him as the god of hearth or as the god of fiery destruction. Implications of this were explored, too - becoming their worshipers is an attractive option for those detached from people (sometimes to the point of "crazy hermit" type or more overt insanity) or those who are impressed with raw power and don't get along with restrictions of available gods proper - any of them.
      • In Al-Qadim, the "cold gods of elements" are generally disliked ("Aye, they are powerful. But not even genies of their elements worship them."), on to of not being participants of the "Enlightened" compact. A few followers crop up here and there, but those usually are either elementalists (already considered dangerously obsessive) or mad visionaries and/or adherents of practices generally held objectionable - which doesn't improve the reputation of Elemental Lords' worship.
      • In Forgotten Realms mainland elemental faiths are generally accepted, but "go by the wayside", with a few exceptions.
        • Kossuth became quite popular in Thay after his servants helped to kick out the salamanders Red Wizards summoned and cheated. Priests of Kossuth are the only ones beside Red Wizards allowed to wear red in Thay (though they are distinct, due to their holy symbols and robes being all colors of fire). In this case, neutrality is an asset, since it's one of the least malicious and most widely accepted powers of those venerated in Thay: one needs sivine magic now and then, but Red Wizards are already disliked enough, giving extra cause for organized opposition would be very counterproductive for their business. Traveling with a priest of e.g. Bane is asking for troubles in most places, but if local clergy sees a priest of Kossuth, they'll usually shrug or wince at most, or even say "oh, at least these aren't as bad as Netherese were".

Video Games

  • Fallout 3 gives us the DJ Three Dog who spouts off fighting the good fight while simultaneously being really really vague on what the good fight was.
    • In the DC Wasteland, the only real fight is survival. That is, until you meet the Enclave (he has a few choice words on that subject, too).
  • This is enormously subverted in Fate/stay night, as the protagonist's dream is to become a superhero who can save everybody. He is confronted about the flaws of this in the Unlimited Blade Works route by Archer, who is his future self who followed this ideal to the bitter end and gained nothing in return but betrayal, misery, and disillusionment. He points out that the protagonist's ideal of being a hero is too vague; there is no reason for it, no feasible plan to accomplish it, and that it is not even his own ideal - only sacrifice and more conflict can result from it. There is nothing in that ideal, as it is one that can only save everybody in his sight - but as one cannot look at oneself, it can't even let him save himself in the end. Angst and turmoil all 'round in this one.
  • City of Heroes and its sister game, City of Villains, love seeding Heroes and Villains with motivations no thicker than 'Justice' or 'Villainy', and sometimes gleefully rolls characters around in the stuff. With a few exceptions, the entire Longbow faction is essentially Democracy! The Malta Group want you to Beware the Superman and reinstate the Super Registration Act! The Crey Corporation is Capitalism! The Regulators, like Back Alley Brawler, say Drugs Are Bad, m'kay! Positron and Vahzilok are For Science!!
    • Eventually subverted by a bunch of different characters, albeit mostly in the supplemental material. They also Lampshade this mercilessly.
  • Parodied in Grand Theft Auto III on the Chatterbox radio station. A guy by the name of "Jeff" calls in, advertising a rally at Liberty City Park. However, when the show's host asks what the rally's actually about, Jeff responds with an escalation of otherwise meaningless phrases and appeals, including "for justice" "for the future", and "for hope". The host continues asking, only to be met with more cheap concepts and pleas for attendance, until it turns out the guy doesn't know what it's about.
  • Played with in Wild ARMs 3. Idealist Virginia is constantly harassed by Goldfish Poop Gang leader Maya Schroedinger, who demands to know why she keeps traveling and fighting. Although Maya ostensibly is only motivated by greed and jewels, in the end she claims that that ideal also includes the planet she lives on - a blue-green jewel.
    • Similarly, in the original Wild ARMs 1, Calamity Jane refuses to accept that Cecelia and friends are fighting for some vague "save the world" mishmash and demands they solidify their reasons.
  • Metal Wolf Chaos has propaganda broadcasts from the Policy Promotion Department, making pronouncements like "A heart of Justice is a heart that loves Freedom." This is when they're not promising to execute everyone who's even tangentially connected to Metal Wolf.
  • Abraham Reyes from Red Dead Redemption gives speeches that have him throwing around rabble-rousing buzzwords such as "Freedom" and "For the people!" And while the people drink it up, it's obvious to Marston and the player that he's nothing more than a self-important blowhard. You only get to see how fake he really is in the epilogue, when a newspaper blurb spells out to you that he's become a dictator.
  • Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is a subversion that may or may not be intentional. The Boss uses the word "loyalty" several times in the game to mean very different things. The number of times she changes her mind about what loyalty is boggles the mind.
    • Which she probably did on purpose to make Snake believe she really went quite crazy and actually believes that siding with Volgin is the right thing to do.
  • While "heart", "light", and "darkness" have always been main concepts in the Kingdom Hearts series, Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep spams them throughout the script so often theat they start to lose their meaning as time goes on.
  • Spoofed on Chibi-Robo! with Space Hunter Drake Redcrest, who claims to fight for justice, then admits he doesn't really know what it means. It even pops up in the vocal version of his theme song.

Western Animation

  • The Tick more-or-less lampshades this trope. "Let's hang ten for Justice!"
  • The Fairly OddParents: The Crimson Chin also uses "Justice!" as his vague but enthusiastic rallying cry.
  • Batman: The Brave and the Bold‍'‍s version of Batman also loves making pithy one-liners about "justice". This usually fits the show's tone, though it was rather jarring in the "Tornado Tyrant" episode where Red Tornado tried to explain good and evil to his son, when he could have just said "Evil people like stealing trucks and talking about crime, good people like punching those people and talking about justice, the end."

Real Life

  • More politicians than not, if not all politicians. It doesn't matter whether you're talking to the National Rifle Association or Handgun Control Inc, the American Civil Liberties Union or an attorney general, everyone is for the protection of rights and has no problem with reasonable regulation. Those phrases means exactly nothing.
    • Of course, it is possible to figure out politicians are all about by looking at what, specifically, they are planning to do if they get elected - and if you don't trust them to be honest about that, you can at least look at their track record so far. They just count (with some justification) on most voters not looking any deeper than those meaningless but nice-sounding sound bites...
    • In fact, 99% of the time you can just skip right to the track record, as what they're "planning to" do has little or no correlation with what they actually do.
    • Cheap concepts have been used to justify anything and everything - from mass murder to children's rights to efficient sewage disposal - since the dawn of politics. "Freedom" and "justice" were already soundbites in the Roman Republic, over 2000 years ago. Roman writers noticed and discussed it, making this trope Older Than Feudalism.
  • While the invocation of "freedom", "justice" and "liberty" tend to be Americans' preference, European, politicians tend to make more understated speeches: they usually don't go further than "social equality", "citizenship", and "the republic" in the worst case (but that's from French Persident Sarkozy's administration, and that guy is very much into "American" methods). However, when talking about other countries, "democracy" and "human rights" pop up very frequently. There was a fad with "change" to try to copy Obama's vibe, but it settled very quickly.
    • In Britain the current concepts are fairness and progressiveness. Every policy of the Tory party in government is fair and progressive. Every policy of the Labour party in opposition is fair and progressive. The only way to tell them apart is that the Tories will occasionally throw in "justice" for good measure.
  • During the bloody period of The French Revolution, the phrase 'for the people!' or 'for France!' was used to justify repression, mass murder, and ill-thought out wars that sent France's economy down the toilet.
  • John Stuart Mill supported freedom. G.W.F. Hegel supported Freedom. What is meant by freedom in each case is VERY different from the other. This sometimes leads to leads to political Blue and Orange Morality between the two factions.
  • Many who oppose Obama contend that his famous slogans of "Hope" and "Change" and "Yes We Can" were a little too vague.
  • Quite common for terrorist organisations and freedom fighters. Some cases are arguable, but others couldn't be more blatant.
    • A good example would be the infamous Revolutionary United Front or RUF, who fought against the government of Sierra Leone. Really, that's pretty much all there is to know about their Agenda. How did they try to do this? By killing villagers, raping women and amputating the limbs of their victims to keep them from voting.
  • Less Wrong has an article on this trope as it appears in politics, using "democratic" as a specific example.
  • If the documentary Michael Jackson's This Is It is anything to go by "It's all for love" was a mantra of his while he was working on his concert comeback, but what he specifically meant by that is never explained.
  1. The thirteenth century was a fairly peaceful one for Anglo-Scots relations; shortly prior to the war, there had even been talks of uniting the two countries via royal marriage- 300 years before James VI/I. A few unfortunate deaths in the Scottish royal family changed that, though.