Toward the end of Return of the Jedi, Luke is hiding from Darth Vader in the Emperor’s throne room. Vader is trying to draw him out (and turn him to the Dark Side), without much success. Then Vader utters this line:
…Sister. So, you have a twin sister. […] If you will not turn to the Dark Side, then perhaps she will.
Instantly, Luke transforms. His fear kindles to rage. He cries out, rushes at Vader, rains down blow after blow with his lightsaber. Soon Vader’s lying on the floor, badly wounded, and Luke’s standing over him, weapon in hand, seething with fury. He’s given in – briefly – to the Dark Side.
What happened there? Simple. Vader pressed Luke’s crazy button.
Pressing a crazy button generally means harming or threatening a loved one, but not just any loved one will do. The love typically has to be deep, protective, borderline-obsessive. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow loves a lot of people – Buffy, Xander, Giles, Dawn, Oz, Joyce – and she’d be very upset if any of them got hurt. But only Tara is her crazy button.
(Incidentally, the Buffyverse has an awful lot of crazy buttons. Oz’s button is Willow, Giles’s is Jenny, Wesley’s is Fred, and Buffy’s is Dawn.)
Aang, the hero of Avatar: The Last Airbender, is an interesting case. For him, the “crazy” triggers a physical transformation: glowing eyes, deep voice, near-godlike power. There’s an episode where someone provokes this state deliberately, by threatening Katara, the girl he loves. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well.
By the way, the loved one in these scenarios seems to be female about 80% of the time. You can draw your own conclusions about the significance of that.
It doesn’t have to be a person, though. Another time, Aang’s set off by someone hurting Appa, his flying sky bison. Species doesn’t matter, as long as the bond is there.
The “loved one” can even be an entire people or civilization, not just an individual. Tolkien gives us a stunning example in The Silmarillion:
Then Fingolfin beheld (as it seemed to him) the utter ruin of the Noldor, and the defeat beyond redress of all their houses; and filled with wrath and despair he mounted Rochallor his great horse and rode forth alone, and none might restrain him. He passed over Dor-nu-Fauglith like a wind amid the dust, and all that beheld his onset fled in amaze, thinking Oromë himself was come; for a great madness of rage was upon him, so that his eyes shone like the eyes of the Valar. Thus he came alone to Angband’s gates, and he sounded his horn, and smote once upon the brazen doors, and challenged Morgoth to come forth to single combat. And Morgoth came.
But a crazy button doesn’t have to be about love. Instead it can be about hatred of a specific foe, if the feeling is strong enough. In Star Trek: First Contact, Picard’s crazy button is the Borg. There, unlike the examples above, it’s a slow-burning crazy, starting out cold and only getting hot toward the end. But the crazy is there.
As you can tell, crazy buttons fascinate me. I love watching them get pressed (in fiction, I mean).
I love that anybody can have one, no matter how meek or gentle they might otherwise be. I love how shockingly fast they can work. I love the oh-shit moment, right after the trigger but before the explosion, when you know things are about to get real. (Buffy actually has an episode that ends at precisely that moment, holding back the fallout till the next episode. Cliffhangers don’t get much better.)
Most of all, I love how complete and dramatic the transformation can be: how friendship, alliances, fear, ethics, and restraint are all stripped away, how the character’s whole universe shrinks to a single point, white-hot and needle-sharp. Denzel Washington expresses this perfectly in a trailer for John Q. There, his crazy button is the entire premise for the movie: his son will die without an operation, but the hospital won’t perform it, so he takes the building hostage. A police negotiator tries to convince him to surrender, outlining the consequences if he refuses. His response:
You’re not hearing me, Frank! My son is sick! That’s it! There’s nothing else. End of story.
What the negotiator fails to understand is that John is in crazy mode. No consequences are important. Nothing else is even a factor.
I love it when the gloves come off, when good guys go bad, when nice girls turn dark. Often it ends badly for everyone, even the one that the hero’s trying to protect. But it makes for a hell of a story.
Oh, yes, this can be very powerful. I remember one of Alan Moore’s Superman stories where all of Superman’s foes are attacking him at once, all more powerful and vicious than ever before, and he takes all his friends to his Fortress of Solitude for protection. Lana Lang gets killed fighting one of the bad guys, and Supes, who’s been pretty cool about this until now, trying to figure out why this is happening, just loses it (“You hurt LANA!! “).
Not a usual move for him, of course, but she was his high school sweetheart.
Superman is an especially good character for this, because he’s really, really self-controlled, but really, really powerful.