In Defense of Good Characters
Ruth and I are always talking about stories, our own and other people’s–what we like, what bothers us, what could be done better, what we wish we saw more often. I thought I’d transform some of these conversations into blog posts, to get them clear in my own mind and to share them too. The first thing I’ve chosen to do is be a bit of an apologist for the good characters in stories.
I’m not thinking good as in the silly Dungeons and Dragons alignment system, which I’ve never liked. Even though I’ve run a bunch of games in that system, it still gets on my nerves. I mean, the concept that worshiping something blatantly labeled as EVIL would ever be a valid religious choice in a functioning society . . .
But that’s a topic for another day. I’m not even really talking about good characters versus evil characters here, because rarely does a truly evil-intentioned character end up as the main focus of a story, and if he does, it’s liable to be a wild, brief, tragic ride. Not that it can’t be fun to watch a villainous protagonist go—Light from Death Note comes to mind. But you just can’t get attached to them.
I’m thinking more of the contrast between the shady anti-hero with a checkered past and the virtuous hero who has always tried to do the right thing. Anti-heros are fun. I’ve been known to write one, from time to time. But they tend to get all the praise and the limelight. Girls like the bad boy. And where does this leave our poor hero? How can he compete with his darker-toned rival? A strong moral compass, a selfless streak, and a sometimes plodding determination just aren’t as badass as casually shooting the hostage, joining the bad guys only to betray them later, and walking away from explosions without ever looking back.
Criticisms of heroic, honestly good characters abound. They’re weak. They’re too bland, too predictable, too boring. (I think there’s a TV trope for that.) They’re Mary Sues or Marty Stus, unrealistic and without flaws. They’ve just been overdone in literature and film, and it’s time to move on. They’re not really virtuous at all, but are bigots or chauvinists or zealots trying to push their own ideals on everyone else. And most damning of all, they can’t carry a good story because the drama of fall and redemption, of seeing a dark and broken person come round right in the end, is just so much more thrilling than watching someone who was right all along.
I think that most of these criticisms might be valid about certain good characters, especially poorly written or poorly characterized ones, but that they’re not valid about all good characters all the time. I think a well-written good character has just as much chance of being compelling as a well-written edgy character. It might be easier for an author to go with the edgy character, but it’s worth it to take the more difficult route. I wish there were more films, books, and comics with strong, compelling characters who were honestly good.
So let me get at each of these criticisms, one by one.
1. Good is weak.
Sure, there are plenty of nice female characters in anime who are weak and do nothing but provide moral support and cry. I want to smack them for being such poor examples of morality. It’s actually very hard to be a selfless, moral person who stands up for what she believes in, whether in this world or another. Why aren’t there more Mother Theresas? Because it’s not easy. The strength of a good person might be a quiet strength. It might not look badass. But it’ll go deep, and that kind of person isn’t going to just fold and fail.
2. Good is boring.
Well, it could be, if our good character was a very dull person. But bad could be just as dull. Image a book whose protagonist was a corrupt city official skimming money out of the coffers of, say, the City Parking Authority. I once sent my roleplaying game party through a portal into Hell—where they had to fill out a lot of paperwork. No one sort of person really has the corner on dull.
Good may be somewhat predictable. Villains often use this to their advantage. “Ah-hah, I knew you would come to rescue the hostages. And now you have fallen into my evil trap!” But who would the selfless hero be if she didn’t show up? That’s part of what makes the good person so endearing. She’s dependable. The sort of person you’d want watching your back. If she were piloting a giant robot, you’d jump right off the top of Tokyo Tower with no worries, because you’d know she would fly over and catch you.
3. Good has no flaws.
This is why a lot of people hate Superman. He can do everything and he’s always perfect. But even he has that one weakness, and the better writers who’ve dealt with him emphasize his humanity (yes, aliens can be human too). Flawless people don’t work very well in stories, because stories are about conflict, and not all conflict can be external. People who are flawed, and who sometimes make mistakes because of their flaws, are more interesting than the perfect.
So how can someone be flawed and still be good? I think most of it is in the intent. The morally upright hero may be misled, may make errors in judgment, may sometimes do the wrong thing for the right reasons. But this is a kid, or a man, or a sentient rock or whatever, with his heart in the right place. He’ll never intend evil. And if he finds that he’s been mistaken, that his flaws have gotten in the way of the mission or been detrimental to his friends, he’ll go out of his way to put it right. Honestly good heroes tend to be men, or rocks, of principled action.
But to get back to the notion of Superman, it’s really the humanity of the good character that keeps him from being insufferable. Take John Crichton from Farscape. He’s a good man, by my definition of the word. He says that all he wants to do is find a way home, but when it comes down to it he won’t do the wrong thing or betray his companions in order to get there. When he’s given an amazing power, he is determined not to let it be used as a weapon, and he goes to literally painful lengths to keep it from being so used. Despite this, John’s about as far from a Marty Stu as they come. He uses Earth jargon none of his alien friends understand, he fails at a lot of the things they’re good at, and he often looks stupid—a man with some flaws and drawbacks, and we can sympathize.
4. Good is overdone.
This one is easy to answer. Maybe once it was true, back in the four-color days, but it isn’t now. I had a hard time thinking of good characters to talk about in this post. It was easy to remember lots of rather amoral likable bastards.
5. Good is bigoted.
It’s probably people who’ve been burned by bigots who believe this. Personally, I don’t think the overzealous fit very well into the good category. When I write or read about a good character, I want her to stand up for her beliefs and try to improve the world, but I also want her to love others.
I think the best example of this is Cordelia Naismith from Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigen series. Cordelia is from Beta Colony, where the prevailing virtues are democracy, freedom of information, sexual openness, and pacifism. She ends up married to a soldier from the planet of Barrayar which is militaristic, stratified by class, morally conservative, and atheistic. Cordelia doesn’t agree with the Barrayaran way of doing things, and when she has the opportunity to bring about some freedom of information, for example, to Barrayaran women, she does so. However, the way she has the greatest influence is not by spouting her morals, but by loving her enemies. Because she is a theist and believes that God is near to the broken, she has an incredible capacity for loving the unlovable, and in so doing, helping them become the better people she believes they can be.
Loving one’s enemies is one of the hallmarks of truly good characters. It’s not a wimpy thing, when done right. It’s about wanting the best for someone even when they’ve done plenty to harm you, and being genuinely sorry when the villain can’t be saved. The Doctor, in Doctor Who, is precisely this sort of person. I’m particularly reminded of his relationship with the Master in recent seasons. The Doctor is another great example of a successful good character, by the way. He’s a pacifist, and has a strict moral code, and he feels great guilt over the things he’s had to do in the past. And yet he’s often lighthearted, impulsive, and full of crazy fun.
6. Good characters don’t make for an interesting story.
I do agree that stories of fall and redemption are absolutely fascinating, one of my favorite sorts of plot, in fact. And it’s hard to tell that kind of story when your good character absolutely refuses to do the wrong thing, to fall. But there are other ways to make the consistently virtuous character part of a fascinating story. Here are two ideas.
Let the good character go through an arc not of fall and redemption, but of brokenness and recovery. Bad things happen to good people, especially in fiction. Despite their best efforts, they can end up with scars both physical and mental, which they’ll have to deal with for the rest of their lives. A fine example of a good character who has this sort of arc is Ender Wiggin, from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game series. He commits a horrible action, but it isn’t really a fall, because he is a child with no sense of the true consequences of what he is doing. Even though it’s not his fault, however, he is profoundly changed and scarred. He leaves his former life behind and becomes a wandering wise man, dedicated to making sure nothing like what he did will ever happen again. It makes for a good story.
Another way to have your cake and eat it too is to make your good character part of an ensemble cast. Surround her with people who don’t quite share her moral backbone, give them a few tricky dilemmas to solve, and watch them go. If your good character gets a little rigid, not to worry, one of the other characters can loosen her up. And when your good character refuses to make the wrong call, someone else will do it, and suffer for it, and the plot can progress as necessary.
One great thing about ensembles is that they offer the good character the opportunity to be involved in a redemption storyline, without having to go through a fall themselves. They can be the person who offers redemption to a fallen friend. A truly good character is exactly the sort of person you would want rooting for you if you’d completely screwed up. A good character has an immense capacity for forgiveness, and for believing in second chances. If you have a traitor you need to bring back into the fold, or a former enemy just about ready to join the side of the angels, put your good character on the job. He’s not going to give up at the first sign of backsliding, or take personal offense when the guy in need of redemption gets prickly and difficult. He cares enough to stubbornly keep working until his efforts pay off.
I love the sort of exchange that goes something like this:
“Go ahead, leave me/kill me.” With the usually unspoken, I deserve it.
“No, I’m going to save you.” Often accompanied by dropping a weapon or reaching out a hand.
This is a close cousin of jumping in front of an arrow/bullet/laser beam, or grabbing the hand of the enemy falling off the cliff, both of which good heroes are also prone to indulge in.
Don’t shoot me for using this example, but if the Naruto series ends the way I think it should, it’ll have just such a redemptive moment.
Two final examples of good, heroic characters of whom I am particularly fond. Both have great ensemble casts surrounding them, by the way. One is the main character, and one isn’t.
Allen Walker from the manga D-Gray Man. Even though he has to defeat Akuma (demons) in order to save humans, he cares about the lost souls of the demons, too, and brings them peace even as he destroys them. Allen is kind to a fault, never gives up on a friend, and has been known to memorably jump between combatants to try to get them to stop fighting.
Sam Gamgee from Lord of the Rings. In many ways, he’s the real heart of the story. He doesn’t have a self-centered bone in his body; he’s doing all this to help his friend. He keeps going, past all hope, and it’s because of him that the Ring is finally destroyed. It’s fitting, really, that he gets the final line of the book.
I’ve got a couple of good characters in the works, in stories I’m writing. It’s not always easy to write them, but I think it’s wonderfully worthwhile.
Are there any obvious candidates I missed? Anyone else working on writing good characters?
(Written by Jessica, originally published on World of Shandor.)