Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, May 06, 2019

In Defense of Good Characters

In several different contexts lately, I've heard people assert that "good" characters are boring. Bring on the villain-as-main-character! Bring on the anti-hero! Bring on the shades of moral gray!

To the extent that fiction is a world distilled, focused down to the elements necessary to develop some particular plot, character, or theme, how we think about morality in fiction is not a bad way to examine how we think about morality in real life, and it strikes me that this complaint that good characters are boring gets at a misunderstanding as to what "good" is. Often we talk about someone as "good" based on what they haven't done.

He hasn't defrauded anyone. He hasn't clubbed baby harp seals. He hasn't cheated on his wife. He hasn't committed genocide. See? He's a "basically good person".

But what could be more boring than a basically good person? The virtue of the basically good person is that he hasn't done anything shockingly wicked, and he's in some bland sense what the 18th century called "clubbable". Bon homie mixed with not doing things doesn't make for an interesting story. Thus, bring on the villains! At least they might have done something interesting.

However, I'd argue that this "not done anything" virtue is entirely the wrong way to look at goodness, both in fiction and in our world.

Virtue consists of striving to do what is good, not just to avoid what is evil. Striving suggests struggle, and struggle is conflict. Conflict is what provides drama. So struggling to achieve what one believes to be the good (what one wants) should clearly be interesting dramatic material, and should remain interesting whether what one wants is actually good or one is striving for a false good which will, in the end, fail to satisfy.

Thought about this way, both a hero and a villain are interesting in that they are struggling to achieve something, the difference is just that the hero is struggling to achieve something positive while the villain is struggling to achieve something destructive.


Anna said...

Entirely true, it's just that not all fiction writers are any good at seeing this, hence the boringness some people attribute to "good characters." Funny, Amy Welborn has up a post right now containing a proverb about each man having the defects that go with his virtues. Connects to what you are saying here, I think.

I find Tolstoy's opener to "Anna Karenina" interesting in that he seems to say that good characters are boring ("all alike"), but also wrote a short story called "The Happy Family" which is... less Russian, if you will, than most Russian stories in that it really is a good story about a happy family.

Agnes said...

Sometimes the problem is that the characters in question aren't described in depth. Cardboard good characters may be boring, uninspiring, unlikely, but so are cardboard villains. Sometimes people are unwilling to call multi-faceted, in some aspects flawed characters "good". Also, you are right that sometimes "good" characters are shown superficially to be good without effort. Unless we see the choices, the struggle, the good character might appear unlikely, one we can't identify with. An example: Jane Bennet in Pride and Prejudice is quite often mentioned as an epitome of this unrealistic, bland goodness (which she isn't, really, not as truly portrayed in the book). Most readers find it easy, however, to identify with Elizabeth Bennet whose flaws and struggles we see from the inside.

Foxfier said...

It seems like folks say "good" when they mean 'unobjectionable'.

Which is, indeed, pretty boring. Especially when everything offends someone.

Scholastica86 said...

Hi! I was just surfing through the net, looking for good Catholic perspectives on evolution when I found your blog and just wanted to say how much I've enjoyed reading through it, both the science material and the non-sciency stuff.

I've actually thought a lot about this issue for the past few years because I do get the fascination with villains and anti-heroes. I think you're right that the complaint that good characters are boring is due to the equation of good = not actively bad. Sometimes they don't even achieve that level. I remember several years ago when the second installment of the Star Trek reboot came out thinking that if you ignored the canon of the original timeline and just went by what we saw onscreen, it's not actually clear that Kirk is much more virtuous than Khan. But in the real world, genuine virtue often IS interesting to watch. I could think of the radicalism of Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, or Mother Teresa. Even as stoutly logical a saint as Aquinas supposedly chased a prostitute out of his chamber with a poker! And on a more natural level, people still enjoy stories about reformers and other people who overcame great odds. It's only in fiction that we can't seem to write about interesting heroes.

Darwin said...


I'm glad you found and enjoyed the blog! Sorry for the slow response. Things have been busy here in Darwin-land the last few weeks, as shown by historically low posting the last couple months. But it's good to know that new people still find the blog, and that the writing on evolution isn't wasted, even though I ran out of energy to keep up with the seemingly endlessly cycling online religion/evolution discussions.