Good versus Evil-Exciting versus Boring-The Writer’s Conundrum
Posted by Peter Kazmaier
I listen to many of the messages of New York Pastor Tim Keller on Spotify [https://open.spotify.com/episode/4YHHWRO9zT0katOsxVrABi?si=sz-zcGhVTLCnB1pOmjXqhA&utm_source=native-share-menu] [Note: my VPN blocked opening this Spotify link. I had to disconnect my VPN to make this link work]. This past week I listened to a message he gave years ago on September 11, 2011. In it he mentioned that he has repeatedly read and heard from actors the sentiment they would much rather play an evil character than a good one, since evil characters do exciting and surprising things while good ones were bland and uninteresting. Keller goes on to quote Simone Weil to point out that it may be true in literature and movies that good characters are boring and evil characters are interesting, but exactly the opposite is true in real life. Tyrants, the world over, are the same boring entities as they inflict their cruelty, vindictiveness, oppression, and death on the people they control.
I want to discuss this topic, as a writer, using three questions:
- Why is it so difficult to write about interesting, good characters?
- What are some examples of interesting good characters in literature?
- How can I improve my own writing to make good characters more interesting?
Why is it so Difficult to Write About Interesting, Good Characters?
It’s difficult because it requires a degree of imagination that is not easy for us to achieve. Why is it so easy to write about evil? It’s easy for us to imagine great betrayal, cruelty, enslavement, pain, torture, and other travails. In contrast it is only easy to imagine good as the absence of evil. We are left with a scene where we are sitting in sunshine in a meadow with a good book and we extrapolate that idyllic scene to eternity. As time stretches endlessly on, it cannot help but become boring. As this scene becomes boring, so good characters often become boring as they become boring as they do fewer and fewer bad actions. They become empty shells.
What are Examples of Interesting Good Characters in Literature
For me Frodo Baggins is an interesting, good character. He grows in goodness as The Lord of the Rings unfolds. Yet especially toward the end of the book, The Return of the King, there is a bit of sadness about him. He continues to be afflicted by the wounds of blade and sting and he never received the recognition he deserved back in the shire (although he takes it with grace). At last he joins Gandalf and Galadriel as they travel west. Although he saved the shire for others, the costs meant he could not save the shire for himself.
Touching on Simone Weil’s comment on the contrast between real life and fiction, we can augment what we learned from the fictional character Frodo to what we can learn from the real person we read about in the gospels. Jesus is a captivating enigma. He’s from a poor background, with little education except what Judaism provided and in three years he forever changed the world. He healed the sick, raised the dead, and fed the hungry. He showed mercy to the woman caught in adultery. Almost everyone applauds these actions.
Yet everyone, including his closest friends and family, took offense at him at some point. And in the end, of course, despite his good deeds, he was shown no mercy and crucified. He rose from the dead as testified by his contemporaries and by the gospels, and Christians today believe they follow a living Christ, not a dead teacher from the past.
For me I think Frodo’s story is interesting and not boring, because Tolkien’s imagination made Frodo’s story, in a small way, like Christ’s story. His story has all the grit of real life. Sacrifice does not always lead to reward at every point. I could go on to Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia, or Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. All show the same characteristics that make them real as they are made interesting in their goodness.
How can I Improve my Writing and Make Good Characters More Interesting?
For myself, I have made note of two things. First, to make a good character more like a real person; goodness does not always give me everything I want. Not all wounds are healed in this life. There is often a penalty to pay for goodness in this world, and my characters have to pay it.
Secondly, a good character has to be offensive on some points because of his goodness. If a good character is never offensive to the reader, we have simply written back to the reader a semi-good character who, following the cultural norm, will never challenge the reader’s thinking.
A Final Note
As writers we find it much easier to write interesting, evil characters. We also find it much easier to describe dystopia than utopia. We have the same mental obstacles to describe a truly beautiful, inspiring, and wonderful future state. For me the final chapters of The Chronicles of Narnia book, The Last Battle does it best.
All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.C. S Lewis, The Last Battle. page 173.
Posted in Essay, For Authors, Writing