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Good versus Evil-Exciting versus Boring-The Writer’s Conundrum

I listen to many of the messages of New York Pastor Tim Keller on Spotify [] [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:

  1. Why is it so difficult to write about interesting, good characters?
  2. What are some examples of interesting good characters in literature?
  3. 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.

What I learned from Tim Keller’s Message on Guidance

In these days when, by government edict here in Canada, churches are deemed “non-essential services,” I find myself searching the internet for inspiring and thought-provoking messages. A few weeks ago, I listened to a 2004 message by Timothy Keller on guidance. See the link below:

For a transcription of the talk, check out the link below:

Keller talks about three forms of guidance:

“We’ll find out by answering, by looking at these proverbs and understanding first of the guidance God does, secondly the guidance God gives and thirdly the guidance God purchases for us.”

  • Guidance God does
  • Guidance God gives
  • Guidance God purchases for us

He further subdivides “Guidance God does” into:

  • Paradoxical guidance God does 
  • Non-obvious guidance God does

There is so much in this message that I can only talk today about what spoke to me about “Paradoxical guidance God does.” When I think of guidance I think of help in decision making. Keller points out there are two contradictory views about decisions. One view is a deterministic view that decision making is really an illusion. Our brain chemistry, our hormones, are appetites so completely determine our decisions (if you’re a Materialist) that our decisions don’t matter. There is also a theological version of this: God makes our decisions for us, so again they don’t matter.

The second, free-will view, is that our decisions completely determine everything. Keller astutely points out that both points of view, if thought through to their logical implications, can’t help but lead to despair. Absolute determinism logically leads to complete passivity. My decisions don’t matter, ever. But free will leads to paralysis since I know so many of my decisions will not only be wrong, but devastatingly wrong that second guessing and doubt will paralyze me.

Keller correctly points out that, not only Proverbs, but he New Testament itself asserts both individual Free Will and God’s Sovereignty (Determinism) simultaneously and the two together are essential for hope and confidence in the future.

Since Free Will exists and is operative, my decisions matter a lot, so I cannot be passive. Yet since the God who loves me still is sovereign, he can smooth over my many poor choices, so in the end I will be okay. Keller uses the Genesis historical account of Joseph where many people made terrible decisions with some good ones thrown in, but God, made everything work together to good purpose and save Jacob and his family from a killer famine.

How to Come to Terms with this Paradox

As a scientist, I am no stranger to paradoxes. The one that springs immediately to mind is the wave-particle duality that is particularly pronounced in small particles. One knows this paradox is intrinsic to particles. One also understands the quantum nature of very small particles is so different from what I encounter in the macroscopic world, that I should not be surprised the properties characteristic of the quantum realm appear as paradoxes to me.

The way a physicist handles these paradoxes is instructive. One knows when to treat an electron as a particle and when to treat it as a wave to solve a particular problem. For diffraction one treats an electron as a wave; for collisions as a particle.

Some years ago I read Roger Penrose’s book The Road to Reality. Much I did not understand but his explanation of the arrow of time always stayed with me. Of the four dimensions (x, y, z, t) only time is unidirectional, that is to say time always moves from the present to the future. Indeed, our world is what it is, because of time. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that for any process, the entropy of the universe must increase. To go back in time is to return to a lower entropic state of the universe and so contradicts this law. As a human being, I am remorselessly and relentlessly bound in time. At one point in time I am deciding cereal or eggs for breakfast. Twenty minutes later that decision is irrevocably set in the past. Within time I made a decision.

Yet if I believe that God created everything including time, then I have to believe he exists outside of time as well as within it. This to me is the whole explanation why Free Will and Determinism can co-exist. Within time (the only realm I comprehend), real decisions are being made and have consequences. Outside of time, in some way there is some multidimensional present where all of infinity is seen (I want tot say simultaneously, but that would be a symptom of my incurable compulsion to always drag time back into God’s timeless realm).

This brings me to my final point. I can’t understand God’s Sovereignty without dragging time into his timeless realm and so making him responsible for all actions and destroying Free Will. I can’t understand his sovereignty, but at least I know why I can’t understand it.

As Keller points out, having free, meaningful choices and a sovereign God superintending all is the only way of avoiding paralysis on the one hand and passivity on the other. Like the scientist, I apply my imperfect models to the problem at hand. When I am making a decision, I decide knowing that this is my responsibility. When I have second thoughts and wonder if I my decision has been a huge mistake, I am confident that God in his sovereignty will make it work out, despite my flawed choices.