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03:25 pm: Wright’s Writing Corner:Good vs. Bad – Part Two: Saving Deadly Dull Do-Right.

 
 

 
 

“Don’t drink, don’t smoke, what do you do?”

Have you ever wondered why being a Goody Two-Shoes* is bad? I have. I mean being good is good, right? So, why shouldn’t we want to be good? What is implied in the term Goody Two-Shoes that makes even me cringe when someone applies it to me—and I do not drink or smoke.

I think the song lyrics capture the gist of it. The implication is that a goody-goody does not do anything. No drinking. No smoking. No loud parties. No wild lifestyle. No life.

The thought here is: if you are not being bad, your life is boring.

What about Deadly Dull Do-Right? The White Knight, the Hero With A Thousand Smiles. Picture him smiling in his white hat and his white suit. He does not just sit around. He does things. He rushes to right injustice. He saves the girl. He is never tempted, never ruffled, never late.

But he is…dull. From his perfect smile, to his upright posture, to his pristine clothing, he is dull. Just thinking of him makes us either yawn or squirm.

So, good people either stay home and do nothing, or they rush off seeking adventure and bore us to death.

Isn’t good…good?

You bet it is! But to be interesting in drama, a character cannot be conflict free. Staying home or getting everything right without even mussing one’s coat lacks conflict.

Contrast that with, oh say, my husband’s old boss who fought drunk driving and corruption with his tiny local newspaper. It started out as a fishing mag, but after his brother was killed by a drunk and he himself was injured in a separate accident, he decided to do something. He lost friends, even his godfather, because he would not compromise on his policy of printing the picture of those arrested for drunk driving. He had to wear a flak jacket because he had received death threats. But drunk driving went down in his county, and four years later the local county commissioners got voted out of office.

Not a dull day in that guy’s life! **

There is a reason that some roleplaying games list “code of honor” as a dis-add (a disadvantage that gives your character extra points. Other dis-adds might include blindness, bad temper, limp, etc.) Why do they give extra points for being good? Because it is hard to live up to a high moral code! It limits what you can do. It limits how you can accomplish your goals, but it also makes your life infinitely more interesting.

Sure, I could solve this problem by killing Joe or blowing up this village. But can I solve it without killing anyone? Sure, I could escape the Nazi’s by lying but can I still escape if I do not lie?

As soon as the going gets rough, being virtuous becomes the spice of life!

If goodness is an excuse for inaction, it becomes deadly dull. But if it is a way of upping the stakes, of making the endeavor more difficult, more intricate, which adds more conflict and, thus, increases drama, then it becomes fascinating!
Good characters suffer temptation, in particular the temptation not to be good—whether it is due to the lure of sin or a desire to avoid some kind of harm. It is their struggle against this temptation that makes their journey interesting. The more vividly the author can portray the allure of what they are missing or the threat of what they wish to avoid, the more interesting the situation becomes to the readers.

Some of my favorite characters are really virtuous. Nausicaa from Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind, my all time favorite movie (actually, the awful American version Warrior of the Wind is my favorite movie. The original is a close second. It has a better plot but is missing the snappy dialogue.) comes to mind, as does Kenshin of Rurouni Kenshin , Monkey de Luffy from One Piece, and Harry Dresden from the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher.

Each of these characters face terrible odds and yet remain true to the principles for which he stands. These characters are interesting both because of their own internal struggles and because of the odds which they face. Some never yield the moral high ground, no matter what the odds. Others, like Harry Dresden, are more tattered. Yet, each of them holds their high ideals as more important than themselves.

What is interesting about Harry that is not true of, say, Kenshin, is that occasionally Harry does not find the magical way out. His enemy does not suddenly spontaneously combust, removing the need for Kenshin to kill him, for instance. Harry sometimes does get his hands dirty. But—and this is one of my favorite qualities—he does not use this as an excuse to give up. He does not say, “Gee, I’ve done this bad thing. Now I’m a bad guy, and it doesn’t matter what I do next.” When Harry Dresden falls down, he gets right back on his feet and tries to drag himself back up again.

Brief aside: I notice that quite a few of these characters are from Anime. It is possible that this is because I have had more opportunity to watch Anime than to read over the last ten years—or it may be that something about the Anime format lends itself to showcasing virtuous characters who prevail over increasingly difficult odds. Either way, further discussion would require another post exclusively on that subject.

Good characters become boring when they have no challenges. Challenges can come from within or without. Most have both. Giving characters vices to struggle against is definitely one way of making a good character interesting. But is it necessary?

Is it impossible to write about a truly good character without skating into yawnsville?

To answer this, let us take a look at a truly virtuous character—the main character of a well-known bestseller known as the Four Gospels.  Jesus is probably about as good a guy as we see portrayed anywhere. He does lose his temper once with some moneychangers in a temple. But the rest of the time, he does not exhibit any vices.

Does this make him dull?

No! Not at all.

So why is this? Two reasons.

First, the narrators show us what he is up against. Jesus may have conquered his inner demons near the beginning of his story when he tells Satan to get behind him, but he still has to face a great deal of outer tribulations. People in high places disapprove of what he is doing. They try to trick him. “Will you heal on the Sabbath? Will you stone an adulteress? It’s the law, you know?” This labyrinth of laws and customs he must negotiate, and which eventually lead his detractors to call for his death, adds drama to his story.

Second, we see him through the eyes of Peter and the other disciples. “Who is that walking on the water! Is it a ghost?” “Did you see that, even the storm clouds obeyed him!” “Who is this guy?” These characters act as foils (discussed in another post) framing their master’s greatness against the backdrop of ordinary expectations. This, again, adds to the drama of his story.

Not convinced? Check out the story of Buddha, or Mother Theresa or any of the other great people who lived good lives. Their lives are often more interesting, more difficult, than those of ordinary folks, not less. Often they had to face the same challenges the other folks faced, but they had to solve them without the underhandedness others might have used.

In conclusion: Sure, it is easy for an inexperienced writer to make a good character dull. But it is far from necessary. What makes a virtuous character interesting is watching him struggle against the powers that try to crush all goodness out of the world, to bring everything to destruction and ruin – the powers that crushes the hope and optimism out of the eyes children; the power behind seizing a man who heals the sick and preaches to the poor and hanging him on a tree; the powers that took the idea of being virtuous and kind and twisted it until being a Goody Two-Shoes became something people want to avoid.

Put your good guy up against that, and even Do-Right will keep readers on the edge of their seats. 
 
 
 
 
* History of Goody Two-Shoes:

Ever wonder where the phrase Goody Two-Shoes comes from? It was popularized as the title of a nursery tale from the 1760s. Virtuous orphan Margery Meanwell goes about in her one shoe. When her good acts earn her the gift of a pair of shoes, she is so delighted to have two shoes that Goody Two-Shoes becomes her nickname.)

 However, it originally appeared in a rhyme from a hundred years before:

Mistress mayoress complained that the pottage was cold;
‘And all long of your fiddle-faddle,’ quoth she.
‘Why, then, Goody Two-shoes, what if it be?
Hold you, if you can, your tittle-tattle,’ quoth he.

 

 
 
** Crusading newspaper editor Ken Rossignol ran his paper for many years. John used to say that working for him was like working for Superman’s editor, Perry White. Ken has since retired from the newspaper business and written a novel currently available on Kindle.

 

 

 



Comments

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From:juliet_winters
Date:September 29th, 2010 08:05 pm (UTC)
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The most comforting verse in the Bible to me is Romans 3:23: "For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."

There are no (human) heroes without flaws. They may not act on temptation now, but they probably once did...or will in the future. Something I learned early on was that the most truly admirable people showed you their flaws up front. They swore a bit, drank sometimes, lost their tempers, were sometimes greedy or vain...
The ones who are truly trouble have a sparkling exterior. Butter wouldn't melt in their mouths, they are so cool. They know the official rules and won't be caught breaking them. They are modern-day pharisees. They are, as Jesus denounced them, hypocrites. They have always given religious organizations bad reputations. They are working for the other side.

Sorry, not familiar with the anime references.
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From:cdenmier
Date:September 29th, 2010 09:08 pm (UTC)

Coloring Outside the Lines

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For some reason this reminds me of the oft-used phrase "he colors outside the lines" to describe someone as creative. But this seems silly. To color outside the lines is usually just laziness or fun "rule-breaking"--it is precisely to color INSIDE the lines, and to do it in a way that no one ever has, that is creative. True creativity is hard sometimes.

I see the similarity in what you're saying. A shining white knight who can slay every foe could be scripted by anyone. But it's only a notch higher on the ole creativity rung to write the rebel who doesn't play by any rules. Far harder, and far more rewarding, to write a hero more like Christ, whose clever answers confounded the scholars and who was brave and strong even when the worse came upon him...a hero who wins through suffering and through the turning of evil onto itself.

The trend of seeing the "good guys" as boring can be dangerous. The opposite is true, as you say in regards to the great holy men and women of history.
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From:marycatelli
Date:September 30th, 2010 03:29 am (UTC)

Re: Coloring Outside the Lines

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When I was moderately young, there was an even smaller relative whom I didn't want to let color anything in my coloring books, because he would put some squiggles of color approximately near the object intended. . . .
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From:poslushnik
Date:September 29th, 2010 10:16 pm (UTC)
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What you write reminds me a lot things C.S. Lewis has to say in "The Great Divorce".

I always wonder though if "good is boring" can be discarded completely. The thing is, there are two kinds of good: the one that never has or had temptation to be evil, and the one that results from victory in an (ongoing) battle with such temptation. Wouldn't you agree that the second kind of good is much more interesting than the first one? The first kind is more that of a well-programmed machine, or a being devoid of free will (which for examples angels are considered to be in Judaism).

Of course, one cannot find a human being who would not have this internal battle within. I would argue that good in people is always a mix of the two kinds, and although nobody belongs to one of the two kinds completely, it is the proportion that correlates greatly with being or not being boring.
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From:nimlotbradamant
Date:September 29th, 2010 11:08 pm (UTC)
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Somewhere, GK Chesterton is applauding!
From:anitaclenney
Date:September 29th, 2010 11:55 pm (UTC)

Jesus, the best character

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Great post, Jagi! You're right, characters don't have to be full of vices to be interesting. They just need conflict and dilemmas to deal with.

Jesus is my all-time favorite character!
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From:bojojoti
Date:September 30th, 2010 01:21 am (UTC)
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Interesting post.

I love Harry Dresden even though he isn't the best he can be yet. But he struggles to retain his personal code of ethics, and he respects those who are leading lives of integrity.
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 30th, 2010 03:25 am (UTC)
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In my first draft for this essay, I was going to talk more in depth about the characters I mentioned. I had to cut that out due to length, but...yeah. I think Harry messes up more than I'd like occasionally...but I get the feeling he's going to get up and try again.

Might be a fun essay to write--to talk about Nausicaa, Kenshin, Luffy, and Dresden in some detail.
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From:marycatelli
Date:September 30th, 2010 03:34 am (UTC)
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The real sad cases really do seem to prefer the bad boy. Harry Potter fans who are wild about Draco Malfoy and were quite furious that he turned out to be exactly what he was depicted as. A cousin of mine gave up the Harry Potter fandoms online because he couldn't stomach it any longer.

I suppose it would be rude to cite Aristotle's dictum that we like our characters to be as good as, or a little better than, we are, and while this includes more than moral goodness, it includes it too -- and then draw conclusions from it. So I won't. 0:)
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From:marycatelli
Date:September 30th, 2010 03:42 am (UTC)
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Conflict isn't the only thing they write out of good character's lives.

Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde for instance. Hyde got all the liveliness -- as if sloth were not sin.

And good characters are often depicted as naive and sheltered and not knowing about sin. G. K. Chesterton had a lot of fun with this one, particularly in the early Father Browns where he's pointing out that people come to them in the confessional and tell them about their sins. You can pick up an awful lot that way.

Plus, it is often depicted as necessarily hypocritical falsity. That, by definition, anyone really apparently good must be the villain in the work. Certain "pillars of the community" are introduced with such obvious loathing that you can almost hear the writer going, "God, I thank you that I am not like other men, hypocrites, self-righteous, goody-goody, or even like this Pharisee."
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From:marycatelli
Date:September 30th, 2010 03:55 am (UTC)
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One thing where the good guy can be a problem is when you want to reveal hidden depths. Very valuable characterization stuff -- a character who is simple and obviously what he appears to be at first can very easily be dull.

Many good guys are obviously good guys up front, so you need to reach for other things to make them complex.
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 30th, 2010 12:50 pm (UTC)
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I notice that anime does this very well...often the main character is a rather simple young man, but by either adding strong desires or by showing a few scenes from his past that led to him being the way he is now, they can make the fellows quite interesting.
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From:kokorognosis
Date:September 30th, 2010 01:13 pm (UTC)
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I think there's probably something about animation that allows luminously good characters. Maybe it's because it's still resisting the tug of "literary" fiction, unlike most everything else. (And as we all know, the point of view of the "literary" world is that everyone sucks.) Avatar's Aang; Trigun's Vash; Ed and Al in Fullmetal Alchemist; Simon, Kamina, and most everyone in Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann; Mononoke's Ashitaka; etc, etc.

One of the main reasons why I prefer Chandler to Hammett is that Chandler's protagonists might be gruff and world weary, but they're still good guys at heart. Not so much with Hammett.
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 30th, 2010 02:34 pm (UTC)
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My editor had me change a Sam Spade reference to Philip Marlow (in reference to Mab) for that very reason.

Edited at 2010-09-30 02:35 pm (UTC)
From:ext_271662
Date:September 30th, 2010 03:31 pm (UTC)

Harry Dresden is not a good man

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Dresden is far from a virtuous man. He's a consequentialist and not one with a particularly broad outlook. It's basically "the ends justify the means except when I say they don't which is subject to change at any time." He's better in some books than others, but the author's bizarre, inconsistent ethics really starts to come out in the later books.

Take CHANGES, where he's willing to do literally anything to save his daughter. He starts with murdering a helpless man and moves on from there. It all works out in the end, but it feels like Goethe's Faust. He could just as easily have been Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. Honestly, he acts like most well written villains do.

I've gone back and forth on my opinion of the series, but I have never thought of Dresden as a virtuous man. After reading CHANGES, I no longer have any respect for Harry Dresden.
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 30th, 2010 03:38 pm (UTC)

Re: Harry Dresden is not a good man

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I have been operating under the assumption that Harry will try to recover from his many mistakes in CHANGES. If not, I will remove him from my list of good guys, of course.

But one of the things I've liked about Dresden is the fact that he does really mess up and he doesn't give up being good, as many do, when he realizes he's screwed up. He got out of the coin demon thing. I'm expecting him to try to make up for things done recently, too.

Only time with tell.
From:genesiscount
Date:October 2nd, 2010 10:58 pm (UTC)
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I think the reason people tend to find genuinely good heroes sometimes hard to invest in is that most of us recognize that we are *not* good, or nowhere near as good as we believe we should be. What we want of a dramatic hero is someone *sympathetic*, someone who we can see ourselves being friends with, who would be entertaining to spend time with, or whose desires, motives and choices we can understand and on some levels get behind.

To go back to the Dresden Files for a moment, if you want a *real* Virtuous Hero in that series, go not to Harry but to Michael Carpenter, the Knight of the Cross. Harry himself admits that for virtue and character, Michael leaves him in the dust... but Michael is not the hero of that series. Harry is.

Why? Because in terms of dramatic development as a character, by the time we meet him in that series, Michael has already made most of his key choices. He's there to be a contrast and foil to Harry, both example and check, because it's Harry's moral choices which drive the series.

And to some extent, this is one of the reasons why "good" can seem boring: Because in another context, "good" can very easily mean "has already made the important choices that make him who he is". A dramatic series is about overcoming conflict, and certain kinds of goodness only come out of having already overcome the kinds of conflicts that make a resonant dramatic hero.

It's worth pointing out that one of the classic dramatic character arcs is the Descent and the Redemption, and neither half works without the other one. Harry's story still has at least (by Butcher's own words) seven or eight books to go; I think it would be a mistake to judge before the story's done. (I would also caution that just because Harry's ethics are a little muddled and inconsistent that doesn't mean Jim Butcher's ethics are questionable. Let's try to remember that the author is not his characters.)
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From:yamamanama
Date:October 3rd, 2010 01:11 am (UTC)
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That's all well and good, but me, I'd take a Jane Alderberry over a Mary Sue any day.
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From:cronolink
Date:October 6th, 2010 06:48 am (UTC)

Uhhh... Virtuous?

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Excuse me for a sec, Mrs. Wright, but Monkey D. Luffy virtuous?! I can only assume that you're not aware of Luffy's character throughout the whole series because the only thing he resembles is a Marty Stu anti-hero.
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From:arhyalon
Date:October 6th, 2010 05:17 pm (UTC)

Re: Uhhh... Virtuous?

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We're only somewhere in the Alabasta saga. If he changed or shows a different side later, I do not yet know about it. I am referring to his courage, his faith in his friends, and his refusal to be daunted despite terrible odds, which are all virutues. He also, so far, has never failed to help someone who needs help or to take down someone who is abusing others.

So far as I can tell, other than that, he's kind of a nut case who cares mainly about eating...but the list above is still more good points than most other people portray.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:October 15th, 2010 08:22 am (UTC)

I could hug you

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For referencing my favorite character ever, Himura Kenshin. Things in that show have actually helped me in life!

One aspect of Kenshin (and many anime characters) is his dark and bloody past. He can be totally virtuous because the act of being good is an effort for him and adds to the drama. Saints Peter and Paul also qualify.
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From:melodyv
Date:October 15th, 2010 08:36 am (UTC)

Re: I could hug you

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Oops, that was me, not sure how I got logged out. Note the icon. ^_^x
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From:arhyalon
Date:October 15th, 2010 12:59 pm (UTC)

Re: I could hug you

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I thought that might be you!

Kenshin is like Paul, isn't he? I had never thought about that before. I love that quality of being able to stand for right even if one's past was less than it should be. Thanks for drawing that analogy!
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From:melodyv
Date:October 15th, 2010 04:28 pm (UTC)

Re: I could hug you

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Indeed! A character who is virtuous for no particular reason is just Better Than You. A person/character who had to find their way there from a darker place than you've ever been is a source of hope and inspiration.

Also, there's some complexities to Kenshin's fighting pacifism I put in writing here: http://www.fanfiction.net/s/2970406/1/Aftermath
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From:arhyalon
Date:October 19th, 2010 03:00 pm (UTC)

Re: I could hug you

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Cool. Thanks.
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From:princesselwen
Date:March 7th, 2012 10:48 pm (UTC)
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"How monotonously alike the great tyrants and sinners have been, how gloriously different the saints."
C.S. Lewis, "Mere Christianity"
I do get tired of the 'good is boring' crowd, though. Especially in movie adaptations, where they decide 'the good guy is boring! Let's give him some angst and make him act like a jerk!' (goes off on long rant about Prince Caspian and Voyage of the Dawn Treader.)
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 8th, 2012 12:51 am (UTC)
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Oh...I am so with you...and Peter in the first movie. We can't have a good guy act like a competant hero and kill a wolf!

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