“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.
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.