Writing Beyond the Good/Bad Character Dichotomy

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Maybe it’s an inevitable result of our western value system, but a lot of writers have a tendency to put their characters on a sort of sliding moral scale. “Good” characters on one end, “bad” characters on the other.

Needless to say, the best characters are usually somewhere in the middle. A well-written “good” character is always a little bad, and a compelling “bad” character is usually a little good. Discerning readers are turned off by white-knight heroes and demon-grade villains, and for good reason: characters that reside on such moral extremes are almost always clichés, and both are byproducts of equally dehumanizing characterizations. In other words, they just aren’t very real. And when characters aren’t relatable, the reader’s investment falls considerably.

Of course, a story that offers a morally conflicted main character — a “good” person who occasionally does “bad” things — is a step in the right direction. But it’s only part of the equation. There’s a lot more to people than our standing in the court of public opinion, and writing that limits its characters to quick-button moral judgments seems facile, even cheap. More than anything — more than description, more than dialogue — characters are defined by their actions. And actions, of course, reveal much more than the moral intentions behind them.

If you really want to add color to a character, the first step is to make sure that person has a major weakness. An imminent error in this person’s internal software serves to cause his/her irreparable undoing. There are two reasons why character weaknesses are important. One, the obvious: a weakness disarms that person. It makes them fallible, prone to error, subject to defeat. In other words, it makes them a lot like us. Second — and in my opinion, the most important — highlighting a weakness gives readers the feeling that we possess some privileged access to that person, that we’re seeing him/her from a vantage point not shared by the rest of the world. It casts the illusion that we’re viewing the story from the same omniscient space shared by the narrator, and omniscience is nothing if it isn’t power. Allowing this kind of unparalleled access really sweetens the deal when a reader is first introduced to a story.

The second step is to make sure your character isn’t too dumb. It’s usually a tough sell when we read a story where the main character isn’t at least as smart as we are. Why? If your story is driven by character — and it probably should be — the narrative will naturally follow a character’s movements, not guide them. If your character is too dull to operate outside the norms of convention, we’ll probably be able to predict his/her decisions pages before they happen, and thus, see where the plot is going. Ignatius Reilly is a ridiculous character, but he’s smart. Humbert Humbert is an insane character, but he’s smart. Holden Caulfield is an unconventional character, but he’s definitely smart. Characters should usually be aware of themselves enough to understand what's going on around them, and they should always be developed and nuanced enough to escape any preexisting molds that seek to confine them. Stories hold our attention much more effectively when characters smash through the perceived confines of a plot — and in effect, become the driving force behind that plot — because no matter what, we’ll never be able to say with certainty what’s going to happen next.

Third, give your characters a quirk. One of the reasons history’s most memorable characters still reside in our thoughts today is because of some off-the-wall neurosis that's often manifested in a bizarre or unique trait — an odd habit, a strange talent, a specific manner of speaking, an unconventional lifestyle. I’ve deliberately left this section brief because the less it’s explained the more it seems to make sense. Get weird with your characters and see what happens.

The final step is to make sure, after all the moral lapses, personal weaknesses and odd character quirks have been laid into place, that we still like this person. It’s tougher than it sounds. Readers are a fickle breed, and responses will definitely vary, but if you rock the judgment boat one way make sure to counter it with a responding wave. If your main character does something really awful, make sure we still have the capacity to sympathize with that person. And if you set us up to hate a character outright, make sure you do the work to even the scales later. Don’t get me wrong: you’ll want readers to judge your characters; in fact, you’ll want them to judge with abandon. However, you should exploit your reader’s proclivity to judge so you can surprise them later. Our understanding of a character should constantly be changing across the story, so give us things to hate, but for the sake of keeping the journey tolerable, make sure to give us just as many things to love. If you continuously subvert our judgment of a character throughout the story, the reader will eventually be forced to accept the notion that they never had your character figured out. And if that person isn’t all bad, we won’t feel tortured for being along for such a rocky ride.

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Jon Gingerich

Column by Jon Gingerich

Jon Gingerich is editor of O'Dwyer's magazine in New York. His fiction has been published in literary journals such as The Oyez Review, Pleiades, Helix Magazine, as well as The New York Press, London’s Litro magazine, and many others. He currently writes about politics and media trends at www.odwyerpr.com. Jon holds an MFA in creative writing from The New School. Some of his published fiction can be found at www.jongingerich.com.

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vikkterr's picture
vikkterr November 27, 2012 - 9:44am

Great article!

odonod's picture
odonod November 27, 2012 - 3:15pm

Great article - I always aim for moral ambiguity in a character... Also, with a conflict, give a character a choice between two wrongs and see what happenes. This is compelling to the reader!

bmartin2009's picture
bmartin2009 from St. Paul, Minnesota is reading Dune December 20, 2012 - 8:32am

I just finished Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, which gives this subject a great deal of care.  They even lampshade it near the end.  It's a good read for anyone who wants a well-done example.  Actually, it's a good read for anyone period.