Stuart Kelly recently wrote an article entitled, “Do Good Characters Inevitably Make for Bad Fiction?” in The Guardian. The article is interesting, and well-worth a look. The basic question Kelly asks centers around the idea that morally upright characters–flawless characters, if you will–are usually boring.
I’ve certainly experienced this myself, and I’m sure you have. One of my main complaints with the Captain America series is that the title character is so incredibly boring precisely because he is so good. There’s so little development in his character because there’s nothing to develop. In fact, I have no idea how he’d become a better person than he already is.
There are numerous other examples, and they seem to follow a pattern. Morally upright characters seem to usually be boring. And so, I think Kelly has a point. We find Michael Corleone more interesting than Captain America. Or, to keep the comparisons within the same genre, Iron Man is more interesting that Captain America. But is Kelly completely right? Do morally upright characters inevitably make for bad stories?
I want to say something right up front: I take issue with the way the question is worded. Simply put, it seems odd to say that, “in fiction-writing X inevitably leads to Y.” The word “inevitable” implies certainty, and that often makes me uncomfortable. Fiction-writing is an art, and art is a tricky thing.
Unlike a science, art is difficult, in my opinion, to break down to the point where one can say that X always lead to Y. Sure, there are exceptions, but I’m not sure the question of morally upright characters is one of them.
So, if possible, it might be helpful to look at the question slightly differently: do good characters usually make for bad fiction? And my answer to that takes from two of Tolkien’s comments on stories:
“There is no story without a fall. All stories are ultimately about the Fall.”
This is an especially interesting comment. If there is no story, no narrative, without a fall from good to evil, it seems that our characters must be morally ambiguous. Good characters haven’t fallen, or if they have, they’ve already been redeemed. But there’s one more comment to take into consideration:
“You can only come to the morning through the shadows.”
From those two quotes, I think a tentative answer to the question is, “yes.” If the characters are not fallen or do not fall, if they are morally upright, then, according to Tolkien, there is no story. In the world that we live in, the morning must be reached through the shadows–and that’s where most stories live.
Most stories seem to live in that time of shadows before the morning. If you take out the shadows, if you take out the danger, the fear, and the struggles then you take out the conflict, it seems. And if you take out the conflict…what’s the story?
I suppose, at the end of the day, the question has to do with what Tolkien said. Is there a story without a fall? That question, of course, begs a far larger one: “what is a story?” I won’t attempt to answer that here, but I will say this: I think these are good questions, at least for me, as a writer, to ask. What is the effect of a good character? I have a tentative answer, but what’s yours?