Monday, 7 July 2014

Week Eleven: Good versus Evil Characters

Is Heathcliff evil?
Here's a strange thing about characters and readers. Readers tend to want main characters to be nice and to do the 'right thing', so they can identify with them while they read, and so feel nice themselves. To assure themselves that they too would do the right thing, if it came down to it. That's the theory of the main character, anyway. That as a reader you enter the skin of the narrator - usually the protagonist in today's fiction - and look out through their eyes. And if the view becomes a bit icky or disturbing or inconsistent, well, you might put that book down and tiptoe away without finishing it.

In nineteenth century fiction, writers could often get away with problematic and even downright evil main characters by telling their story via an innocent - and therefore untarnished - narrator. Wuthering Heights, for instance. But secondhand narration has gone out of fashion, along with the epistolary style - telling a story through a series of letters - and apart from bestselling gems like Bridget Jones' Diary and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, readers prefer straight narration to other ways of telling a story.

As a writer - this applies more to genre fiction than literary fiction, but is still apparent even among the literati - you are being constantly urged by editors to make your main characters nicer. To stop them sleeping with the wrong people, stealing, telling fibs, murdering their loved ones. This is not so difficult for writers who tell their stories within a fictional corridor where 'baddies' rarely do anything worse than give you a bad job reference or steal your boyfriend. But even within that limitation the concept of character morality is equally as valid as it is for a crime novel or historical drama, where you might reasonably expect the most gruesome murders, kidnappings, massacres, beheadings. The parameters change, but the reality remains: main characters must do the right thing, and do it consistently, without ambiguity.

His Dark Lady: Shakespeare's mistress
So how to cope when your story demands a morally questionable action on the part of your main character, but even as you are writing the scene you can hear your editor's polite refusal in your head, or beyond that, some reviewer's outraged objection? I have had some rather cross responses to my portrayal of Shakespeare in my Lucy Morgan trilogy, with reviewers complaining that it is 'unfair' to suggest WS slept with other people behind his wife's back - even though his sonnets and his long absence from the marital bed hardly paint a picture of fidelity. And in this case, there is something more to be said about tarnishing the reputation of a long-dead person - a national hero, no less - with scurrilous suggestions of immoral goings-on backstage that no one at this remove of time can ever possibly prove. Or not without a time machine.

But all this begs questions about our role as authors, and our responsibilities both to readers and to fiction as a whole. Should we pay lip-service to some unlikely and unspoken ideal of morality in order to avoid causing controversy, or write what we feel to be the truth in our story (fiction should represent 'truth' to the writer at least, if to nobody else) and accept that our choices may be unpopular with some readers? And if we do shrug off the limitations of morality and pursue a dangerous fictional truth, what have we achieved besides making our books uncomfortable to read and probably unsaleable?

Why not just throw up our hands and accept that what the majority of our readers want - even in a crime novel - is a consistent world with nice, unthreatening main characters, where 'bad' people are punished and right nearly always triumphs?

Well, that's the wise thing to do. We all want to be read, after all. Read and paid.

But people are complicated. And characters are people, or ought to be. Characters should be capable of possessing both good and evil, humour and horror, love and hate, and above all they should be allowed to hold conflicting opinions. To be contrary. To fall in love with two different people at the same time. To say they want one thing but actually go after something completely different. To be human. This is where publishers suppress more demanding fiction. Being experienced in the realities of selling books, they rightly know that the vast majority of readers dislike too much complexity and can handle only a small amount of contrariness. So they insist that characters should be consistent, should be strictly one thing or another, so that we can all sell books and make a reasonable living.


Show me a person who is genuinely consistent, and I'll bet you it's a corpse.

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn: an ambiguous read.

I'm still hoping that fiction - which moves like the sea in waves of fashion - will shift eventually into a place where inconsistency is the new gold standard. Where writers are praised for creating deeply ambiguous characters capable of holding two diametrically opposed beliefs simultaneously without risking the loss of internal logic. Where readers fight to be confused and manipulated and lied to. And not patronised. That may be why Gillian Flynn's 'Gone Girl' was so popular, even though many found it an uncomfortable read. Because in this age of superfast broadband and social media our view of life and morality is becoming both more simplistic and more sophisticated, more clear-cut and more ambiguous, and we are beginning to demand fiction that reflects our own uncertainties in the face of this new, constantly shifting, inherently contradictory social morality. 

QUESTION: Should fictional main characters be nicer and more consistent than real people? If so, why?


  1. I love the term 'fictional corridor' and the categories of bad deeds. Bad references or not inviting you to the party are spiteful, I agree, but it hardly lifts fiction out of the everyday world. Maybe that's why I prefer to read and write historical tales, where a known evil character can be accepted - or you can put a different slant on them, maybe making them into a flawed hero.

  2. Yes indeed, Beth, I agree. I love to read many different types of books, but when writing them tend to prefer plots where the stakes are much higher than that. I suppose it's because I'm a drama queen; I always want things to be as tough as they can possibly get. Vx

  3. Very interesting post, especially as I write a series where I have to have "nice" people. However, there are several mystery series featuring a murdering protagonist, Simon Shaw wrote some, and I just can't remember the others, but one was a nursing sister, another a nun. I wasn't quite happy with any of them, though I loved Shaw's theatrical backgrounds. This makes me a typical reader, I suppose. Shallow.

  4. I loved your portrayal of Shakespeare in Her Last Assassin. I found it engaging and moving and showed a conflict (no spoilers!) that was entirely credible. And the whole point is that we have no idea what real historical figures were really like. Also, I think there's a difference between 'nice' (yawn) and a good person (who will have flaws). Readers are pretty savvy at picking that up. Great post- as always!

  5. I found this piece topical and typical. I've never followed fashion and am glad to write historical fiction. My protagonists are always flawed. They seek to avenge murdered relatives, which is an honourable and acceptable response in Dark Ages Britain. I recently wrote a post asking whether a protagonist could also be an antagonist and vice versa. I believe it is wholly possible and that readers relate to characters who have room to 'grow'. Thanks for a brilliant post. :D


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