Tuesday, April 13, 2010


My book club recently discussed A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, a novel about triumphing over poverty and cruelty during 1970s India. It was a tough book to read, because the characters with redeeming qualities suffered horrific tragedies and the not so nice characters seemed to get ahead—and that’s just not the American way.

The good guy wears the white hat and the bad guy wears the black, and sooner or later the bad guy is going to get his. Then all will be right in the world again. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?

The press seemed to be playing on this expectation over the weekend when the “good man” won and the “bad man” came in fourth at the Masters. This irritated me, because I still think it’s possible to be the number one golfer in the world AND a cheating husband. Is it all the kinks to that swing that upset people the most? Or did the man not meet our expectations?

This is not to say I don’t hold out hope that the knight in shining armor does exist. I certainly would prefer real people to uphold high moral standards, particularly those in leadership positions. I believe everyone should honor their marriage vows, too. But it makes a story when they don’t.

My grandmother used to think any guy in a navy suit, white dress shirt, and red tie was okay. She didn’t care to hear about any wolf in sheep’s clothing. Nowadays that seems like all we’re hearing about.

But I think the bottom line is you really can’t judge a book by its cover or character by one statement, decision, or action. How many books have you read where a character seems to be the good guy—until he becomes the villain? [Think: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd] Is it the “monotony of each day” that causes these characters to step out of character or something else? Does it matter?

If we write one-sided characters, the “nice” protagonist and the “evil” villain, do we meet the expectations of the majority of readers? If we blur the lines a little, does it make the story more interesting? More gripping? More memorable? Can we take it too far? I think so.

But in fiction I’m just not sure how far is too far for most readers. Are you?


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Most people do want to like or respect the protagonist enough to be able to identify with them, I think. Although Patricia Highsmith did a great job with her series on Tom Ripley, the murderer...we didn't have to like him to enjoy the books. And then there's the Dexter series.

My Myrtle Clover is...difficult. It's a fine line.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I really enjoy "good" guys that are a little shady. Or is that "bad" guys that are really good. I have a recurring character in my Odelia Grey series, Willie Proctor, who is a felon and fugitive and a very good and helpful friend of Odelia's. From the mail I receive, my readers LOVE him and can't wait for him to show up on the page. And neither can I. He's so much fun to write.

As for golf, the sport and the marriage have nothing to do with one another, and I wish people would stop making such an issue of it. There are really so many more important issues in the world than a guy who can't keep his pecker in his pants. If we were writing this, most of it would be edited out as being redundant and boring.

Alan Orloff said...

I don't think anyone wants to read about good guys who are perfect or bad guys who are too perfectly evil. Give me some gray area and I'm happier. As long as it's done well, I'd read about Ghandi the serial killer.

Beth Groundwater said...

I like heroes and heroines in the books I read and write to be flawed, but they have to have a deep, abiding moral sense of right and wrong that gets tested in the story and makes them decide to act. I just can't sympathize with a protagonist who is not moral.

Cricket McRae said...

Interesting post, Lisa. I think pure evil is a bit boring. An antagonist who does something bad because it makes sense to them is more real. Motive trumps morality successfully if we understand that motive (though we don't have to like it). And tarnished good guys are far more interesting. I've been reading Theresa Schwegel's Officer Down, and there are some great examples of flawed characters on both sides of the coin.

Hearth Cricket

Kathleen Ernst said...

I want complexity in all characters. There are many wonderful books (I'm sure) with purely evil bad guys, but those aren't books I choose to read. Same with protagonists...I'm most drawn to those characters who are struggling with something (but still basically good people.)

Keith Raffel said...

Thanks, Lisa.

Am having a great time in my WIP about a man who practically saves the world in his public persona and cheats/sleeps his way through life in his private one.

M Pax said...

Sounds very interesting, Keith.

I like flaws and messy characters. Mixing it up.

Sometimes I'd just like evil to be evil with no warm-fuzzies. Bad for bad's sake is fun.

Sheila Deeth said...

I like blurred lines. They make you think and keep you reading.

Alice Loweecey said...

My favorite kinds od characters are a protag with issues and an antag who thinks he/she's only doing the right thing.

Then again, my true villain in FoH is quite unrepentantly evil and enjoying every minute of it. Trying to convince him he's evil may be an uphill climb.

Interesting post!

Darrell James said...

Lisa- I'm usually bored by characters who are too good on either side of the story. But I guess I'm a traditionalist when it comes to the outcome. I still want to see the good guy redeemed and the bad guy put to justice. Nice post, it made me stop and consider.