6.22.2017

Interested in Good

It is a curious phenomenon, considering that most authors are decent, law-abiding citizens, that so many imbue their evil characters with more brio than their good ones. I’ll be reading through a string of decent scenes about the good guys interacting when pow! I reach this scene filled with psychopathic swagger. The writing is so intense, so alluring that I’m left thinking, “Boy, the author really loves writing about the villain.”

The question then becomes: why can’t this be done for the hero? I understand the basic stumbling block. Good isn’t as interesting as evil. Yet if the one is to triumph over the other in the end, the shining knight must be able to hold the reader’s attention somehow.

Luckily, good and evil are not absolute categories. A person may perform a minor act of evil, such as not stopping his car to let pedestrians use the crosswalk, merely by being too lazy. He may witness a black person at work being insulted but not say anything, taking the easy route of fitting in. For that matter, eating chocolate cake while on a diet can be regarded as evil.

This ambiguity allows an author more freedom of scope. While the protagonist is aimed in a good direction, she can be given vexing personal issues in which good and evil are relative. I’ll use a common example and run with it, to show its possible complexity (i.e., ability to grip the reader). Let’s take an alcoholic partner. What do you do to stop a loved one from drinking to excess? You have to get along with the person, so you can’t hound him every night. If you do, you’ll get blasted, and to some degree, he’s got a right to fire off. Who likes to be nagged all the time? If you dislike it so much, why don’t you walk out the door?

That opens the avenue to background stories in which you can show how the heroine fell in love with the partner. In the future direction, it provides a way for the plot line to build, because of course you want to show greater and greater excess. Maybe the end isn’t a seven-car pile-up, but the ongoing clash is going to produce some bang-up result.

The protagonist isn’t evil, but fighting evil contains its own complications. If one method doesn’t work, you try another. The more things don’t work, the more force is applied. And then . . . where is the line between good and evil?

Exercise: We all have riveting experiences about which we can write with passion. Choose one in your personal life that has been echoing in your mind for years. Identify the issue and then think how it could be reshaped to fit your hero. Work out a skein of 7-8 subplot scenes in which the problem escalates step by step. Is it ever resolved at all?

“It is not true that good can only follow from good and evil only from evil, but that often the opposite is true.”
—Max Weber

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine



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