A few weeks ago I wrote a paper on Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis. It has long been one of my favorite books, and it was a delight to delve deeply into its world and ideas. The book retells the story of Cupid and Psyche from the perspective of the jealous sister. Lewis does a remarkable job of writing the story in a way that helps you to sympathize with the anti-hero of the story. Orual is complex, passionate, conflicted, self-deceiving, bold. Though she proves to be the character in the “wrong” she is incredibly compelling, and her feelings are very relatable. What struck me, however, is how comparatively boring and flat Psyche (the picture of love and faith in the story) is. She seems to walk around in a perpetual state of delight, blessing things and being beautiful. If she had an aura, I imagine it would be rose pink. She is beautiful, but she is inaccessible.
I don’t say this to disparage the story…it remains one of my favorites and is most deeply touching. But it did make me wonder… why is it that “good” characters tend to be portrayed in such a boring way?
It seems that people have a hard time conceiving of a legitimately good and compelling character, and tend to fluctuate from one extreme to the other. This also seems to relate to the idea that “good” people are really rather boring. I am reminded of my childhood memories of Elsie Dinsmore who was impeccably “good,” but seemed to have no contact with us mere mortals who are sometimes exasperated by our nasty, brutish cousins.
In response to these “goody-two shoes” characters, there are the harrowed heroes of modern literature like Katniss, for whom we wring our hands, wondering if she will ever just do the right thing!
It seems that writers can’t find a happy medium. It reminds me of a post I wrote a long while ago about whether or not Aragorn is a compelling character. Over all, I find that this elicits the question: Is there really such a thing as a good, relatable, and compelling character?
As I’ve pondered this, I think it comes down to what mean when we say a “good” character. It seems that often goodness is viewed as a lack of badness. Elsie, for instance, is good because she doesn’t lie, she doesn’t skip church, and because she isn’t like her naughty cousins. Of course, these are all in theory “good” things. My contention however, is that they are viewing “goodness” as dependent on “badness,” because to prove that something is good it must have a lack of bad.
This seems a rather backwards understanding to me. It has been the Christian tradition to understand sin and evil (or badness, if you will) as the lack or corruption of goodness. Goodness is the genuine article, and badness is the masquerading fake. Goodness, therefore, can’t be well-defined as a lack of badness; it’s entirely the other way around!
That’s where the problem comes into literary characters. When we view characters in stories as good only in so much as that they do not do bad things, they become vacuous and insipid characters. A truly good character would be one more complex, more complete, more full of bursting green life and reality. Next to a truly good character, a complex bad character would wilt as it is only a bent frame of the goodness for which it was created.
Another element of this tension we must understand is the reality of the fall. If there is evil in the world (and a cursory glance at the news will reveal there is), a character who is simply unaware of evil or temptation can’t be deemed good on the merits of ignorance. I think this idea sometimes sneaks into how we judge people. It can easily lead us to believe that those who are tempted less are to be praised more than those who fight temptation daily. I firmly believe that truly good characters, and indeed people, are not good for lack of temptation, but for their triumphs over it.
But in all of this, as a Christian, I find I must look to Christ. All of the goodness in us is due to our reflection of the good image of God in us, and Christ is the living, breathing, fleshy embodiment of that goodness. Jesus is anything but insipid. He was tempted, but he prevailed. He is full of compassion, anger, grief, jocularity, affection, hunger, humour, indignation, love, compassion…he is full and real in a way that no human this side of heaven will ever be. But surely, he shows us that good characters are not good because they are “not bad” but because they are more thoroughly alive and full of goodness. After all, evil is only a poor imitation.
I believe we must adjust our pictures of “good” characters, because it profoundly changes how we think of, and indeed try to live, good lives. I wish there were less characters who were not “not bad”, and more who showed the lively and virile strength of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. A character who embodies these can’t be boring, because to have any of these characteristics comes in dramatic conflict with the world we live in, the kind of conflict that makes a complex, conflicted, strong characters.
I don’t know about you, but stories have always inspired and informed me. They help me make sense of my life and to imagine how I might live. That’s why I think it is so important to examine how we present good characters. To me, goodness is not a lack of badness, but a full dynamic person, denying the corruptions of evil, and reflecting the image of God. This kind of hero lives in the world I live in; there is temptation, but there is also strength to overcome it.
In the end, I think I side with Anne of Green Gables: “I think I’d like a hero (my edit) who could have been wicked, but wasn’t.”
Joy Clarkson is a featured columnist and the Director of Marketing at Humane Pursuits. She is a graduate of Biola University, and also spent time as a visiting student at Oxford University studying C.S. Lewis, Literature, and Theology. Her days are spent helping people and companies tell their stories well, pondering, writing, singing, and drinking too much Yorkshire Gold tea.