Writing about good people
“Fiction depends on conflict, so we prefer the characters who are not floating virtuously above the fray of human existence but rather digging down into that fray and taking an active and therefore morally complex part in it.” Patricia from Pasadena, in The New York Times of August 8, 2015, in response to an online “debate” called “Can a Virtuous Character Be Interesting?”
It is hard to create a fictional character that is good and also interesting. It is also hard to write about real people who are good, or at least trying their best to be so, and make them as true-to-life as they are in person, with their insecurities and hidden sins. But that’s a challenge that, if met, can make literature, both fiction and non-fiction, deeply transformative.
Is that a valid motive for writing, transformation? If a writer tries to turn characters into tools to say something “good,” the result is inevitably boring and sometimes offensive, far from transformative. Good people go through torturous battles with self and the world, battles that the evil haven’t dreamed of yet. Bringing transformative moral battles to life is at least part of what makes great literature.
It's far from great literature, but my book about The Christian Science Monitor contains stories of real people who tried with heart and soul to be good. Some of them succeeded; some did more harm than good. And yet even the ones who failed sowed seeds that grew into something lovely down the road. Goodness has a deep-running power far beyond its present appearance, but it takes not only the perspective of time but also the perspective of the writer’s own moral struggles and growth to recognize and put that power into words that make sense to wayward humans.
Good people are not dull. In fact, they tackle much more interesting challenges than evil people, because people who do bad things are simply going with the flow of conventional thinking. Good people constantly swim upstream. I like the quote from Simone Weil in her book Gravity and Grace, which writer Alice Gregory cited in her part of the New York Times “debate” linked to above: “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.”
Take one of the most “good” characters in history, Christ Jesus. A cursory reading of the Bible would seem to make him a cardboard figure, advantaged from birth, saying all the right things, healing with a snap of his fingers, making a token exchange of one life in the flesh for a much richer one in an angelic heavenly kingdom. Deadly dull. And incredibly superficial.
But think of what he really went through: Struggle to understand the legacy of a conception without a man; trying to ditch his parents at twelve years old to test his spiritual muscle with older scholars; dealing with a pushy mother, with desperate mobs, with murderous enemies who wanted nothing more than to be rid of this “fellow” who was undermining their power; nailed to a crude cross, knowing his life would be meaningless if he let down for a second and spit on those who mocked him; waking up in a tomb and knowing he had to start all over with the convincing, and do it in a much shorter time with a much smaller audience; escaping said tomb without physical tools; dealing with astonished and doubting disciples who may or may not cause him to be forgotten in a few years; leaving willingly the few earthly pleasures he had, as well as the students on whom his legacy depended, for a life that probably seemed very real and pleasurable at that point but also somewhat unknown. A whole life, in other words, growing from a searching young man to a man capable of not only raising the dead but raising himself, with nothing but trouble and challenge and the graceful shepherding of a Father. This man was not boring!
Good people battle evil constantly, in themselves and in others. If a writer can’t render a good character interesting, the problem is not in the goodness but in the writer’s lack of understanding of what goodness is and faces very day. To me, it’s a much greater and more interesting challenge to write about a good person in a way that he or she is recognizable to other people as real and true, than to render an evil person believable. Doing the latter can be fun, but doing the former is harder and more rewarding.
Good people, for example, can heal. I’ve seen it in my own experience. How do you characterize a healing person, in fiction or nonfiction, without making him or her seem like an insufferable bore? Part of the key, I think, is to hone in on the conflict and resistance the person must face, including their struggles with their own self-loathing and self-righteousness. Then you have a real person who does real healing, and also shops and makes loves and drives too fast.
Everyone wants to be good. It’s just that evil can be really, really tempting, for writers and for all of us.