When Good Characters Do Bad Things
While deeply immersed in my current project today (see Other Works), I realized I was very aggravated with my main character. When I start a new story, I have a clear idea of how it should begin and how it will end, and a few of the major milestones along the way. I've never worked from a detailed outline. I do plot out a very loose chapter breakdown to keep the events straight, but I stress the word loose. The journey in the middle, what happens along the way, is the sweet gooey filling of writing for me. It’s the best part. But because I allow such freedom in my characters once I flesh them out, they sometimes behave in ways that I didn't plan. Sometimes they take a wrong turn. Sometimes I let them, as long as it’s in line with the character’s journey and basic struggle.
First of all, I should start by saying this isn't a new concept. Authors and scholars before me have explored the differences between consistently good and consistently bad characters, and their effect on readers. K. Maja Krakowiak wrote an entire dissertation on the effects of good versus bad versus morally ambiguous characters.
I’m actually talking about something different. In the books that I've written and the many that I've read, the best characters are the ones who aren't perfect. Because I’m not perfect. Nobody is. It’s part of what defines being human: trying to do the right thing, failing, and trying again. I believe most of us have good intentions. We know the difference between right and wrong, and we usually like to do the right thing. But sometimes it’s more fun to do the wrong thing. Sometimes it serves our own interests better to make the choice we know isn't right. And sometimes we do bad things because we don’t recognize that the choice we’re making is the wrong one, we feel it’s the right one for us at that moment.
One of the best parts of any piece of fiction is when you connect with a character. And almost as good as that connection, that instant recognition—I know this woman! She’s just like me!—is when we begin to live vicariously through the character. We see in her choices the same types of decisions we’d make in her shoes. We are invested in her success. Which inevitably leads to the beautiful agony when we realize our character is heading down the wrong path. We have to find out what will happen, and if and how she will eventually be okay again.
We all know the feeling of reading a book or watching a television show or movie and wanting to reach into the story and shake that character. What are you doing? You’re going to screw it all up! Don’t you know that? Think of the consequences! Watching the story unfold and being powerless to guide the character back to the right path is frustrating—and exhilarating, as long as the behavior fits the character and the context. After all, there’s a certain undeniable pleasure in seeing a favorite character make the same bad choices that we may have made ourselves. We’re not alone. And it makes that character that much more relatable.
I confess I’m behind on my reading list lately. So as I've been thinking of examples of good characters who do bad things, the two that keep popping into my head aren't literary characters but television characters. Well, Pretty Little Liars was actually a book before it became a TV series. In my own defense, this isn't technically “my” TV show. It’s my teenage daughter’s current favorite and I admit I get sucked in from time to time. And then there’s Gilmore Girls, which sadly ended its run a few years ago. I introduced Gilmore Girls to my daughter, and we've watched the entire series together. Twice, I kid you not. Each of these series features a very likable main character who falls unquestionably into the “good” category.
In Pretty Little Liars, Aria is one of four high school girls who try to solve the mystery of the disappearance of their friend. Aria is a character that is easy to like, she is concerned about her friends, she tries to be a good daughter, but her downfall is in the affair she is having with her English teacher Ezra. The connection begins at the start of the series, and has persisted into the fourth season. The ramifications of the pairing are obviously very serious. Ezra stands to lose his job and possibly his entire career if the affair is discovered. The damage to Aria would be less dire but equally as traumatic to a teenage girl. So, as a viewer, every time the two are shown on screen, I want to yell at them to knock it off. But. At the same time, I want the affair to continue. Because of the possible consequences. I want to see what will happen. I want to watch the outcome, and I want to see how Aria might recover if and when the affair comes to an end. Because, even though she makes bad choices, I still like her.
Rory Gilmore in the acclaimed series Gilmore Girls is a very good girl. Like, goody-two-shoes good. She’s an excellent student, a loving daughter, a conscientious part of the small community where she and her mother live. Even the smallest occasional missteps her character makes are quickly recognized and rectified by Rory. Her conscience is very functional. So when Rory engages in an escalating affair with her ex-boyfriend Dean, who is now married, I really want to smack her. But. Again with the but. The behavior is not out of character, as much as it might sound so. The story line is well written, and we see the buildup. We see Dean in his sad marriage with his bossy, manipulative wife. Not that that makes it okay. But. We've also already, by this point, watched the several season long love story between Rory and Dean, and we know that Dean never stopped pining for Rory. By the time the two make it to the bedroom, I’m fighting with myself over whether to be angry at her or give her a high five. That’s good character development, good story telling.
I didn't set out to give two examples that involve illicit affairs. Obviously there are a multitude of ways in which an essentially good person, or good character, can make a bad choice, not just those involving sex. We all make the occasional bad decision, and most of them involve boring, mundane things that don’t cause any terrible damage. Which just proves my point. Nobody’s perfect. This is life. It is messy, ugly at times, thrilling and painful and real. So when we find life mimicked in our entertainment, of course it draws us in. And of course we want to see the flawed heroine (or hero) come to her senses, right her wrongs, and prove that she is still Good. Even when she does bad things.
What books or movies (or other TV shows) come to mind when you think of good characters who do bad things? I'd love to hear your thoughts!