On writing

A ‘good’ character does not generally make a compelling character

Dear Author

Please do not preach to me.

I know your character is nice to dogs and little old ladies. I know he helps everyone in his apartment building. He’s the go-to man for all things plumbing and carpentry and even loans until payday. I know he’s kind to homeless old Pete and slips him money once a week so Pete can buy himself a decent dinner.

I know your character had a hard life; the youngest child of a father who was head of a gang that dealt mayhem in the streets. His childhood was spent avoiding the inevitable all-out gang wars that erupted frequently. I know he was ashamed of his family and all they stood for. That he couldn’t wait to leave home and now he’s a self-made man who is proud to look at himself in the mirror every morning.

I know all this and I don’t care.

In fact, I’m hanging out for the younger child who wants to take over the gang. He’d be a lot more interesting to read about. And maybe Pete as one of those junkie beggars always asking for money who spits at your character when he offers Pete the sandwich he has just bought himself for lunch.

I know, too, that there genuinely are people who have picked themselves up out of bad situations and done well for themselves. They are kind to little old ladies, and little old men (and not so old people), and to animals and a whole lot of other things.

But I don’t want you to tell me that.

I especially don’t want you to tell me that in a two paragraph info dump close to the start of the book.

Evan stared into the mirror as he knotted his tie. This interview today was important. He’d come a long way since he’d cowered behind the rubbish bins in the meanest part of town while his father and his gang fought another turf war. He couldn’t wait to escape, and as soon as he’d turned eighteen he was off.

(It’s interesting that these people always wait until they’re eighteen to leave, by the way. If he hated it that much surely he’d have gone a lot earlier. Eighteen is a very middle-class age to leave home.) Then, a few paragraphs later.

Irene, from apartment two, knocked at the door. She wore an old dressing gown that came to her knees. It was saturated. “Evan, thank goodness you’re here. My kitchen taps have gone crazy. I can’t turn them off, there’s water spurting up to the ceiling.”

Our hero Evan good-naturedly goes to help her, even though he has an important interview, which he’s now going to be late for. After he’s changed his suit—he’s sopping wet by now—he goes out into the sunshine where homeless Pete has set up a cardboard box in the alley beside the apartment block.

Evan was always conscious of those who had less than him and tried to help them where he could. He handed over ten dollars. “Why don’t you get yourself some breakfast, Pete. You look as if you could do with some.”

“Bless you, Evan. You’re always so kind.”

You know Evan’s problem(s)? (He’s got lots of them.)

  • He’s the author’s soapbox—this man must be good because he’s had such a hard life but still managed to rise above it
  • He’s the author’s guilt trip—my main character must be a ‘good’ man
  • He’s a lazy way to build character—a stereotype who ticks all the right boxes. Hard life, yes. Kind heart, yes. Against the odds, yes.
  • He’s got no personality. He’s a nothing man
  • Decent traits do not automatically make decent characters. Even Hannibal Lecter was charming.
  • He has no redeeming features. I don’t like him.

“But,” you say from your authorial distance. “He’s good, he’s kind. I just told you he was.”

That’s right. You told me, and you know what they say to writers. Show, don’t tell. Think how much better that first paragraph would be if you put some more colour into it and took out some of the telling.

Evan knotted his tie with care. This interview today was important.

He was a long way from the boy who’d cowered behind the rubbish bins in the meanest part of town while his father and his gang fought another turf war. Not that he remembered the gang wars as much as he did the aftermath, when his father, all smiles, pulled out hundred dollar bills and sent Evan and his next older brother down to the pizza shop to buy pizzas and beer, while at home Dad added the new notches to his gun.

He’d left the day he got his license. He told people his father and mother were dead.

Suddenly Evan’s getting a personality. I like him better already.

So please don’t give me a sanitised cardboard cutout who I know is a ‘good person’ because he has all these redeeming features (and because you told me he was). ‘Good people’ like this make terrible characters.

Your no-longer-so-devoted reader

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