Are people essentially good, or essentially bad? Since time immemorial, armchair philosophers have debated this vexing question, which seems to provoke heated, polarizing answers. But the truth lies somewhere in between the extremes.
We humans are complex beings; our actions are driven by a litany of competing forces, some self-serving, some altruistic, some whose motivation is murky. We hold lofty ideals and fall short of upholding them. We have flaws. We wear many masks, which we change regularly depending on how it might serve us in an ever-changing set of circumstances. This ambiguity is what makes us interesting, and this fact should be reflected in your fictional characters too.
Moral absolutes—being totally pure, or totally evil—make for predictable, cardboard-cutout, one-dimensional characters. Not only are such characters dull, they don’t feel “real.” If your character is infallibly good, they’re a superhero. If they’re unswervingly evil, they’re a comic book villain. These archetypes can be fun in the right context, but superheroes and comic book villains belong in, well, comic books (and maybe the occasional Bond flick). Authentic people are defined by moral and emotional shades of grey rather than black and white. Their motivation is hard to pin down: a complex calculus of contradictory impulses.
Why should readers care about what motivates a character? Well, part of the joy of fiction is that it provides a puzzle (or an assemblage of little puzzles) for readers to figure out. Where is the plot going? Why does she behave the way she does? Is this narrator reliable? What does he really mean when he says one thing but does another? Leaving some uncertainty in the characterization opens a space for the reader to play Freud and ruminate over why a character acts and thinks a certain way. This is why moral ambiguity is preferable to clear-cut absolutes.
In my experience as an editor, I’ve found that protagonists are more vulnerable to the trap of absolutism than other characters. While the protagonist should usually be the most fully formed, three-dimensional character in the book, many writers, perhaps out of a desire to create a sympathetic figure for readers to rally behind, paint with too broad a brush held in too heavy a hand. Their main character becomes a kind of mushy ideal rather than a real person: not so much a protagonist as an empty, protagonist-shaped vessel in which to pour a big, bland premade batch of character glop.
We love to cheer for heroes. But heroism doesn’t mean perfection or infallibility. If you want your protagonist to embody certain ideals, it’s more compelling to test their ideals by challenging them.
The same goes for the other side of the moral spectrum. Nothing bores me faster than an antagonist who is so exaggeratedly wicked that there’s no depth or mystery to their personality. If you want your novel centered around a memorable “bad guy” whom readers “love to hate,” do it with a lighter touch. Don’t just turn them into evil incarnate. In fiction, immorality is much more compelling when it’s mixed in with neutral or positive hues.
If a character you’re writing seems “flat” or uninteresting, ask yourself: does this person have moral ambiguity? Do they slide back and forth on the ethical spectrum? If not, inflecting them with some nuance or internal contradiction will give them the spark needed to bring them to life. Give your villain a softer side he reveals to no one. Give your hero a moral Achilles’ heel that undermines his greatness. And always keep your readers guessing about what comes next.
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