Fifty Shades of Gray: Why your good guy shouldn’t be all good
Have you ever met someone who was always happy, always looked perfectly put together, never seemed to get ruffled, and never made any bad decisions? The kind of person who never screwed up and for whom everything seemed to go right? So, how did you feel about that person? Not on the surface, but deep down. Be honest. They annoyed you, didn’t they? That little voice inside your head couldn’t help but suggest that there had to be a skeleton in their closet. No one could be that perfect, could they? Don’t feel bad. Most of us react that way to people who come across as flawless. They don’t seem believable and they make us feel a teensy bit insecure. (Okay, maybe more than a teensy bit. But only on a bad day.)
Even though we know that we react this way to people who are “too good” in real life, many authors still create protagonists that are all good when they sit down to write their novel. They worry that if they give their character any bad traits, readers won’t like them or won’t root for them, so they make them paragons of virtue, pillars of their community, ideal people. The problem is that readers react to perfect characters the same way that they react to perfect people in the real world: they don’t find them to be believable and they just might find them a bit annoying. Readers want a character they can relate to, and not many of us feel we are skating through life without making any mistakes. A character who appears to be doing so doesn’t give a reader much to connect with.
One-dimensional characters can also be boring. If your protagonist is always going to make the right decision, she’s not going to get herself into many scrapes that we’ll have to root for her to get out of. If he never has any doubts, then we’ll never be able to cheer when he overcomes them. If she’s never going to whip into that parking space when she knew that old lady was waiting to pull in, you rob your readers of the chance to scold her for her cold-heartedness (or chortle knowingly—sometimes you just need that space!). It’s all just so ho-hum.
Another problem with a character who is too good is that they rob your book of tension. One of the main sources of tension in a book is that we’re not sure how a character is going to respond, what choices they’re going to make. Is Don going to respond to the flirting of his coworker at the bar or go home? Is Jennifer going to put her mother into the run-down nursing home or move her into her spare bedroom? Is Kyle going to let the police know about the bag of money he found buried in his backyard or take the cash and move to Hawaii? If you’ve set your character up as a Goody Two-shoes, you haven’t left them any choice; they have to make the “right” decision. And if we already know how they’ll respond, why are we reading this book, anyway?
The same is true for your antagonist. If you make your bad guy all bad, he will come across as a caricature, not as a living, breathing person. Few people are all evil, and your story will be more interesting—and more relatable—if your villain has at least a few redeeming characteristics. You don’t need to have him save fifty orphans from a burning bus. Something as subtle as having him visit his ailing mother every Saturday to fix her tea will do to humanize him. It also doesn’t hurt to give readers an idea of why your villain is so villainous to begin with. Even the baddest of bad guys don’t usually start out that way. Something happened to turn him down the dark path and knowing how that happened will flesh out your antagonist, making him more than just a plot device to stymie your main character.
There are plenty of examples of stories where the guy in the white hat faces off against the guy in the black hat, and they can be fun and exciting if done right. But the stories that really stick with us are the ones that are more nuanced, the ones where the good guy sometimes does the wrong thing and where we sometimes feel sorry for the bad guy. These stories give us characters we can relate to and stakes to worry about, and they make us wonder how we would respond in similar situations. They take a little more effort to write, but they are worth it for the more complex, true-to-life stories they allow you to create.