Late summer is a good time for writing. It’s incredibly hot here, and so we’ve been spending more time indoors lately, even though we have projects we really ought to be working on outdoors. We’ve been putting decorative rocks and edging around the house, for example, and that’s sitting half-done. And the newly planted grass in our lawn is long enough now that it really needs to be cut. But, as I say, it’s too hot for that. So we might as well stay inside with a cool drink and write, yes? Yes.
S is finishing up Fiat Justitia, the third Oleg Omdahl mystery, set in our Myrciaverse. Last night she finished up a chapter, and I think she’s going to try to write another one today. Perhaps she’ll give an update on that sometime soon.
But anyway, the other day S and I were sitting around, discussing writing and characters (yes, we really do this), and we started talking about how to make a good character who is also a good person. In other words, how do you make a character who is interesting and realistic, and yet is also virtuous? It’s a question that interests us, because it seems like there’s a tendency on the part of many writers (I won’t name names) to assume that in order for a character to be interesting, the character has to have a dark side—a tendency to assume that the best way to make a character complex is to give him some sort of terrible moral flaw.
The topic came up because, in my latest novel, Joint Command, I managed to work in a cameo for one of our favorite characters from the Quartet. We’ve mentioned this character before, when we were discussing our favorite fantasy characters, and we compared her to Neville Longbottom. Neville doesn’t really have a moral flaw. (I mean, who knows what he grows in the greenhouses, but what happens in Herbology stays in Herbology.) As far as we ever see in the books, though, he’s a decent guy, and his flaw, if he has one, is that he’s a bit of a klutz at the beginning, and he’s really forgetful. None of that is his fault, though. And none of his problems really amount to a moral failing on his part. In fact, insofar as his life has a dark side, it all comes from the actions of other people. And he perseveres and puts up with it and eventually becomes an awesome hero.
That, I think, is the answer to the question we posed. A virtuous character can be interesting, but he still has to have an arc. He has to overcome something or achieve something, even if he’s a nice guy the whole time.
Our character, whose name is Tynble, has a similar arc to Neville’s. Obviously, I don’t want to give away too many spoilers about exactly what happens to her, but I suppose I have to reveal that she does manage to live through all four books, since she’s in Joint Command, and that novel takes place about twelve years later. To be honest, I mainly put her in as a surprise treat for S (who is the audience for whom all my books are written), though I do think her appearance in the book actually makes sense.
When I wrote her, I didn’t really give much thought to how her character might have changed in the intervening years. She’s just as cheerful and happy and whimsical and fundamentally decent as she was before. Perhaps that’s lazy writing on my part, but I like to think it isn’t. It’s not that I think she hasn’t had misfortune and sadness in her life over the course of those twelve years. But no matter what problems she might have had, she wouldn’t stop being who she fundamentally is. I think it says something about a character that she stays good, no matter what.
As S and I were talking about her and Neville, we started thinking of other fictional characters we’ve loved who share that same kind of unshakeable decency. Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter books, for example. And we can’t forget Lucy Pevensie, our favorite fantasy character of all time. And a few from outside our genre, like Richard Quinn in The Fountain Overflows, by Rebecca West—a book we read for S’s book club just recently. S informs me that this type of character is known on Tumblr and Twitter as “a precious cinnamon roll, too good for this world, too pure.” And what S and I have discovered is that apparently we like cinnamon rolls.
I suppose it’s a matter of balance. There are plenty of dreadful people in the Harry Potter stories, and there are people, like Ron Weasley, for example, who are good, but occasionally do the wrong thing or act like jerks. Likewise, Lucy’s shining light of goodness is balanced out by the much grayer morality of her brother Edmund or her cousin Eustace. Cinnamon rolls are great, but I doubt you could make a meal out of them and nothing else.