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Friday, May 29, 2015

GUEST POST: The Good in the Bad, and the Bad in the Good By Peter Orullian

You hear it a lot. Life isn’t black and white. It’s shades of grey. And where fantasy fiction is concerned, this axiom is repeated ad nauseum as relates characters in a story. Sometimes it sounds like this: “Every character is the hero of his own story.” Sometimes like this: “The only interesting character is one that has flaws.” Or even, “I don’t believe in villains.” They’re all saying the same thing. And they’re all pretty much right.

Why did I add the qualifier “pretty much?” Because in writing, you can get away with anything if you do it well. There are always counterexamples. But for the most part, the idea that there is “good in the bad, and bad in the good,” is accurate. It’s also good advice for writers.

Let me illustrate with a few examples:

In my most recent book, Trial of Intentions, one of the “heroes” makes a choice in the very first scene of the book. The fact that it takes place so early is deliberate. It does grow out of the natural movement of the story, but I also wanted to establish some things from the get go. And the choice he makes has several repercussions.

First, it becomes clear he has agency. Meaning, he’s not a pawn of the gods, or of prophecy, or of circumstances. He actively chooses to go his own way, which is different from what others want and expect, but is also consistent with his own interior logic.

Second, he’s not the “chosen one.” In effect, the reader learns there is no chosen one. Rather, we just have people doing the best they can to meet dire circumstances.

Third, he’s willing to do something awful, something reprehensible, in order to achieve the higher goal. It’s not a constant behavior. Most of the time his choices aren’t immoral or illegal. But from the get-go the reader understands that all is not sunny in his soul. There’s a dark place. A place that grows out of the wounds of his past. And it gives him the strength to make choices that might run the risk of making him unsympathetic to the reader.

But here’s the interesting part. A character who, on balance, is “good” but who slips up or acts in haste or deliberately does something you find distasteful, actually becomes more sympathetic. Why? That’s a loaded question, and there are many answers. But at least one reason is because it’s authentic. It’s how we, ourselves, are. None of us is pure. We each falter or harbor ill will or do things in fits of passion that aren’t the whole of us. But they are part of us. And so we can relate with a character who isn’t always virtuous.

I mean, isn’t this why we can relate with Lancelot and Guinevere? We may feel horrible for King Arthur. The man is trying to establish a new kind of government, really help his people. He loves his wife and friend. Trusts them. And they betray him. So, we ache a bit with Arthur. And we sure as hell wish that Lancelot and Guinevere hadn’t violated his trust with their affair. But they do love Arthur. They were victims of their own weaknesses. And that doesn’t make what they did right. But their infidelity isn’t the whole of who they are, either. The larger part of their characters are good and faithful. That’s why the situation is so painful for everyone.

By the way, one of my favorite scenes in cinema is Richard Harris’ “proposition” soliloquy. Watch this. You’ll thank me. Even if you’ve seen it before, it’s worth seeing again:


Now let’s look at the “good in the bad.” And for the time being, we’ll set aside the differences between an antagonist and a villain. Both can perform what I call a “gesture of humanity”—more on that in a moment.

Again, from Trial of Intentions, I have an antagonist who is driven to see his goals accomplished. And on the face of it, they’re worthy goals—social reform in the interest of the common man. Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that.

First, his passion makes him somewhat blind to certain realities. Realities that threaten the nations of the Eastlands—war and death.

Second, in service of his goals, he’s does a great many reprehensible things. So, on balance, this character is mostly “bad.” Meaning, we don’t agree with this tactics and behaviors. It’s an “ends justifies the means” mentality, but taken to an unhealthy extreme.

The fact that his goals have a certain nobility, regardless of how he attempts to achieve them, suggest he’s not just evil with a capital E. But that wasn’t sufficient for me in trying to draw him as an interesting character.

In the book, there’s a scene where he’s talking to a young boy. Initially, the conversation is one he’s orchestrated to attempt to coerce something from the child, who holds a position of some importance. And no doubt, he’d have been successful. But in the process of talking to the lad, something happens. He connects with the boy due to a kind of shared history. He lets go his machinations for a few hours, and sees before him . . . a child. A child like he once was. A child filled with worry and doubt and fear and in need of help.

In that moment, my “bad” guy offers what I call: a gesture of humanity. So, while taken across the entire novel, you’d consider him an antagonist, it’s not as neat and tidy as that. You’re not able to put him a corner with every other unthinking monster. Does it make him sympathetic? That’s for readers to decide—and it may, indeed, vary by reader. But it does make him more than one-dimensional. It does give him a bit of complexity, vs. stark blackness. It even lends a more human feeling to his motivations.

And as for other examples, they are legion. Consider Darth Vader, Severus Snape, the Grinch, the Phantom of the Opera, Apollo Creed, Javert in Les Miserables, and Satan in Paradise Lost, just to name a few. There’s probably a discussion about Family Guy in here, too, but I’ll leave that for another time.

For my purpose today (probably just the mood I’m in), I’ll focus briefly on two examples: The first is Javert. He’s an antagonist. We don’t care much for him, given the sympathy we have for Jean Valjean. But from Javert’s point of view, Valjean is a criminal. In the end, Javert lets Valjean go. But that human gesture comes as Javert has his own ethics and principles thrown into question. It’s not something he can live with. The consequence: He kills himself. A fantastic song delivers his broken mind:


I’m also drawn to Radion Raskolnikov from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov is our main POV character. He’s an antihero who plots and kills a pawnbroker woman. And yet . . . we find some sympathy for him. We do so even though part of his purpose is to test his own hypothesis that some people have the natural capability to commit murder. Maybe even the right to do so. Check out this scene from the BBC’s version with John Simm, who also played in Dr. Who. Of particular interest is Raskolnikov’s article. Listen to it closely. Very salient to our conversation, I think.


Did you recognize the Emperor?

Now, this example is different, since it’s told from the POV of the killer. But I like it as an example of how everyone feels justified of their own actions—even if there’s a touch of madness in them. Which returns us to where we began: “Every character is the hero of his own story.”

So . . . the bad in the good, and the good in the bad. It’s about making your characters sympathetic, which is to say relatable, not sappy or maudlin. I don’t care for the term “grey,” though. Somehow it feels like a convenience. Lazy, maybe.

In any case, that’s my time. Thanks, Mihir, for the chance to share some thoughts.

Official Author Website
Order The Unremembered:The Author's Definitive Edition HERE
Order Trial Of Intentions HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Peter Orullian was born and brought up in Utah. He graduated magna cum laude from the University of Utah with an Honors B.A. in English, and was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Kappa Phi National Honor Societies. He has two passions: Writing and Music. Beyond these consuming interests, he currently works at Microsoft in the Interactive Entertainment Business (Xbox), loves the outdoors (with a fondness for the Rocky Mountains that he'll never lose) and taking his Jeep deep into the back-country, but more than anything enjoys spending time with his family.


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