5 Tips for Writing a Likable “Righteous” Character

5 Tips for Writing A Likable "Righteous" CharacterIt ain’t easy being green, but sometimes it’s even harder being good. When you think of great characters in books and movies, those who pop to mind are often people of moral complexity: youngsters coming of age in a complicated world, antiheroes haunted by their own dark natures, wounded souls fighting not to succumb to the evil inflicted by others—and sometimes just plain psychotic whackos.

I’m sure you can think of at least one great character that fits every one of those categories. But what about writing righteous characters? You know, just some everyday bloke who sees what’s right and wants to do it. What about him?

The first question we might ask is: Is there even a place for the righteous character in storytelling anymore? 

To which, I think we’d all agree there is. After all, he’s someone we likely run into, in our own lives, more often than we do people in the previous categories. Indeed, most of us believe we see this person in the mirror on more days than not.

But that begs a follow-up question: How can you write a righteous character who is interesting?

How can goodness and with-it-ness compare to the intriguing complexity raised by more morally-complicated characters? How can we prevent morally-upright characters from stagnating on the page? How can we keep them from preaching at our readers? Or—heaven forbid—from being unrelatable, obnoxious goody-goodies?

The Secret to Creating “Righteous” Characters Readers Will Cheer

Powerful themes don’t provide answers so much as ask questions. Messed-up characters inspire us to ask questions about our own flawed nature. In a larger-than-life way, they reflect our own darkness and confusion back to us—and thereby help us see ourselves and our world more clearly.

On the other hand, righteous characters too often seem bent, not on getting us to ask questions, but simply on telling us what’s right. Although excellent moral examples are always worthwhile in their place, no one appreciates being preached at.

This means writing righteous characters is about making certain they, too, are larger-than-life in their ability to reflect our own struggle for goodness. We all want to be that person, but we’ve all tried long enough and hard enough to know—as I said in the opening—it ain’t easy.

And that’s the key.

5 Steps to Turning a “Good” Person Into an Amazing Character

You want to write powerfully inspiring “good” characters with the ability to prompt questions of complex morality? No sweat. All you gotta do is put them through hell—using the following five steps.

1. Being Good Requires Sacrifice

Not This: If your character blithely trips through life, meting justice to others who are sublimely thankful, making everything right without breaking a sweat, never stumbling into mistakes, and always getting the girl—then, yeah, he’s very likely to be the most utterly obnoxious person you’ll ever read about.

Why? Two reasons.

1. He’s not relatable.

Does any of that paragraph sound even remotely like your own experience trying to be a good person?

2. He triggers our sense of unfairness.

You just kind of want to stick out your foot and trip him, don’t you? (Okay, yeah, sorry, I know we’re supposed to be talking about being good people today, but, seriously…!) He’s too perfect, and it’s annoying. Why should the rules of life pass him by when they don’t skip the rest of us?

This: Here’s your homework assignment for the week: go watch the classic western The Magnificent Seven (which I may or may not have memorized after watching it obsessively every single week when I was thirteen). At the film’s Midpoint, when evil bandit Calvera (played by Eli Wallach) is confronted by heroic gunslinger Yul Brynner, he generously offers up one of the most important bits of advice a writer can ever glean:

Sooner or later, you must pay for every good deed!

Eli Wallach Calvera Magnificient Seven

Characters should never get off easy, but especially when you’re writing righteous characters. If it was easy to do the right thing, to sacrifice ourselves for others, to stand against the tide of public opinion—heck, we’d all be superheroes. But that’s not how it works. Sometimes making even the tiniest of right choices will the most difficult thing any of us will ever do.

And so it should be for your character. He just helped a little old lady across the street? Good. Hit him with a bus. Or even better, make it personal: let him know the consequences of his actions beforehand. Talk about internal conflict! If he saves that lady, he ends up in coma. Is it worth it? Suddenly, you have a narrative that is asking questions instead of declaring answers.

Like This: Since we’re talking about The Magnificent Seven, how about the scene just before the Third Plot Point, in which the panicked villagers demand the seven gunmen abandon the fight and leave them to Calvera before they’re all killed. The gunmen sit down to talk it out and come face to face with the consequences of their decision: either way, bad things happen. Either the villagers will be destroyed, or the gunmen will probably get slaughtered, perhaps even betrayed—and the villagers might get destroyed anyway.

What do they do?

They’re good guys, of course. So they stay. They fight. They die. And in the end, the survivors can only acknowledge:

Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose.

Magnificent Seven Ending Yul Brynner Steve McQueen Only the farms have won

2. Being Good Does Not Always Mean Following the Rules

Not This: Rules are important. But they’re not the stuff of great themes. Rules are not questions; they are answers. If your “good” character exists simply to spout the rules (“and that’s why you should never, ever smoke, kids!”), then she’s going to get annoying in about 0-60.

Even if she’s trying really hard not to be annoying about it, but just to mind her own business and make sure all her Ts are crossed and her Is dotted, she’s still likely to be, at best, pretty boring. What’s the best thing about Hermione Granger—that she follows all the rules? Or that she sometimes punches Draco in the face and breaks all the rules to do the right thing?

In fact, if your character is a naturally rule-following, law-abiding citizen, then forcing her into a situation in which her conscience demands she break away—hmm, sounds like some interesting consequences, doesn’t it?

This: “Good” characters are often (although not always) Flat-Arc characters who already possess the story’s main thematic Truth. When this is so, it means the story world and the majority of the supporting characters need to be in opposition to this Truth. (After all: no opposition, no obstacle, no conflict.) By extension, of course, this means the story world is in the grip of a non-Truth—the Lie.

A good character cannot cop to the Lie. He can’t follow its rules because he knows—or at least is on a journey to discovering—these rules are not, in fact, good rules. The authority that created them is not a good authority. Hence, although the good character may not be a rebel at heart, his convictions demand nothing less of him within his Lie-ridden world.

blood song anthony ryanLike This: Anthony Ryan’s excellent start-up fantasy novel Blood Song is a great example. It features one of the best “good” characters I’ve seen in a long time. Warrior-monk Vaelin is an unequivocally good person: loyal, conscientious, devout, honorable, kind. But he is still crafted as a compelling and fascinating character in no small part due to the fact he is set in growing opposition to the world in which he lives.

This contrast is emphasized nicely in his relationship with his best friend and fellow warrior-monk Caito—who is a strict rule-follower. They often disagree because Vaelin’s conscience compels him away from the socially-acceptable ideas of what it means to be “a good person.” Vaelin isn’t a rebel at heart; he’s a rebel merely because he won’t compromise his own Truth. And that’s compelling.

3. Being Good Doesn’t Have to Come Naturally

Not This: One of the most obnoxious things about obnoxiously good characters is that it all seems so… effortless for them. Even when they are faced by dramatic consequences, they still make the right hard choice without blinking an eye. Then they endure the following tortures with stoicism and, at the end of it all, philosophize wisely.

Too often, we equate “goodness” with “flawlessness”—which is boring. This is why it’s sometimes easier to gravitate to antihero characters, who find it so much harder to be good. They don’t choose to confront their demons; rather, they’re forced to pay the piper.

Tony Stark, from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is an excellent example. He’s a mess, and it’s ridiculously hard for him to make the right decisions without fouling up. Almost all the good he does in the films is really just cleaning up after the disasters he’s created himself. He’s effortlessly compelling because he’s endlessly flawed.

This: Golden-Hollywood actress Olivia de Havilland made what at first seems a counter-intuitive observation:

Olivia De Havilland Playing Good Girls

They require more from the author as well. When done well, good characters are among the most relatable and powerful. This all starts with creating realistic characters. Even characters whose first inclination might be to do the right thing should eventually have to delve down into the very darkest depths of themselves to wrangle with the difficulty of the choices they are making.

Like This: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 is still one of my all-time favorite superhero movies, in no small part because it so handily grapples with deep quandaries of moral complexity. Peter Parker is a good person, no question. He wants to do the right thing for no other reason than because it’s right. But it’s so hard. And it’s costing him so much.

Indeed, the entire film might be viewed as an existential struggle with coming to grips with the idea of self-sacrifice. At one point, Peter agonizes:

Am I not supposed to have what I want? What I need?

Spider-Man 2 Peter Parker Tobey Maguire

Tell me if that one doesn’t hit you right in the heart of your own struggles with measuring up to your personal ideals.

4. Being Good Doesn’t Mean Taking Your Goodness for Granted

Not This: Nothing is more insufferable than someone who knows he’s good—which is why we love Mal Reynolds so much:

Mercy is the mark of a great man. [stab] Guess I’m just a good man. [stab] Well, I’m all right.

Morality may be black and white, but it’s also an infinite concept. We’re finite—which means we see the world in the Technicolor of myriad shifting shades of gray. Even when we’re in situations in which we’re 98% clear we’re doing the right thing, there are almost always contingencies that give cause for doubt.

If we’re not willing to entertain at least the tentative possibility we’re not as right as we think we are, then—as they say in Bad Day at Black Rock (guess we’re on a John Sturges kick today):

You’re not only wrong, you’re wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad-Day-at-Black-Rock Spencer Tracy Ernest Borgnine

That’s not only obnoxious, it’s downright scary.

This: Writing righteous characters offers every bit as much scope for thematic discussion as do tortured antihero characters. Indeed, a gut-checking “good” character who is working through his salvation with fear and trembling can give rise to some of the most interesting insights into human nature.

Good characters don’t always know what the right answer is. They’re not omniscient. They weren’t gifted with the “good gene” at birth. They’re just like the rest of us, trying to figure it out as we go. As such, they offer a tremendous aspect of relatability.

Midshipman's Hope David Feintuch Seafort SagaLike This: David Feintuch’s sci-fi Seafort Saga is the story of conscientious young naval officer Nicholas Seafort, who goes to space and is thrust into the role of captain far too early. Although desiring fervently to be a righteous man, he spends the entire series grappling with doubts about morality, humanity, and particularly himself.

In the hands of a less skillful author, Seafort’s obsessive pursuit of perfection might have come across as self-righteousness, which is always the kiss of death for “good” characters. Instead, through his monumental self-doubt, readers are able to relate to him even in the face of some truly atrocious actions on his part.

5. Being Good Doesn’t Mean Being a Pushover

Not This: “Nice guys finish last”—right? In real life, we often have this idea that “being good” means “being nice,” and “being nice” means obliging others by acquiescing to their demands. This is why “good” characters are sometimes viewed through the stereotype of being doormats.

Here’s the problem: goodness is strength. Letting other people run you over: that’s weakness. The two can’t coexist. Good people very often are gentle, kind, and generous. But they access these virtues from a place of wholeness within themselves, rather than some desperate need to fulfill other people’s expectations.

This is yet another reason authors often gravitate to antihero characters. You think Wolverine is gonna let people push him around and tell him what to do? Nuh-huh.

Wolverine X-Men First Class Hugh Jackman

This: But neither does your “good” character need to be pushed around. As long as you’re observing the previous four tenets of creating a balanced and realistic “righteous” character, you will get all the more bang for your buck by having your character stand up for her beliefs.

She doesn’t think the popular girl at school has a right to cut in front of her at the lunch counter every day? Then she has no business capitulating. Sure, she’s going to have to take the consequences. Sure, Miss Prom Queen might tell her she’s selfish and inconsiderate, since she has to hurry through lunch to get to her committee meeting. Doesn’t matter. If your protag thinks something is right, she should do it.

Like This: When I think of compelling “good” characters, one of the first people to pop to mind is inevitably Steve Rogers. What could so easily have been a flag-waving, self-righteous, goody-goody, flat-as-a-pancake character has become one of the most compelling members of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Steve consistently proves he will not allow his actions to be dictated by others: not by his employers, not by the government, and not by his friends. It costs him. He struggles with it. But like his one-time love Peggy, he believes:

Compromise where you can. And where you can’t, don’t. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right, even if the whole world is telling you to move. It is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye and say, “No. You move.”

Captain American Civil War Peggy's Funeral

When seen from within the perspective of a character who respects his own fallibility, who is willing to face the fact that his convictions are who he is, and who understands the consequences of any given choice—the above statement becomes a rallying cry for “good” characters.

“Good” characters are not always “right” characters. But they are people willing to work through their own darkness and the darkness around them in their need to be true to themselves and their understanding of life. Because that is something we are all searching for, on one level or another, that is perhaps the most relatable characteristic you will ever write.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you ever struggled to write a “good” character? Why or why not? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I’ve always struggled with the concept of writing a Righteous Character. As far as Marvel, I think I’ve demonstrated that by constantly being Team Iron Man instead of Team Cap. Thanks for the tips!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I love them both. They’re a great contrast. But, yeah, I’m a Team Cap girl. 🙂

  2. Jenny Mingus says:

    I love, love Captain America, but you missed an opportunity to point out that he, himself, is a rule-breaking mothereffer. Even in Captain America: the First Avenger before his faith in people had taken so many massive hits, he was trying repeatedly to enlist in the armed forces under false pretenses (which is a felony) and when he was told that he can’t go and rescue Bucky’s unit, he proceeds to go behind the backs of his CO and rescue the hell out of said unit.

    But again, that’s what made Civil War so damn compelling. Whether you were Team Iron or Team Cap, all the movies beforehand and all the stuff in the current movies, you understood why Steve and Tony would make the choices that they did. Which makes it miles better than the comic book arc of the same name, which had Iron Man turn into (as my brother puts it) Nazi-tron and what could have been an interesting ethical debate, collapsed into a godawful mess.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. I feel like Civil War was the film the entire series was building up to (even more so than Infinity Wars), in that it was such a tremendously honest manifestation of both characters.

  3. Spiderman 2!! I thought I was the only one who recognised this super hero flick stands above most! Such a well constructed story. I like that you used the pic from that moment where he leans against the window and literally says those lines out loud. I think it’s that combination of easily understood MC issues in the situation he’s in mixed thematically with what’s happening in the big story — his doubt, losing his powers versus purpose and a use for Spiderman that puts this film, in my opinion, above so many others. Good example K.M.!

  4. Maria Hossain says:

    This post is so in tune with my MMC. He’s a good character out of his need for love but after realizing how much wrong people are making him do just so that he can “earn their appreciation”, he realizes it’s better to be unloved for doing the right thing than be loved for doing the wrong thing.
    Thanks for this post!

  5. It seems your tips for writing a righteous character are also good rules for living life. Love it.

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