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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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. New favorite article. 🙂

    This is especially helpful since I’m going to have one of these characters for an MC in my upcoming trilogy. The possibilities are exciting.

  2. This is incredibly relatable. I have a righteous character in my fantasy novel, a warrior who is more inclined to follow his personal moral code than the strict laws set on him by his society. However, he struggles. He struggles because defying the law could get him sent back to the prison that still gives him nightmares and panic attacks. He struggles because sometimes he’s not sure if it’s OK to lie to authority to clear the names of people whose crimes he thinks were justified. He does many things an antihero might do, but with more hesitation and internal struggle, which in my humble opinion makes him more compelling than your typical cool, “I do what I want with no moral qualms,” maverick antihero.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think we might generalize and say that the difference between a “good” character and an antihero is that the one agonizes before his choices and the other agonizes after.

      • I’m copying and pasting this distinction. Thank you for putting it so succinctly!

      • I love this insight into “righteous” characters vs anti-heroes.

        Any thoughts on anti-villains? I have an anti-villain who does some horrible things for both good and bad reasons. Sometimes he agonizes over it before hand but probably more so afterward , but he’ll do anything to keep his brother safe.

      • Awesome post! I write inspirational fiction and don’t want my readers preached at. This is so helpful. I have a few of your books on the craft of writing and structure. Looking forward to more info from you. Thanks, bunches. Coffee and chocolate on me.

  3. This is one of your best analyses ever (which is saying plenty!).

    From the other direction: I’ve always thought “deal with the devil” was a terrible metaphor, because actual corruption is rarely someone leaping deep into evil all at once. A story or lesson that makes that choice look simple makes it look stupid.

    It’s too easy to write goodness the same way: we pick what’s right and just show it, and think that makes the character inspiring. But making it so easy not only bypasses a huge range of conflicts, it’s downright alienating to the reader. Most of us have our own limits where we want to take our best nature further but haven’t yet found the courage for it… so the last thing we want is some “hero” doing what we won’t and never paying the cost we’re all too aware of.

    Being good is one of the hardest goals there is. It needs to be earned.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Although I believe right and wrong are moral absolutes, each human’s approach to these infinite concepts is going to be different, based on our own insights and blind spots. At the end of the day, we’re each responsible for our own beliefs on these subjects, rather than those imposed by the social conditioning of the majority. That kind of responsibility is never easy or simple, and to portray it as such is disingenuous at best.

  4. Such an accurate article; well done.
    I think “good” characters (real or imagined) are those who KNOW they are flawed and aren’t afraid to acknowledge that fact.
    Those who deny inevitable struggles with inherent character flaws are those who either become unbelievable or end up with personality disorders.

    Incidentally, your comment, “But [good people] access these virtues from a place of wholeness within themselves, rather than some desperate need to fulfill other people’s expectations” speaks volumes as to the motivation for striving to be good.
    Perhaps a topic for another post???

    Press on Toward the Goal.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That statement was largely based on an excellent book I read recently, which I highly recommend: Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend.

  5. Thank you! I was just talking with some friends about how I oftentimes dislike the “good” characters I come across in fiction … e.g. Mary from the Little House books (which is really an unfair example because she’s seen through Laura’s eyes, but it’s the first thing that comes to mind). I think the trick is that they have to be good, HUMAN characters.

    That quote from Olivia de Havilland was so amazing! She’s one of my favorite actresses. I never really thought about it, but that must be true. I mean, being good goes against our nature!

    Anyway, amazing post, and I can’t thank you enough for it! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Olivia’s perhaps most famous role–Melanie in Gone With the Wind–is also a good example. She was so frustratingly good–and yet, Olivia brought her to life in a way that still make her likable.

  6. Interesting that you quote Olivia de Haviland, who played one of the best “righteous characters,” Melanie Wilkes in GONE WITH THE WIND. Melanie is interesting for her blind spots (she loves Scarlett, who despises and resents her for most of the novel!) and for her willingness to buck public opinion when necessary (she is kind to Belle Watling, the town madam, out of basic good manners and humanity, and she sees the best in Captain Butler). I think Melanie is a terrific character.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      She’s even better in the book, IMO. One of the best aspects of bringing her to life is Rhett’s vast and unwavering respect for her. Readers respect Rhett’s honesty, which gives Melanie’s extra credibility, even when she’s being naive about Scarlett.

  7. Yes! You’ve pushed my buttons in a good way!

    I love this post. I love point number 5 in particular, because a past job has left me permanently burned-out on people who think that the essence of being good is to refuse to stand up for themselves, for others, or their own principles. Usually because they had some weird idea that conflict is “bad.” They never seemed to notice they were acting as accomplices to their own misfortune. Their misconception is the author of sooo much misery.

    I also like the point that being good does not always result in good consequences. I remember saying here that I sometimes will have sensible actions result in negative consequences (to build mystery, tension, etc). One is not righteous for doing the right thing when it’s easy and everybody agrees with them. That’s not courage, either, and one can’t be righteous without courage.

    If the character’s righteousness isn’t tested, then it’s merely what’s called an “informed attribute,” where we know a character has an attribute because the text says so and not because we see evidence of it.

    I also now want to see an Olivia de Havilland movie. I have already seen the Magnificent Seven. Because, Yul Brynner 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Don’t you mean: Because, Steve McQueen. 😉

      But, yes, great point about purposefully allowing surprising negative consequences. Not only are negative consequences almost always more interesting (due to their continuing ability to get between characters and their goals), they also offer the benefit of creating dichotomy, juxtaposition, and, ultimately, plot reveals.

  8. Andrewiswriting says:

    Ok, Steve Rogers. No question. He’s the best.

    But a very VERY close second for me is Michael Carpenter from the Dresden Files. He’s a righteous man of God and the best ambassador for a believer I’ve ever read. (And I’m not a believer)

    He sacrifices, he defends others, he appreciates the cost of his vocation to his family, and he straightens Harry out more than once. I think he’s the best character Butcher’s ever written.

    And just like Steve, he stands immovable for what’s right. A scene in Skin Game, where Harry’s at rock bottom and goes to Michael for guidance, brings me to tears every time I read it. His simple, humble goodness is wonderful.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I have yet to read that one. I know everyone says it’s Butcher’s best, but I got burned out on the Fury series before got there.

      • Andrewiswriting says:

        I left the car and shambled up to the gate. After a brief pause, I opened it, and continued to the front door.
        I knocked, wondering who might be home. It was the middle of the day. The kids would all be in school. For a second, I debated fleeing, driving away. What was I hoping to accomplish here? What could I possibly do here that would make victory in my treach-off with Nicodemus any more likely?
        It was wholly against reason.
        I stood on the front porch of Michael Carpenter’s house, and only then did I realize that I was crying, and had been for a while. Again, I considered simple, childish flight. But my feet didn’t move.
        A moment later, a good man opened the door.
        Michael Carpenter was well over six feet tall, and if he didn’t have quite the same musculature he’d carried when he’d been an active Knight of the Cross, he still looked like he could take most men apart without breaking a sweat. His brown hair was more deeply threaded with silver than it had been before, and his beard was even more markedly grizzled. There were a few more lines on his face, especially around the eyes and mouth—smile lines, I thought. He wore jeans and a blue flannel work shirt, and he walked with the aid of a cane.
        He’d gotten the injury fighting beside me because I hadn’t acted fast enough to prevent it. I’d failed Michael, too.
        My view of him went watery and vague and fuzzed out completely.
        “I think I need help,” I heard myself whisper, voice little more than a rasp. “I think I’m lost.”
        There was not an instant’s hesitation in his answer or in his deep, gentle voice.
        “Come in,” my friend said.
        I felt something break in my chest, and let out a single sob that came out sounding like a harsh, strangled groan.

        Oh man, even reading it now. That dude. It probably helps that Michael reminds me of a friend I’ve had since kindergarten, another good and decent man. It’s easy to identify with Dresden’s part in this scene.

  9. I was reminded of this Simone Weil quote, “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.”

  10. Sarah J. says:

    Yes! i love a good “Good Guy.” They are some of the most encouraging characters to read, even if they are fictional. and that’s what i hope my fiction will be, not just fun but encouraging. thank you for breaking them down so well.

    in view of point 5- I do think it’s good to remember that they might not be a push over, but they might have to pick their battles (or at least, LEARN to pick their battles). They might be willing to give on a lot of little things in order to be heard on the big things. This is something i think is super relate-able. Only a short sighted person is going to go nuts over every little thing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      True, although I do think it’s important to acknowledge that fine line where compassion and compromise do not coexist. Being a fanatic is one thing, but characters who are going to end up being faithful in the big things have to start by being faithful in the small things, same as any of us.

  11. M.L. Bull says:

    Another great post about characters. All of the 5 tips are very informative and helpful for creating righteous characters, and applies to life too. I especially liked number 5. Too many people think being good is always submitting to the rules or letting others take you for granted.

    The first tip “Being good Requires Sacrifice” particularly applies to my character Eva in my Christian Romance novel ‘With You Forever’ as she sacrifices for her disabled husband Andre. She suffers a lot and struggles to adjust to his changed attitude and personality toward her, while tempted by her previous high school crush Caleb who seems suddenly drawn to her (though he didn’t used to be), and accompanies her to “help her cope with her emotions.”

    On the other hand, Andre must decide whether he’ll continue feeling sorry for himself, or fight to get better to guard the woman he loves from the clutches of Caleb, especially since Caleb’s the man who actually caused Andre’s car accident, according to an eyewitness neighbor. ? Andre is trapped in a jam though, as he wants Eva to stay by him because she truly loves him, and not because of his health improving. Eva’s decision between the two men is ultimately what determines the ending.

    (I know I probably spilled the beans of the concept of the plot, but I at least left out the story details. Hehe. ? )

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, admittedly, the context of this post suggest being “good” means being “heroic” on a grander scale. But sometimes the most courageous thing any of us can do is live with kindness and fortitude.

  12. Jeff Wunder says:

    I would find it difficult to write a righteous protagonist with a flat arc. Wouldn’t be interesting. I suppose I could write them as a mystery, carefully revealing character elements in the right sequence, bit by bit. But it seems more natural to show characters undergoing a process of self-discovery. As in real life, we don’t always know who we really are until we’re tested, when our true values are exposed. Same way in a story, where many factors going into character decisions and transformations (good and bad) hold the readers interest.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The awesome thing about the Flat Arc is that it allows the author to showcase change in the characters around the protagonist. The protag becomes a catalyst for powerful change, which is always interesting in its own right.

      • Jeff Wunder says:

        Good point -thanks! I can think of a few novels like that. And even though the protagonist doesn’t really change, the readers’s knowledge of them does change over the course of the novel, which can be almost the same thing.

  13. Deep subject, K.M. Not many would take it on. I must say that if I ever saw a ‘righteous’ protagonist on the screen, I would fully anticipate the disintegration of his/her beliefs. The beliefs of a ‘bad’ person and the beliefs of a ‘good’ person are both beliefs. In all cases, they must be destroyed for the audience to get their money’s worth. I’m not a Christian, but I quote the Christian mystics who insist that in order to be filled with the Holy Spirit, you have to empty yourself of… EVEN THE BELIEF IN GOD! No one does that willingly. So it would have to be one heck of a powerful Act II to bring the protag that low. For this reason, I hated Chariots of Fire. Too much goodness. Just thinking about it, I feel ill… excuse me…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ah, I love Chariots of Fire. 🙂

      All stories are about change–i.e., the dismantling of one set of beliefs in exchange for another–but that does not always mean the protagonist must change.

      Flat-Arc characters enter a story already possessing the fundamentals of the story’s Truth, which makes them the catalyst for change in the lives of the supporting cast.

  14. Curt Wellumson says:

    “Few things are harder to put up with than a good example” Mark Twain
    I”m polishing my family feud novel. My editor says; “it’s the best bad novel” shes ever read. Flat arc for sure, starts strong, ends well, but the middle sags.
    So…because I’m a good guy trying to make another good guy readable, I’ll re-do my last re-do until it’s right. Maybe I’ll cuss a little, I”m not too good, but future readers won’t hear that part.
    Thanks for the important lessons K.M.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Keep in mind that the Second Arc–even in a Flat Arc–is a period of testing. The character will still be *challenged* in his Truth, even to the point sometimes of almost forsaking it. When you’re able to really up the consequences the character will have to face if he chooses to *maintain* the Truth, that’s where the magic happens.

  15. In my current novel, I’ve got a character who is generally a good guy, wants to do good,everyone likes him–except his stepbrother of course, who hates him for “being perfect” in everyone else eyes. He’s got issues, but desires to do right and be kind and peaceful, and this desire propels him forward to discover and face who he really is and forces him to make some choices that go against his original values of right and wrong. At times, the “bad” stepbrother appears more righteous than the “righteous” protagonist, and together they learn lessons about forgiveness, mercy, and justice.

    My protag’s best friend is a devout Christian. He seeks to honor God in everything he does and is always pointing those around him back to trusting God and what the Scriptures say, so he is my most righteous character in the book–motivated by a desire to serve God and care for his fellow man. But he’s still human. His idea of being rebellious is to drink a beer in defiance of his father (the minister) on his 18th birthday, though this is hardly rebellious according to others. He’s a likable character and a rock in the storm for both the protag and his stepbrother, and has to face some difficult decisions with harsh consequences–like choosing to side with someone accused of murder and then later dealing with stabbing his father to help himself and his friends escape.

    I think the thing that turns a righteous character into someone relatable is showing their inner struggles and forcing them to grow. Readers will not relate to perfection. Church is full of sinners who are way too often trying to portray perfection. My protag lives most of his life trying to portray perfection but it’s not until his imperfections are staring him in the face that his relationships deepen and mend, and he is able to mature and grow.

  16. HonestScribe says:

    Thank you so much for this article! I like writing “good” characters, but always struggle with them because I don’t want to make them “Mary Sues.” After having read this, I let out a huge sigh of relief. Come to find out, I’ve been following these guidelines instinctively the whole time. That gives me a lot of peace of mind.

    I think it’s just as easy to make a boring anti-hero as a boring righteous character. Anti-heroes have been so overdone that unless an author finds an interesting spin, they can come across as mindless trend-followers. Having a charcter be bad just for badness sake without contributing anything to the story as a whole simply makes that character annoying, and for similar reasons as boring righteous characters. How does someone make that many bad decisions without his life being a mess? Again, like you’re always saying, it goes back to theme. True, maybe the theme is that our bad behavior doesn’t matter, but I’ve seen too much evidence for the opposite in my own and others’ lives that it doesn’t ring true. There are consequences for all behavior, good or bad, and I like reading authors who acknowledge that.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. Speaking of Wolverine (whom I cited as an antihero example in the post), his backstory was botched so bad in one of his spin-off movies that it robbed him of much of the interesting impetus that shoudl have driven the character. I talked about that here.

  17. I was writing an important battle scene for my “good” protagonist. It was to be his first. I wanted to write a scene for the night before. I had thoughts of Henry V “Upon the king … oh hard condition.”

    In doing my research, I came across Phobos, the god of fear. It was (is) a real problem that fear can quickly spread through an entire camp like flames in a forest fire. So I started thinking about fear (Phobos) from the perspective of a battle leader whose “job” it is to control mass fear, as well as from an individual personally fighter fear. Then the scene unfolded in my mind and I began to write. The interesting thing is that the scene evolved into something that completely caught me by surprise.

    Being “good” and doing what is “right” is NOT easy. But again, I am researching real scenarios, not just looking at Shakespeare, before I write.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nice. The key to writing characters—“good” or not—is starting from that place of honesty. We have to put ourselves in our characters’ shoes and be vulnerable with what we find.

  18. Daniel Kuehn says:

    This is the best article I’ve ever on this subject. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!

    I’ve always believed the basics of this article and have endeavored to craft my characters as such. But to have it written so clearly, concisely, and with such a strong argument, is a huge boon.

    I’m gonna pass this on.

  19. I was away for a few days and just read your article. I think maybe God put it on hold for me so I’d catch it at just the right time. 🙂

    Speaking of examples of good characters (and consequences) I just saw `Big Hero 6′ for the first time. Hero’s big brother is exactly the sort of good character you’re talking about -one who is warm and human and relatable, and who is willing to makes sacrifices for his desire to hlep others (which is echoed by his robot).

  20. I think this might be a sign for me. I’m working on my book which begins as a collection of short stories where all of the protagonists are what you describe here. They each witness or are subject to an injustice in the law and try to do the right thing which backfires on them. I haven’t done anything on the story in a while and I think your article here is giving me the push I need. Thank you.

  21. All those rules follow from one principle:
    The nicer your hero, the more conflict you need.
    Which follows from this principle:
    Don’t be boring.

  22. From a literary perspective, this is one of the best posts on this site. Anti-heroes often make us feel better about our own moral mediocrity. They’re comfortable.

    But righteous characters–at least the type you’ve described here–make us uncomfortable. They put a spotlight on the things we should be doing, on the choices and sacrifices we should be making, but don’t.

    I always think of Samwise Gamgee, who left his comfortable home to protect his best friend, even when the journey threatened to break them both.

    “Come, Mr. Frodo!’ he cried. ‘I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you.”

    How many characters in, say, Game of Thrones would say that? How many would simply run on, pursuing their own ambitions?

    I think there’s a place for both kinds of stories. We need both, in different ways. But right now, the balance has shifted so far away from righteous characters that audiences are no longer morally challenged by our art and fiction.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I was going to copy some of this comment and agree with it, but in the end I just agree with it all. So: yes. 🙂

      • I’m glad! This was a fantastic post with perfect cultural timing. And I’m so glad you used Cap–he’s one of the best examples of a well-made righteous character. I love him so much.

        I’m interviewing a bunch of the Marvel cast next month for my job, and if he’s included, I’m not going to be able to do anything but squeal and stammer.

        Seriously, though—great job on this one.

  23. You have gone and outdone yourself with this one. First of all, you have articulated what I find so difficult about the infatuation with anti-heroes. And you’ve done it WELL. You have convincingly explained both:
    A. Why it is so important to have Good heroes
    and
    B. Why it is so difficult to make them interesting.

    I can only hope Hollywood is listening.

    I have a recommendation for you with regard to exploring a truly virtuous white knight who is both incorruptible but also deeply conflicted with the cost of choosing Right. Read the Expanse series by the collaborative of James S. A. Corey, beginning with Leviathan Awakes. There are two Good Guys in the book, but they don’t get along with each other very well. I’d explain in depth, but you need to read the book(s) first.

  24. Oh man…I love righteous characters because they are so fun to torture. Two of my father figures, Devlin from GENMOS and Kalle from NOBILIS are righteos, but they both suffer.

    Devlin is a classic Shakespearean tragic character. He tries to do what he always Thinks is right, but every decision he makes causes someone he loves, pain and misery.

    Kalle is a kinda good guy, but it’s discovered that it’s all a ruse to cover up a lifetime of caused pain that he caused to BE that way, and by the mid point of the first book, he begins to revert to his violent past a little too happily.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The latter makes me think of the movie A History of Violence.

      • While that movie is on my watchlist, I’ve never actually seen it. My NETFLIX Queue is emberrassingly long.

        Both novels original drafts were penned 15 years ago, so they’ve had time to mature like fine wine, and he allowed me the chance to flaw the characters up from my 18 year old self’s rather naive vision.

  25. 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. 🙂

  26. 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.

  27. 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.!

  28. 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!

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

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