Jan 23, 2015

The Joy of Virtuous Characters

“Perfect is boring.”
“Flaws make a character interesting.”

   Chances are you’ve heard this tidbit of writing advice before. And on the surface, it sounds, if you’ll pardon the pun, perfectly reasonable.  Real people aren’t paragons of virtue, and characters that feel real are interesting.


   There’s someone I hold up to be perfect.  And while many people around Him either called Him ‘Lord’ or demon-possessed, I suspect there were very few who called Him boring. Now, it’d be horrifically unfair of me to imply that people who advise you to give your characters flaws consider Jesus dull, because we’re not using the word perfect the same the same way. By perfect, I mean that Jesus is full of pure Goodness itself, but in the writing world ‘perfect character’ has in some places become shorthand for someone who doesn’t smoke, doesn’t chew, and doesn’t go with girls who do, thank you very much, and is overall not that bad of a guy. Contrast that with the likes of a Han Solo, and well, heh heh…

   And ‘bad boys’ who ride motorcycles and have Intriguing Pasts will nearly always win the heart of the heroine over the good boy best friend sorts who…uh… don’t ride motorcycles and don’t have Intriguing Pasts. 

   In short, by turning the Good Guy into a list of is-nots and do-nots, we risk making “Perfect is boring” a self-fulfilling prophecy.

   But it needn’t be so. 

   Don’t get me wrong; I’m not recommending you go and write characters that don’t have flaws, or trying to flame people that dispense the priceless writing wisdom that things generally don’t go well if you try.  I merely want to say that ‘good’ can be so much more than ‘not bad’, and give a shout-out to some of my favorite fictional friends.  

In his essay “A Piece of White Chalk”, G.K. Chesteron says,
“… And one of the two or three defiant verities of the best religious morality, of Christianity, for example, is exactly this same thing; the chief assertion of religious morality is that white is a colour. Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell…”
Possible debates about color theory aside, I couldn’t put it better.
So, here, in no particular order, are but a few characters I think display that virtue can be a joyful, exciting thing:

- Bishop Myriel from Les Miserables. In the eighth grade I was stubborn enough to attempt reading the unabridged version of Les Mis, because I ‘didn’t believe in butchering works of art.’  Confession time: I didn’t make it. But, before I threw in the towel, I did read the extensive character sketch of the Bishop of D- -, and what a character he was. Even before his famous deed with the silver - more on that in a minute - Hugo brought him to life with his almost quirky focus on charity, self-denial, and truth. Many times the town ladies thought he ought to have a new…something or other, I think a cushioned altar type thing…and raised the money  to do so, only to have him accept it yet promptly give all the funds  to the poor.  Once he went up on a mountain to preach to thieves, despite much urging not to do so because of the danger it would pose, and came down with a chest of returned jewels. 

Enter Jean Valjean, a recently released convict convict who looked like, well, a recently released convict. The innkeeper and all of the townspeople refused him dinner and lodging, but the bishop gave him both free of charge. And when Jean Valjean tried to make off with the Myriel’s silverware in the middle of the night, the bishop not only told the police that the silver was a gift but also insisted he take the candle sticks as well. Whoa.  This was the turning point in Jean Valjean’s life, and Christian nonfiction author Philip Yancey says on his website, “Frankly, I first truly understood grace while reading the great novel by Victor Hugo, Les Miserables.”

- Samwise Gamgee from The Lord Of The Rings. Gardener, optimist, lover of fireworks, and one of the most loyal friends in fantasy. From Frodo’s flight from the Shire to the fires of Mount Doom, Sam was right there, even if Frodo thought he didn’t want him to be.  He had a hobbit’s humility and the courage to stand unconditionally on the side of the good guys. The ring wouldn’t have made it to Mordor without Frodo, but “Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam.”

- Hermione Granger from Harry Potter. Armed with at least half a dozen books, Hermione fought tirelessly to right the wrongs in the wizarding world, whether by starting a society on behalf of house- elf rights or traipsing all over on a horcrux hunt to help take down the darkest wizard of all time.

- Lucy Pevensie from The Chronicles of Narnia.  Lucy looked into a wardrobe and found a world. So, naturally, her siblings assumed she was taking a game too far. But Lucy was always the girl who knew what she saw. She knew Narnia was real and that Mr. Tumnus was good and that the white witch was bad. And in Prince Caspian she knew she saw Aslan, even though the others are skeptical.  Her title was “Queen Lucy the Valiant.”

-Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird. Though he is neither the most spirited nor the most dynamic character in the novel, his quiet and dignified yet unshakable pursuit of truth and morality pervades it. In fact, this is one of the things Scout and Jem learn about him: despite not playing football or emulating his fellow fathers  in similar pursuits, he was no dud.

I could go on and on, but  that pretty much exhausts my list of favorite characters that people would recognize or not shun me for.  (Anyone other Winnie the Pooh fanatics out there?), and this post is getting long as it is.

Anyway... let us attempt to walk in the footsteps of these famous works, and tell the world that virtuous characters are a joy. Let us show that this goodness we speak of is a quality, a state of having rather than not having. Let the cry ring out that perfect isn't -necessarily- boring!  

Feel free to bring up your favorite virtuous characters in the comments!

- Miri Williams


  1. Great post! I totally agree with you on Hermione and Atticus! The other books I haven't actually read (I know, I know, GASP! XD) but I love this spin you put on the whole "imperfect" character thing. :D

    1. Thanks! Heh, I'm glad the spin turned out well. Originally this post was called "The False Dichotomy of Good Characters vs. Interesting Characters" and it got a bit rant-y, so I rewrote it to focus on good things ("Virtue is joyful!") instead of how things need to be less bad ("Calling moral blunders cool is not okay!!!") given the point of the post and all, XD.

      Lol, the only character I've seen in his natural novel habit recently is Atticus. In fact, it's been a long long while since I read 'Harry Potter' or 'Lord of the Rings' instead of just watching the movies. (GASP!)

    2. Wait, hold on. I just realized that I made it sound like I've read HP. Oops. Yeah, um, I haven't read those books either- just seen the movies after my friends (who all love the books) made me. :P It feels like I've read them, though, because I've seen practically all of the movies at least twice, I hear my friends making references all the time, and I see pictures on Pinterest all the time, but yeah... lol XD

  2. Great article! I enjoyed reading it :)

    1. Thank you! I enjoyed writing it. :)
      I really liked your post on Inspiration Journals a little while ago! My trusty pink notebook is beginning to wear out. *sniffles*

  3. This is a very good point! You actually listed a few of my favorite characters and I squealed a bit when you mentioned Atticus. I love that book and I love that character. ^-^ But thank you for saying this, Miri! Great post! :D
    -Morning Kay

    1. That book is one of my favorite I've ever had to read for school!
      Glad you liked the post. :D