Have you ever read a perfect novel?
I’m not talking about your most favorite book every, the one you think is flawless and you have a copy of it framed on your wall. The perfect I’m talking about is the kind that has perfect characters and a perfectly resolved plot and perfectly rounded themes.
It’s that one book that has everything so exact it’s hard to even tell what’s wrong with it. The villain is so evil and the hero is so good and the themes are so plain it’s impossible to put a proverbial figure on the not-so-proverbial problem.
The problem with this story is not in the "well-written" plot, nor even in the dialogue that flows forth throughout.
It falls within the starkness of everything.
When your hero is flawless and your villain is the polar opposite, when the themes stand out like a missing thumb, you’ve got a problem.
Light and Dark
We all have this idea of what a struggle between good and evil looks like. Some see humanity facing itself, others see humanity facing a dying world, others see an all-powerful god (or gods) pitted against a potent enemy who wants nothing more than to rob the god of his creations.
Yet in your story, how to you portray what is evil and what is good when most struggles are not that clear-cut. When your novel is not about a god vs. a devil, how do you create that struggle?
Some attempt to recreate this stark conflict by molding their hero and villain to appear as a miniature god and devil. This isn’t their intent, perhaps, but it is what is truly behind the creation of these characters.
The hero is flawless. Well, at least they are now. Perhaps long ago they were on the dark side and then came to the good side and haven’t looked back. They’re kind and truthful and loyal and ready to resist all the “temptations” of the evil villain.
Meanwhile, the villain is so deeply sunk in darkness that even his name tends to be dark and evil. Like Death or Wrath or the Dark Lord of Darkness and Night. They wear the stereotypical black and have red/black eyes and are the epitome of all things evil. They kill everything and plan to destroy the world.
Due to the starkness of these characters, you have to have a similarly plain and simple theme. “Truth wins” or “Evil cannot overcome hope” or some such basic ideal becomes the centerpiece of this novel. The theme is spat out by various characters in the dialogue, it’s thought about for long periods of time by the hero, it’s twisted and convoluted by the villain, and we get a satisfying end as good overcomes evil.
Where Flawless is Flawed
Are you perfect?
With very few exceptions (okay, no real exceptions), the answer is no. If you’re a human (or some substitute), you’re not perfect.
You’ve messed up at least once. Even if it was switching the blue for the green decorations and suddenly the four-year-old’s birthday party is ruined.
If every human being is messed up somehow, why is squire Ronald Perfectpants so… perfect? He always does what is right and – more often than not - doesn’t even think about doing the wrong thing. He spouts off the theme every other sentence and never does the wrong thing. If it’s a novel written for a specific audience who believe a specific religion (such as Christianity), then the character spouts phrases from the right religious text and confronts temptation that they easily overcome.
That is not real.
That is not the sort of character anyone over fourteen likes to read about (and many fourteen or thirteen year-olds as well). Your average nine-year-old won’t care. Then they’ll grow up and realize that no, people aren’t perfect and characters who are don’t work.
Where Evil is Smevil
Dark Lord of Darkness and Night. Sounds pretty scary, hm?
Look around at the villains who are commonly applauded as great villains. They’re not named Death or some other allegorical emotion like Anger. With few exceptions, villains have names which would appear normal (in their world; fantasy names aren’t so normal when you first read them).
Every good villain has this thing called motivation.
Motivation is their reason for doing what they do. Every character has motivation, but the motivation of the villain is perhaps the most important motivation of all. If they don’t have a good reason to kill and steal and lie to get where they’re going, then they’re not a good villain.
If they kill because they feel like it, they’re not a good villain.
If they lie because you don’t want them to spill the beans yet, they’re not a good villain.
If they go against the hero because they’re bored, they’re not a good villain.
Good villains have a motivation for everything. Everything has a reason and a place. They are purposeful about all they do.
But even more than that, they present their motivations as good intentions. When the reader learns why the villain does what he does, we need to be able to pause.
Your villain’s motivation ought to stop your reader in their tracks.
We, as readers of your novel, need to be able to stop and think for a moment about that motivation. It needs to make us question: “Would we do the same thing?”
When your villain’s motivation becomes understandable, then you’ve written a good villain. When the reader isn’t sure which side they’d be on, you’ve written a good villain.
The Properties of Gray
There are always two extremes to an issue. It is the strangeness with the human race; we enjoy our polarized issues, do we not?
For every story with a perfect hero and purely evil villain, there is a story with neither.
Stories where you put down the book and realize you learned… nothing. You have nothing to ponder beside the emptiness of life, when in reality life isn’t empty at all.
The book has presented a broken hero (often without any redeeming quality besides being attractive to… every character in the story) and an equally broken villain. They’re struggling to struggle and they’re so worn. None of the characters have anything to live for except their next dose of dopamine triggering the pleasure centers of their brain (which each character achieves in a variety of ways).
And the moral of the story?
“Do what you want.”
Stories like this aren’t real stories. If they show nothing but emptiness they are nothing. When a story teaches that everything is nothing, they themselves are nothing.
Everything is presented in these stories as gray. What is right is wrong and what is wrong is right. Nothing is “good” or “bad”, it simply “is”.
Do what you want.
This sort of tale leaves you feeling empty. They resolve poorly (if at all) and in such a way that you have to decide how it ends. Everything is left up the air and “you can decide what you like”.
It’s fulfilling as chewing a mouthful of air and claiming it makes you full.
The world is not all gray. Just as it is not all black and white, not everything is up for the individual or group to decide.
The Importance of Color
Monday I talked about how color is important to your prose. Describing a color can open up a world of imagination and information.
I picked that topic for this weeks’ blip for a reason.
There is a constant debate these days about whether or not morality is black and white. Some people claim it’s all gray and nothing is wrong unless you personally feel it’s wrong for you. Others claim everything is right or wrong and there is no subjectivity.
In reality, they’re both wrong.
Life is not black and white. Nor is it smudged and gray like smoke and charcoal.
Our choices are tinged with vibrant colors. Each choice we make is filled with myriads of colors. Anger tints our decisions and choices red, joy streaks orange across our minds. Sadness brings blue and fear a quivering sort of chameleon green-violet. Frustration rots a putrid brown.
Good stories show the world for what it is, do they not?
Good stories present the world not in black-and-white, nor in a faded, hopeless gray.
Colors are splashed on the canvas, fill our vision, make us throb with a bright and pure hope. Even as we ponder the motivation of the villain and the mistakes of the hero, we pull from the story complex answers to our questions.
The hero makes mistakes; maybe he’s a little broken in places. Everyone has their fractures.
Our villain is dark and evil, but everyone has a spark of light.
We have themes in our story. But they hide and twist and whisper in the distance.
Readers want to chase down your themes. Let them.
Lead us on a merry chase. And the fulfillment will make us content.
What about you? Is your story colorful, or lost in shadows and white lights? Leave a comment and share!
Post of the Week:
How Guidelines can Actually Help You Write a Better Novel (Emily Tjaden)