Last week, I introduced the idea that often, “good guys” can come across as boring. I’m not sure if this tendency is a deficiency in the way they are written (i.e., the author’s understanding of what constitutes “goodness” is shallow) or a deficiency in the way we perceive them (as in: being in mental turmoil/moral conflict ourselves, we are drawn more toward those who remind us of ourselves. “I can be a hero too!”) But the fact remains that our society tends to turn more and more toward gritty, angsty, brooding, conflicted, dangerous heroes rather than just loving to see a good guy do good guy things.
This led to an interesting mental exercise for me: which characters am I drawn to not in spite of their goodness but because of their goodness? Which characters do I like not because they’re overcoming their own messed-upness, but because they’re just good? Which characters interest me not primarily through smarts, or cleverness, or capability, but because of their moral character? If you want to play, too, I go into my criteria more in last week’s post. But suffice it to say, it was actually a challenge to think of mortal, fallible characters who fit this bill.
Yet I did think of some. I shared the first, Robert Armstrong, in last week’s post. Now I’ll share more, in the hopes of arriving at some idea of what can make goodness compelling and interesting to us.
Captain America, Winter Soldier. Everyone expects this. He’s the poster boy for making good look cool (something DC’s new Superman has been…uneven at). But goodness plus competence doesn’t put him on this list. His goodness being his primary point of interest puts him on this list, and this is why I chose Winter Soldier specifically.
Winter Soldier puts Cap in a seemingly impossible situation, testing whether his principles will hold under intense pressure. His colleagues and authorities are all telling him to compromise, even making a fairly good case for compromise, and the part that made me hold my breath was wondering if he would… and wondering if he would be proven wrong somehow. The stakes for me became not whether Hydra would win, but whether Cap’s principles would remain intact. They do, and his conviction even attracts others to his cause, helping him win the day.
(Cap gets bonus points because my husband’s name is literally Cap, and it is because he holds to his principles with the same steady courage that I respect him so ardently.)
Musidorus, The New Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney. This item will interest approximately no one, but the very long (and tragically unfinished) Renaissance-era New Arcadia features one of my first literary loves, Prince Musidorus. Philip Sidney decided he would make The New Arcadia an exercise in developing readers’ virtue. The result: a book from the 1500s that had me laughing, cheering, moaning, and crying as a young college student.
Musidorus and his fellow prince Pyrocles are both virtuous, but young: undeveloped, sometimes mistaken, but determined to do right. I prefer Musidorus over Pyrocles because he’s more sensible (MUSE-idorus) and less impulsive (PYRE-ocles=fiery). Musidorus follows Pyrocles into a nearly impossible, unsustainable situation involving forbidden princesses, disguises, mistaken identities, and love quadrangles. Shenanigans ensue. What attracts me to Musidorus’s goodness is the breathless hope that he will continue to make the right choices, coming fully into his virtue, not messing it all up–and wondering how the heck that’s even possible. Unfortunately, we never find out: Sidney died in the midst of writing the book’s climactic clash.
Raoden, Elantris by Brandon Sanderson. Brandon Sanderson can write a compelling good character. It was a toss-up for me between Raoden and Elend Venture from Mistborn, who is also quite compelling–but Raoden got to me first.
Raoden is in a terrible situation in his book. He’s lost everything, having been not only cursed with a terrible ailment but also cast out of his once-high position in society. Among the other accursed in a rotting city, he fights against the despair that has driven others insane. He refuses to abandon his morals or his optimism, in the midst of a hopeless city that is doing its best to browbeat both out of him. Rather than giving in to those around him who want to steal his principles (and his life), he draws others to his cause, and he ends up creating a better world for everyone. Especially after so many gritty grimdark stories, I was nervous not only for him but for his morals: can he be right in this dark world? Can good principles do what he’s asking them to do here? Won’t he have to compromise, even a little? So it’s fascinating not just to watch the plot (which is great) but also just to watch his goodness.
T’Challa, Black Panther. Another MCU hero? I’m not even that big of a Marvel fangirl!
But yes. And he has, for now, perhaps surpassed Captain America as my favorite Marvel hero. He’s serious, passionate, and steadfast. His arc in Black Panther is to find the narrow path of virtue between two extremes: the paranoid isolationism of his father, and the violent activism of Killmonger. T’Challa, like so many of the others, inspires loyalty and draws a host of awesome allies to his cause. But more than that, he has the courage to look honestly and plainly at his own assumptions and to challenge even those he respects when he has reason to believe they are wrong. My favorite thing about him is that he is able to have empathy with the villain even while opposing him to the death. To acknowledge the good of Killmonger’s argument and the legitimate wrong done to him, but oppose the hate-filled solution he proposes, shows a man who rejects easy polarities. Here is depth of character rare in a society in which disagreement often leads to personal hatred.
Uncle Iroh, Avatar: The Last Airbender. If you ask anyone who’s watched this amazing animated series who their favorite character is, Uncle Iroh is likely to be in their top three. In a cast brim-full of amazing characters, Iroh inspires universal respect. Not only is he competent and humorous, but he’s also the conscience of the series.
Despite Iroh’s many compelling qualities, his goodness is what fascinates me about him. He’s a war general with a militant past and a tragic loss to boot, so you’d expect someone bitter and disillusioned—but he has responded to tragedy with love for the good, not anger at the bad.
Iroh’s main battle is interesting, too: it’s not to defeat anyone, but to win the soul of his nephew, Zuko. As a viewer, I was always wondering if his good example, encouragement, and support would be good enough to save his conflicted, embittered nephew. And then–spoiler alert–Iroh loses. The moral defeat of Zuko choosing the wrong path devastated me.
But the power of Iroh’s goodness is that even after the battle seems lost, the very idea of Iroh is hot coals to Zuko’s conscience. He almost has more of an effect then, and it leads Zuko toward redemption. Even in loss, Iroh’s goodness ends up winning.
I noticed a few patterns as I selected my good people:
- They are all, for better or worse, men. I can’t find many good women who are in it just for the sake of good principles. Rather, many got disqualified for ulterior motives: they did their plots for love, or to prove themselves. Or (like Lucie Manette, who began this discussion) they are simply caricatures, not real people. If you can think of some women (one of my friends mentioned Jane Bennet, for example), I would love to encounter them for myself. (Wonder Woman, maybe? I don’t remember her movie very well.)
- They are all speculative fiction characters. Which I guess just shows my preferences.
- They all draw people to themselves. As much as they repel some who want them to compromise, their steadfastness serves as inspiration to others. They help others to be the best they can be.
- You’ll notice Aragorn didn’t make my list—and that’s because his principles are never really challenged in the book. (This is not a flaw in LOTR—it’s just not the point). He’s being challenged physically and emotionally, but he’s not being asked to compromise. But what seems to thrill me most about the goodness of good characters is steadfastness. No matter what their friends say, no matter the societal pressures, no matter the defeats—they refuse to compromise their morality on the altar of victory or practicality. “And what does it profit a man, if he should gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
What about you? Which characters’ souls have captivated you with their goodness?