Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Most Interesting Man in the World

There's this strange belief, that many people share, that for a character to be interesting, he must be flawed. This reasoning caused the director of the Lord of the Rings movies to rewrite Faramir as merely a crappier, less-manly Boromir, irresolute and treacherous, instead of the paragon of virtue, a reminder of the Numenorean blood that still flowed in Gondor, that we find in the books. It is also this reasoning that played a large role in utterly destroying the terrible "adaptations" of the Narnia books. Peter becomes the whiny, petty, utterly selfish would-be king, picking fights in railway stations and engaging in pointless power struggles... and then in the next movie the exact same thing happens to Edmund. All in the name of making the characters interesting by making them flawed.

As if Lucy is not infinitely more interesting than Edmund, or Faramir less interesting than Boromir. 

And we forget (or ignore) that Aslan is easily the most interesting character in the series.

And we forget that of all men, Jesus is easily the most interesting.

Jesus. The only sinless man. The only person who does not have the "fatal flaw" demanded in Greek tragedy. The man who, according to all the secular writers of the world, should be by far the least interesting. And yet he is not. This un-flawed man has not ceased to be talked about in the 2,000 years since his death. He has shaped history, shaped the world, buildings have been built and destroyed, nations have formed and collapsed, laws have been passed and repealed the world over... because of this man. Because of this one, perfectly good, un-flawed, most interesting man. 

The problem is that people view these good men as though their actions were predetermined. "When a character is always good," they say, "You always know what he is going to do." But you do not know. You view "good" as a static state of being. But it is not. It is active, ever more active than evil, which is often a mere slipping into the easier and more "natural" way. Evil is the passive state: Evil accepts the temptation to take the ring, evil accepts the temptation to be whiny and petty and demand the respect you think you deserve. But good... good is active. Good must be active, for it to be good. Good must reject the impulse to take the ring to Osgiliath. Good must actively push against the easy decision to lapse into selfish pride. You can conceive of the Dos Equis man (the 2nd most interesting man in the world) saving an orphanage full of kittens while riding on a flaming motorcycle... it is utterly inconceivable that he should do the easy thing, the "flawed, dynamic, interesting" thing, and let it perish. 

Every moment in the life of a good man is full of struggle and battle: Every battle a battle of life and death, and every victory a heroic victory. It would have been the easy, natural thing for Job to "curse God and die." And yet Job would be a far less interesting man if he had done that. It would have been the easy, natural thing for Jesus to turn stones into bread at Satan's request, or to bow down to Satan and inherit the world without the pain of the cross... and yet the story of Jesus would be far less interesting, and the world would not even have noticed his passing. 


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Comments that merely consist of links, without any attempt whatsoever to interact with the post in any way, will be deleted. I cannot believe I just had to write this.

  2. Interesting thoughts on good and evil. I have to agree that people often have a distorted view of good as some stoic, passive state of existence. You're right, that good means combating evil -- fighting through love, service, faith, and grace to advance God's kingdom and bash down the gates of Hell.

    As a fiction writer, however, I have to respectfully disagree with the conclusion you draw from Jesus's example, which seems to be that a perfect character is the most interesting of all because he fights to do good all the time (referring to perfect characters in fiction, rather than Jesus Christ). Flaws are, of course, so highly prized in fiction because they make characters more realistic, and fiction is supposed to have the "ring of truth" to it. In other words, it should make sense in the light of what we know about human nature.

    The problem with a perfect character is that there was and is only One. So, unless a writer is penning a tale about Christ Himself, or with an allegorical representation of Him, a perfect character is going to ring false. A realistic, accessible character will otherwise have some flaw to him or her, if you dig deep enough into them to let their imperfections show.

    Of course, making a character relatable and similar to your (flawed) readers can sometimes be taken the wrong way, as a more "comfortable" alternative to reading about someone who is a positive example. Some people cling to flawed characters and hate perfect ones because they taste better. "Misery loves company," and they would rather settle for someone like them than a paragon who reminds them of a failed ideal.

    However, I still think flawed characters are a better way to relate to people (including the Faramir from the "Lord of the Rings" films), because after all, God Himself came down to our level rather than demanding we *only* look up. And he uses flawed human beings to build His church and kingdom, people who are mixes of good and evil. If He can do this in real life, maybe we can use such people in our stories, as well.

    1. I agree with you that flaws make characters relatable: I disagree that it necessarily makes them interesting.

      You are right that in fiction, we need to have flaws in our characters to make them believable and relatable. But to use them as a crutch (as the director of the Narnia movies did) is to lower the artistic value of your work.

      Also, the movie Faramir isn't interesting at all. At that moment, he's merely being a sub-par Boromir. The entire point of his character is to act as a foil to Boromir: To have him make the exact same mistake, in the exact same way, isn't to increase his interest, but diminish it. The man who takes the ring is just a man: The man who lets it go is more than that (as Faramir is, indeed, supposed to be).

      I agree with you that we need flawed characters to make our stories relatable. But we also need examples to look up to. To literally turn a character on his head and introduce vice into his defining virtue (as done in Narnia and Lord of the Rings) is a flawed approach smacking of a fundamental misunderstanding of the characters, of the story, and of Story itself.

      That said, thank you for commenting! I hope to see you around more often!