The Good Character Paradox

‘See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’

We all love a bad boy; they are exciting, unpredictable and dangerous, this is the root of the good character paradox. The good characters (the heroes) are so good that they’re predictable and boring, whereas the villains are exactly the opposite; they quicken our blood, enrage us, scare us, make us laugh and make us cry. The evident complexity of an evil character goes hand in hand with the female attraction towards complexity. In essence, they are everything a good character is not and that makes them exciting. It is for this reason that many of the best actors ask to play villains – even the actors themselves find the villains exciting to play. A well-known character who is exciting but renowned for having an evil nature is Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff, who Cathy and the reader are continually attracted to despite his villainy.

When we think of the archetypal villain, characters like Dracula spring to mind because the good character paradox was one of the character traits of the Gothic tradition. Contemporary critics of Gothic fiction were worried that female readers would find the villains attractive and therefore be tempted into vice. If we ignore the extremely sexist nature of this statement, it serves as proof that villains, as well as being exciting, are more attractive to the reader than the good guy. For example, in Mary Shelley’s 1818 Gothic novel Frankenstein Frankenstein’s monster, despite being the bad character, is a lot more exciting and paradoxically appealing than Frankenstein because of his villainous and unpredictable nature. In contrast, Frankenstein is good but only by definition because he comes across as weak and self-pitying rather than noble and self-sacrificing.

Similarly, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (written centuries earlier) a pattern can be seen between how engaging we find a character and their level of goodness. Macbeth is a much more exciting and intriguing character than any other character in the play, at least in my eyes. He is especially more intriguing than Malcolm, who later becomes king. Malcolm has an almost holier-than-thou attitude which, although admirable, is extremely boring and unattractively two-dimensional. Interestingly, Macbeth has been classed as a proto-gothic text, thus a genre which is based around exciting villains is surprisingly popular. The numerous Gothic revival eras are also a testament to the popularity of Gothic fiction and are proof of the fact that villains sell.

However, in the literature recent years it has come to my attention that what makes the bad boys compelling is that they have a shred of goodness that can be seen in the midst of all their villainy. For me, herein lies the true paradox; the good guys are boring but in order for the bad guys to be exciting rather than repulsive, they must have at least one redeeming quality. Essentially the bad guys must be slightly good. A real Catch 22. But why is it that good qualities in a bad guy only make them more enticing but good qualities in a good character are likely to send a reader to sleep?

It is possibly because characters like Dracula and Macbeth reject the constraints of moral society and therefore appear almost outside of reality itself. Their propensity to evil is often associated with the supernatural and this fantastical element could be what fascinates us; we are intrigued by that which is unknown to us. Perhaps the reason we feel intrigued rather than scared is because their situation is so alien to us, for example evil characters such as vampires and witches who we know do not exist. These supernatural elements are often a by-product of the power that is wielded by bad characters; maybe it is a part of human nature to be drawn to objects of power? On the other hand, if we take Freud’s construction of the human brain, it could be that the villainous nature of these characters speaks to the carnal desires of our ‘Id’. On another psychological level, it could be argues that we find good characters boring because they are often portrayed as superior to ourselves and therefore there is a hidden resentment and enmity towards them which colours our opinion.

Personally, I find characters which are too good infuriating as no one is that perfect, it is much more exciting and interesting to read about imperfection when a character is being formed. Ultimately, there is no definitive answer; there are numerous psychology articles which discuss this matter, but why the good character paradox occurs is yet to be uncovered. As disturbing as it is, there is no denying the fact that bad characters will always be more exciting than the good ones because we are drawn to the flaws in human nature.

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