The Art of Mirriam Neal

//he’s a good guy (and interesting, too)

When I was twelve or so, I began to notice a change in my favorite characters. Less frequently did I love the hero – I loved the grudging antihero, or even the villain. The heroes became less and less interesting, but I didn’t know why for several years. It finally hit me – the good guys were boring. I simply wasn’t interested in a guy who was ‘good’ for no reason. Heroes, more often than not, were two-dimensional and flat, while the darker characters had backstory and reasons for what they did.

When there is a three-dimensional villain to be interested in, why would I care about a two-dimensional hero?

Then something happened – and you’ve probably guessed what it was. I watched a KDrama, and I was amazed. I was actually rooting for the good guy. I loved him. More than that, he was my favorite character in the entire drama.

For the first time in years, the hero was both complex and interesting. He was three-dimensional. This particular character was Choi Young (Lee Min-Ho) in Faith (aka The Divine Doctor). I had seen Kdramas before this, but I wasn’t as much of a writer then.

I realized why I loved him and why I was rooting for him – I was genuinely interested.

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So what makes a hero interesting? There are three things I try to keep in mind.

  • A fully fleshed-out personality is (obviously) a must. Many ‘good guys’ are never given this. They’re cardboard cutouts used to drag the reader/viewer along on their journey, but nobody wants to stick with cardboard and so we end up attached to someone else and really not caring about the good guy. We’d be happy to sit with the villain on his throne or jog off into the sunset with the antihero, because they hold our interest. The good guy needs complexity. He needs virtues and flaws. He needs to struggle with himself. He needs to have emotions and turmoil. He needs to keep us interested in him.
  • There are things for good guys to do other than world-saving. Using Choi Young as an example again (I do this a lot), his ‘job’ changes episode to episode. First, he’s supposed to keep a princess safe. Then, he’s supposed to walk through a time-portal to retrieve a doctor. Then he’s suppose keep the doctor safe. Then he’s supposed to keep the king safe. Then he’s supposed to keep the princess and the king and the doctor safe. He doesn’t want to save the world – he wants to retire. But nooooooo, life keeps throwing new curveballs and there’s really nothing he can do but sigh and deal with it.
  • I mentioned inner turmoil before, but let me stress how important this is. I don’t mean the inner turmoil like Captain America has – in a way, we always know Cap is going to do the right thing, which means his struggles aren’t necessarily as interesting as they could be. From an author’s standpoint, this might get a little boring after a while. Your characters need to be unpredictable, and guess what? Even the good guy is a character. Predictability is a huge trap when it comes to main characters – the reader/viewer ends up knowing the character better than the character knows himself, and the mystery is gone. Don’t let this happen. Throw your good guy into situations where he has to choose the lesser of two evils. Every choice has a consequence, and your hero has to deal with these consequences. Knock your hero down and see what he does. Knock him down again, and again, and before you know it, your audience will be rooting for him to get back up right along with you.

ONE MORE THING

  • It’s possible to have a shining good guy who is still interesting and sympathetic. The best example of this is probably Ji Hoo from Boys Over Flowers. He’s thoughtful, quiet, sweet, and probably the patron saint of Second Leads in kdramaland. However, in spite of all his virtue, I remained in love with him the whole drama. Why? Precisely because he worked to be good. It wasn’t something automatically afforded to him. He struggles with his best friend because they like the same girl. He struggles to overcome his own fears and phobias. He struggles to do the right thing even in situations where the wrong thing would be advantageous to him. In short, we love him because we watch him struggle to make the decisions he does, and so we root for him to keep his head above water. He walked a very fine line as the ‘saintly second lead,’ and it’s not a line everyone can write – but it’s the best example I’ve seen of a ‘good guy’ who was anything but boring.

Who are your favorite fictional good guys?

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