Sunday, December 11, 2011

Good guys and bad guys

In an interview with Meg Storey recorded in Tin House No. 44 (Volume 11, Number 4), Etgar Keret says (p. 41):

"And when there is a system in which there are good guys and bad guys, and the good guys win, this is something that has no moral message at all. Because we all identify with the good guys, we all see ourselves as good guys, which means that when the good guys kill the bad guy we say, 'That's okay because it was a bad guy.' And when we kill our next-door neighbor we say, 'It's okay because he's the bad guy.' .... Nothing moral exists in a simple environment; a moral dilemma can only exist in a place where there is ambiguity."

He was actually using the TV show The Wire as an example of art that successfully uses this ambiguity to make a point. But this quote struck me because I've always preferred to write about characters who are not purely good or purely evil, but a mixture of both. Most people are heroes in their own minds, and even a villainous character will have some redeeming qualities. To me, the most interesting protagonist is not a good guy who must vanquish a bad guy, but someone whose inner good guy is battling with his inner bad guy, and he must decide which to be at every important moment in life. As Keret points out, someone who's good from start to finish never has to make that choice.

The good character/bad character setup has been used in many successful stories for generations, so I'm not going to say that it can't work. But as Keret points out, there's another way to deal with conflict and character.


  1. Absolutely agree. How dull to have characters who 100% good or 100% bad. That just doesn't stir interest; it's simply not human.

    Thanks for jumping into the giveaway. Appreciate your visits.

  2. Lee: One thing I liked about SLIDING ON THE EDGE was that your characters were not simply good or bad. They had both likability and flaws.