A ramble on polarity in fiction

I read a lot of fantasy fiction, and it’s one of those genres (along with YA) where there’s a lot of polarity in the characters: they’re either all good or they’re all bad. At best, they’re mostly good or mostly bad, but overall I’ve discovered that I can read books like this, but I don’t enjoy them the way I do other books.

It’s really hard for me to relate to characters, for one, and for another… I just end up disliking someone when it seems like they have no flaws or no redeeming qualities.

People aren’t all good; people aren’t all bad. They’re somewhere in the middle. What do I mean?

There could be a character who lives under the bridge and would steal the coat off your back, but they won’t take candy from a baby. They won’t hurt kids.

Another example is someone who always tries to do good, but doesn’t always manage it, because it’s impossible for anyone to do everything right all the time.

People are people and they’re going to have these little quirks. I’d rather my characters be people than characters. People who make mistakes; people who try their best but might not always make it. People with good intentions or bad intentions, but with a morality all their own.

Flexible morals are something I like, too. Flexible morals, flexible gender, flexible sexuality–these things are attractive to me. I don’t want to read about the unrepentantly evil vampire who is evil for the sake of being evil or the cop who saves the day without breaking the law or (perhaps unintentionally) hurting anyone.

I do want to read about the vampire who is evil because being evil is a type of hedonism for him and it’s all that’s left for him after centuries of watching the world’s growing cycles happen around him. Or maybe the vampire who is evil because that is what he was taught finding the strength–maybe some catalyst event–to buck the teachings, to buck his master, because that’s not what he wants.

I also want to read about the cop who bends the law, who will do whatever it takes to get what he wants, whether what he wants is to protect someone/thing, solve a mystery, or whatever else. I want to feel his drive to do these things; I want to watch him bumble along the way and make mistakes big and small, but find a way to achieve his goal in the end.

Mishaps, misunderstandings, and mistakes not only create conflict, but also realism. And they’re fun to watch, besides! It gets boring to watch someone go through and do everything right. It’s just not as interesting as watching someone get really creative so that they can do the thing they’re trying to do in spite of all the shit they fucked up.

So, yeah, polarity in characters? Not fun to read. I don’t want a grand battle of good and evil; I want to have to think about which side is the lesser evil, and maybe even to discover later that my choice was wrong and that side isn’t the lesser evil after all.

Reading is just so much more fun when you don’t know what is going to happen. Extremes in characters make them predictable; having your characters somewhere in the middle keeps the reader wondering what happens next.

And that’s what we, the writers, all want, isn’t it? I know I do.


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