Commute wisdom: Brief thoughts on writing “good” characters

While negotiating the snow-mushy streets on the way to work, I found myself ruminating on what it’s like to write “good” characters, especially if one is only a fair-to-middling person oneself, morally.

It’s trendy right now to look at this from the reader’s point of view: to look at an author’s characters and guess at the moral makeup of the person writing them. Who does the story cast as the “best” character? What seems to make them “good” in the story’s viewpoint? Where does the gravity well of the story center itself? Do the morally-ambiguous or “bad” characters have more weight?

It’s worth asking questions like this to critique a story as a story; but I think the insights you can get about the author from them are limited. And who cares, really, unless you’ve got some torches and pitchforks sitting around begging to be used?

It’s an even trickier inquiry from a writer’s point of view. As humans, we generally don’t know what we don’t know. Our sense of ourselves as moral beings is its own benchmark. We recognize what we find morally repellent, but it’s much harder to identify what is morally superior to our point of view.

I got a sense of this once while writing fanwork about another author’s character. Inhabiting that character’s point of view, I was all set to write him as resentful and fretful against his superiors who were showing him compassion…when I realized abruptly that he wouldn’t do any such thing. He wouldn’t feel or act churlish in this situation: that was what I would do.

Getting schooled by a fictional character is an interesting experience.

So when the characters are of your own invention, you have to try to get attuned to the harmonic overtones of your own moral knowledge, to sketch a dim sense of what you don’t already know. In a way, writing characters with a three-dimensional moral identity is as much hedging one’s bets as representing reality. It’s also why it almost never works to just have the story identify a character as “the good guy” whose viewpoint is upheld no matter what they do. A story should have a sense of some containing reality bigger than any one character, even (especially!) if the story operates through an unreliable narrator.

It seems weird to be talking about self-circumspection when we’ve got fascists and reactionaries stomping around using our own good faith against us. But good-faith circumspection is exactly what I recommend, both as writers and as readers. Nobody’s going to do our work for us. And we get to decide if we’re going to level up. But we don’t get to decide if other people will. It’s just as true in insane times as sane ones.

Or so I said to myself, as I was pulling into the office parking lot.

The grimdark/hopepunk gestalt, and other sandtraps

It’s so hard to get on Twitter without being overwhelmed by Appalling Things, but I do wind up picking at the margins of current topics when my friends talk about them, and then they get into the bloodstream of my thoughts and I wind up producing a personal podcast (like a personal pan pizza, consumed by one’s self only) on my commute. Which I was doing this evening, only then the thought occurred to me: Isn’t this why you have a fucking blog? (It’s my commute, so f-bombs are a feature of the landscape.)

Why yes, yes it is.

The new generations of writers and readers have been coming up with — I suppose they’re not genres, really, but descriptive modes for stories, and the one that’s come up on my radar recently is hopepunk. At first glance it seems like it’d be right up my street, hopepunk — coined, as far as I can tell, as a counter to grimdark, which I’ve already got a canned rant about. The short version is, for the last hundred years or so, a defining feature of Serious Literature has been grimness and darkness — dis-integration of people and relationships and situations, fragmentation of narratives. Meaning reduced to incoherence as a statement of truth, co-inherence mocked and flouted by assiduously unhappy endings. Thus not only do Serious People want to make you read stories about disaster and incoherence, they also want to scold you for wanting the opposite. And who needs it, really?

So hopepunk, yeah, sounds great, let’s have some! Only…what is it?

From my perspective on the fringes of the discussion, it looks like people have a hard time identifying what is a proper example of hopepunk, one that can be agreed upon by all parties. In fact, what some people see as hopepunk, others noped out of as the epitome of grimdark. And vice versa. It’s like “postmodern,” which is, well, you know, something…a little bit more modern than modern, right? No matter how clearly set out the concept is to start with, it runs afoul in practice of a sort of subjective gestalt.

And part of the problem is that people want stories to bear witness to their pain and difficulty and disaster; and to speak too quickly of hope is to betray their testimony to a final rebuttal. To say, “but that’s not what hope means,” and try to back-and-fill the concept, just clouds the issue further.

Which is why I still prefer Tolkien’s word eucatastrophe as a descriptive mode for the stories I want. We all know what catastrophe is: everything I said about Serious Literature above. So then what is the good catastrophe? It’s a story that specifically invokes that witness to pain and difficulty and disaster, so that it can bring forth the integrated meaning and co-inherence and renewal and reversal that every situation can potentially produce. Eucatastrophe does not betray by a clap-back from outside the situation: it restores things from within the structure of its own landscape of meaning. It makes the tellers of such stories agents in their own rescue; it puts others in potential touch with a wild and painful joy. You can want it or not want it, but it’s a definite thing. You can say, “This story has a payoff, but getting there might not be worth it to you.” Or you can say, “This story doesn’t have enough of a payoff to justify the misery.” Eucatastrophe as a concept lets you say definite things about actual stories, and have a, well, coherent conversation about them. In fact, so long as the concept is in place, you hardly have to use Tolkien’s 25-cent word at all.

A word you don’t actually have to say to use: now that’s a useful word.