If You Can’t Be Good, Be Interesting

The Atlantic magazine online recently published the latest edition of their writer-centric “By Heart” series, which interviews writers about their favorite quotes and best writing advice. This week’s interview with Tony Tulathimutte addressed why characters (and the authors behind them!) have a moral prerogative to be “good people.”

This touches on some good character-creating advice I’ve received: a character does not need to be morally redeemable, but they need to be interesting.

Isn’t it true that some of our favorite characters are despicable people who we’d never want to cross in real life? Breaking Bad‘s Walter White comes immediately to mind. Since the late-90s rise of the antihero on television dramas, culture is full of Tony Sopranos, but for a more classic example, consider Jay Gatsby.

This goes beyond the rejection of perfect Mary Jane protagonists who can do no wrong and are boring as all get-out to read. The best characters are deeply flawed in ways that drive a story’s arc. We believe a fascinating character must change within a story, show some growth, but just as fascinating is a protagonist who regresses despite every opportunity. Who is stuck beyond their own ability to grow. Not only is this an accurately dramatic portrayal of humanity, it’s an interesting place to look for your next protagonist.

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