Do They Have to be “Good”?

Posted: April 28, 2022 in writing
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Some recent reviews of my latest book Followers got me thinking… do characters have to be “good”? By this, I mean, do you need to consider the protagonist a good person or do you need to relate to or understand them to truly enjoy a book? Do they need to be the “good guy”? Do they need to do the “right” things? Do you need to see yourself (or what you would want to see in yourself) in them?

I think media has proven to us ad nauseam that flawed characters are compelling, from classic to modern literature (to movies, TV, video games, social media…). If characters did not make ill-advised decisions, how would we have conflict? But do we have to understand them? Do they have to be like us? Do they have to be sympathetic to be a successful character?

Where is that line?

Upon reflection, I find that I have mixed feelings on these questions (and the reviews). As a writer, I tend to avoid purely “good” characters. I don’t like good at all. I found my voice in creative non-fiction, and I am a deeply flawed person. That awareness of my flaws and defects translated to fiction. My writing is largely driven by the psychology and emotional experience of my characters, and for that to feel authentic, I feel compelled to include ugly truths.

In short, my characters aren’t real if they’re “good”.

I think real people are complicated and so too should characters be. I think they make awful decisions and mistakes. They hid and obscure unsavory parts of themselves. They behave in frustratingly human ways.

In Followers, I really pushed this idea. Sidney, my protagonist, is not a wholly sympathetic character. You meet her after she has ruined her marriage with infidelity. Then she soothes her insecurities by farming attention from online boyfriends. Did I mention she’s not the best mother either? Not savory characteristics but potentially real ones. Do Sidney’s flaws make her an unsympathetic character? Do the reader’s judgments of Sidney’s behavior color the rest of the story?

Sidney may be the most unsympathetic protagonist I have written, but she is not the first.

In Savages, my narrator is a whiny and traumatized reluctant apocalypse survivor. When she discovers a baby, she does everything possible to avoid caring for it to dodge her own painful memories. Who wants to root for someone who won’t help for a helpless infant?

In The Waning, captivity breaks Beatrix down slowly. The entire book is about her not reacting how she thinks she would, not fighting back the way she should. Her psychology and her will unravels. Can you keep fighting for someone who does not fight for herself?

In The Rest Will Come, online dating drives Emma over the edge, but she is obsessed with finding a partner and shallow in her pursuits. She tortures herself hunting for the perfect, hot, tall guy. Who wants the shallow girl to find the one and live happily ever after?

(Really selling my writing, aren’t I? haha)

All of these women, all of my protagonists are flawed if not fully unsympathetic. As a writer, I am drawn to them as my wounded little children. Their defects are what make them real and compelling to me.

Yet, on the other side of the page, as a reader, it is a different experience. Sometimes, a flawed character resonates with me perfectly and is brilliant. Yet other times, the character’s defects clatter against me off-tune, and it alienates me from the story. So… both? All of the time, a perfect or wholly “good” character turns me off immediately.

Perhaps the answer is empathy. Perhaps I tolerate the flaws and poor decisions and unsavory characteristics when I still empathize with the character. I do not even have to like the character, but I do need to understand and feel for them. Where is that line for me? I don’t necessarily know, but I can feel it when the book misses it.

Reading is a subjective experience. The same story and character can be read different by every single person. Every single person can prefer a different reading experience. I can think of many flawed and unsympathetic protagonists. Ones who have enthralled me and others who have irritated me. I wonder if my characters are unsympathetic to some readers or just not compelling enough to them to create the empathy necessary for those readers to go on the journey.

Is this a question of the wrong audience? Or should characters be universal enough to draw the reader into their world, seduce them into their flawed plight?

Ultimately, I would not change any of my characters. Sidney could not get in trouble with online stalkers if she wasn’t nursing her issues in cyberspace with terrible decisions. Emma could not find her homicidal tendencies if she did not suffer the consequences of shallow dating practices. Not only are my characters built on their annoying faults but so are the plots.

So what do YOU need in your characters? Do you need “good” people? Do you need to relate to and understand the characters to care about them? What makes a character work for you?

Who are your favorite unsympathetic protagonists? The best train wrecks from whom you cannot look away? If you like flawed characters, I clearly have a few to offer you…

Christina Bergling

Like my writing? Check out my books!

  • Followers – You never know who is on the other side of the screen. Followers is a mystery and thriller that blends women’s fiction with horror.
  • The Rest Will Come – Online dating would drive anyone to murder, especially Emma.
  • Savages – Two survivors search the ruins for the last strain of humanity. Until the discovery of a baby changes everything.
  • The Waning – Locked in a cage, Beatrix must survive to escape or be broken completely.
  • Screechers – Mutant monsters and humans collide in the apocalyptic fallout of a burned world. Co-authored with Kevin J. Kennedy.
  • Horror Anthologies
  1. A thought-provoking write, Christina. Of course, I’ll always choose a flawed character over a “good” one. Because they are not only compelling but relatable, something I look for in a story.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Makes complete sense, Khaya. I am curious at what I find relatable now that I am truly looking at it through this lens. The things that resonate with me are not always what I would expect!


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