I’m aware that my sort of hero – the genuinely good guy who’s a shade or two larger than life – is not in favor. He’s supposedly not realistic. Everyone has flaws, runs the gospel. If you fail to account for human imperfections, you flaunt your defiance of that reality. And to account for it properly, you have to show your guy giving in to his flaws, at least now and then.
I dissent for a single, overriding reason: paying attention to the voice of one’s conscience is exactly what distinguishes a good guy from a bad guy or a mostly good but relatively less important Supporting Cast character...and one of the reasons I write fiction is to depict that contrast and encourage my readers to think about it.
I had my most popular character very much in mind when I wrote Polymath. Louis Redmond is so popular among my readers that not a week passes that I don’t receive at least a dozen emails begging for more stories about him. From the first it was clear that Todd Iverson, the book’s protagonist, could not and would not compare to Louis in the most important ways. As important as I intend to make Todd in the future mapped out by the second Realm of Essences trilogy, it’s critical that he have a number of significant weaknesses. Louis had only one: his suspicion of anything pleasurable that struck him as unnecessary.
Will Todd give in to those weaknesses? Perhaps. You’ll have to read the books to find out (snicker). But in the main he’ll attend to the still, small voice quite as closely as Louis ever did, because Louis is his hero and model in all human things. When others who matter to him fail to make the right choices, he’ll observe them, and the results, dispassionately, determined to learn from their mistakes. That all-important skill, and the willingness to use it, make the biggest difference between the common run of Mankind and the truly exemplary among us.
In short, my attitude toward realism goes like this:
- There is a pole, determined by the behavior of real people, toward which character decisions and actions should bend.
- However, genuine heroes know when it’s vital that they ignore what “everybody else” would do.
- They learn such discrimination by watching “everybody else” and pondering their words and deeds.
- For a properly happy ending – i.e., one that nevertheless requires that the hero pay a proportional price – he must choose the right path even in full foreknowledge of what it will cost him – and that knowledge and willingness are what really qualify a hero.
In fiction, there is such a thing as too much realism. Really.