The Art of Writing Role Models

Imagine reading the Bible, and the disciples were a dozen variations on Jesus. Bland? Flat? Boring? The irony of writing: authors always want to write role models for people, and yet if you do things too well and make your protagonists too good, the results always feel insipid. Where is the line, though? Where, with fictitious characters, do good role models go bad?

A recent blog post on specifically women’s issues got me thinking about this.

We need a new model of female leadership that encourages women to seize the opportunities afforded by the digital era.

Here you have it in a nutshell: writing (in this case nonfiction) is a form of activism, to encourage people to improve themselves. Of course, the trick isn’t in writing nonfiction, but fiction. How do you write admirable characters without making them saccharine?

The answer lies in understanding the problem. A character who is never morally challenged by the situation will put the readers on their guard. Every time they read the character doing the “right” thing and the reader wouldn’t, they feel judged by that character’s perfect moral character. If the reverse never happens—when the reader wants to correct the character’s actions, the relationship feels one-sided.

Take Paul Atreides from Dune, for example. Paul always treads a fine line between being a great character and being overpowered because he can foresee the future. He reacts to this ability, however, by always acting along paths he can’t see the end of.  His moral challenge to not play things safe is the opposite of what problems many of us—who don’t have psychic powers of foresight—have on a daily basis. It feels natural because neither extreme is perfect.

On the other end of the spectrum is Hunger Game’s Peeta Mellark. When does this guy not know exactly what to do, and even more to the point, when is his delivery even the slightest bit flawed? I love Katniss (oh, wait: I’ll withhold her name and only drop the hint at the end for dramatic effect.) Peeta delivers his hooks so perfectly it’s infuriating.

Even if the reader and the character never directly interact, half of the point in reading is to learn vicariously, and from the reader’s point of view there is an interaction because the fictitious characters are shaping their experiences and how they think. If the character doesn’t have a fault, something most readers in the audience would point a finger at and say “do this differently,” the reader starts to sense their fictitious relationship is one-sided.