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Do good characters inevitably make for bad fiction?

It’s quite the moral test for an author to turn virtuous lives into compelling stories, and some of the greatest authors have failed it

The books blog has been hosting a series of posts on readers’ favourite villains in literature. It strikes me that a list of virtuous characters would be a far more challenging proposition. It’s almost a critical commonplace that Lovelace in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa is fascinating despite his crimes and misdemeanours, but the eponymous Sir Charles Grandison in the novel which followed it almost unspeakably dull in his goodness. Satan is thrilling in Paradise Lost, Jesus is a bit of a prig in Paradise Regained. “Good” characters are often despicable in their moral certainty: the hypocritical Chadbands, Jellybys and Pecksniffs in Dickens; Tietjens in Parade’s End, the sanctimoniously liberal family at the heart of AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book.

How can a writer make goodness interesting? George Eliot tried with to do so by examining redemption in Silas Marner. The only problem is that the narrative jumps ahead, giving us the miserly misanthrope before and the radiant saint after he adopts a lost child, with no charting of the gradual change between the two. Naivety has often been used, whether in the “holy fool” Prince Myshkin in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot or the hero of Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk (or, further down the literary scale, Forrest Gump). There are the suicidal gallants, in love with someone they know loves another, best exemplified by Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities (it helps if they have a louche past that can be redeemed).

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