Elizabeth Moon: My Fascination with ‘Good’ Characters The Orbit Team February 27, 2012


I spend at least a year – for multi-volume works several years – in the heads of POV characters. Their thoughts, feelings, wishes, dreams, fears and worst times are part of my daily thought stream.

It’s like having a stranger moving into the house or apartment, sharing every detail of their life, dirty underwear and all.

Yes, of course, I know the characters are fiction – I made them up – but I have to feel them as if they were real to write them. And that means I’m vulnerable to their moods, their thoughts.

So I don’t want to spend a year in the head of someone I wouldn’t want to be with in real life. Most people wouldn’t want to be around them either: the bitter, resentful, envious crybaby and the arrogant, narcissistic, slanderous, backstabbing climber just don’t have many friends. It doesn’t matter if they’re cat-friendly, raise fancy koi, or paint exquisite miniatures on porcelain: if they’re generally rotten, I don’t want them in my head, poisoning my days with their constant negativity. . Writing from the inside the wreckage of a whiny, delusional character (Luap in SURRENDER NONE and LIAR’S OATH) was enough.

Elizabeth Moon's epic fantasy trilogy
Elizabeth released ECHOES OF BETRAYAL, the third epic fantasy novel in her Paladin’s Legacy series, last week.

Sure, I always write bad characters, but I write them from the outside (or mostly the outside) where I can show their effect on others and give some insight into how bad they got, if it is important for the story. Sometimes this is not the case: a story with a single strong protagonist – especially one with an unusual point of view, like Lou in THE SPEED OF DARK – would lose its intensity if the reader’s attention was diverted to the point of view of his employer. Bad characters vary in their own motivations.

Good characters aren’t perfect – they’d be boring if they were – and their flaws, their mistakes, their internal conflicts with their own competing motivations make them interesting companions for the time I spend writing them ( in a story in several volumes, it is several years). In fact, my “good” characters are so flawed that some people wondered how I could consider them good. None of them qualify for the Perfect Person of the Year award by conventional Perfect standards.

After all, Paksenarrion (PAKSENARRION’S ACT) disobeyed her father, ran away from home to become a mercenary soldier, has a hot temper, and kills people for a living. Gird (SURRENDER NONE, LIAR’S OATH) not only led a violent peasant revolt resulting in thousands of deaths, but he drank too much and had a fierce temper. Heris Serrano, in the Serrano/Suiza books, disobeys an order (even if it’s a vicious order), makes bad decisions, argues with his family, and despises wealthy civilians – like his employer. Ofelia, in REMNANT POPULATION, escapes an evacuation order, deliberately staying behind so she can be alone (she thinks) on the planet, free to indulge herself for the rest of her life, using whatever has been left as if it belonged to him (embezzlement, if not worse). Ky Vatta, in the series VATTA’S WAR, experiences a thrill to kill – she is shocked by herself, but she cannot change her reaction. His Aunt Grace, a harmless-looking old lady who bakes fruitcakes, routinely breaks the law and brings down a government.

So . . . to do what I insist that they are good?

Because good is not simple. And these characters do more than whine, rage, complain, and settle for themselves. They intend to be constructive and not destructive, even when they start quarrels with disastrous consequences (Esmay Suiza) and trust the wrong person (Ky Vatta). If Paksenarrion had been conventionally good, she would never have saved the lives she saved (and she would have made a very bad pig farmer’s wife). All “good” characters are bad at times – all have had enough trouble to last a lifetime – but they are able to grow and change, and how they change – exactly what decisions they make under the pressure of past experience and current events – is what interests me.

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