Tone Down the Nobility

Let’s talk about nobility. Not the kind that’s bought with old blood and farmlands, but the kind that’s intrinsic and rare to come by, that will always set aside selfish desires to do what is Right. This nobility will stay a sword at an execution and allow for another chance. It will be wildly protective of all that it loves, and all that it loves will be pure and equally noble. In life-threatening situations, it will keep its head above panic, instinct, and fear, and in this way do no wrong. Not even in self-defence. And this nobility will always be these things and never stray from its ideals.

Now let’s talk about how freaking boring that is. Not to mention patronizing and laughably unrealistic. I’ve been seeing this noble, do-no-wrong character quite a bit, mostly hiding in prose that can be rather beautiful, so that I don’t realize what’s bothering me until it clicks that it’s the downright absurd values of the main character. Maybe it’s because my personal preference leans towards the antihero, but I can’t help but get frustrated each time I encounter one of these archetypes. As a supporting character, perhaps it’s interesting to have someone fiercely noble, so that others can be compared to them, or opinions can be thrown around about morality. But as a main character, having someone be so utterly noble is flat-out boring.

Why? Because frankly, they’re not real people.

When every single thing a character does is selfless, it feels like an entire side of the human psyche, the selfish side, is ignored, and it doesn’t feel real. Or, at the very least, the character is really annoying, to the point where I’m thinking the author’s agenda isn’t to tell me a good story but to preach about what’s right and wrong. And while I recognize that the point of some books is to act as an allegory that will help me explore morality, both good and bad decisions need to be made for me to do that. And they need to be made by the same character so that I’m able to relate to them. I’m not exploring morality when the character I’m reading about does no wrong. Instead, I’m rolling my eyes and saying, sometimes out loud, “That would never happen.” It’s incredibly distracting.

Here’s what I’ve seen recently. Let’s say there’s a war going on. The main character is an outcast, but he’s a good outcast. When he gets angry, he is always in the right. When he loves, it is feverish. His loyalty is unparalleled. God forbid anybody tries to even look at his girl the wrong way, because they will end up with the edge of his knife against their neck.

And for some reason, this isn’t creepy! It’s just written off as the character having so much love and oh he’s so noble! His murders would be justified because he did it out of love!

But what if the hero’s girl had hurt somebody that was close to the man now trying to hurt her, and he just wanted the same kind of retribution the hero would want? Who’d be in the right then?

Those questions aren’t always asked when the hero’s nobility is taken for granted. So here’s another scenario, where they are.

Let’s turn the war into civil unrest. The main character is, once again, an outcast, a rebel fighting for the good side of a cause that is almost entirely black and white. He knows the truth, and he will guide the mislead youth away from the lies the government has been feeding them. (And he will do so successfully, regardless of the fact that he’s only sixteen.) And when they’ve ruthlessly killed his oblivious kid brother to try to fish him out of hiding, killed an innocent little boy who’s done no wrong, the hero will scream in rage and fly out into conflict and stick a gun to the killer’s head, but then he’ll pause, and he’ll say, “You know what? …You’re not even worth it.”

Wha—seriously?! Yes he is! He killed your kid brother!

“Yeah, but he was acting on orders—”

I don’t care!

“He’ll regret killing my brother; living with that guilt is worse than—”

How can you be so sure?

What gives this hero such certitude that he is able to assume that a person who’s taken many lives already won’t be able to block out having taken the life of his brother as well? Is his nobility so steadfast that he blindly projects it onto others? What kind of entitlement does he have to have to be able to say that the killer’s not worth it, when meanwhile the only reason his brother was killed is because they were looking for him?

“But I’m a hero! I’m doing what’s best for the greater good—”

And maybe what’s best for the greater good is killing that man. Maybe murder is the better option sometimes.

But instead of exploring this possibility, the author takes the easy way out with “Oh no! Someone knocked into me! My finger slipped, and I accidentally shot my brother’s murderer!”

And then the hero gets his wish: the killer’s dead, but his record is still spotless.

He’s still noble. His slate isn’t tainted.

Then you get conversations like this:

“I killed a man…I killed a man…”

“It’s okay, baby, it was an accident, besides, he killed your brother, let it go, let it go…”

And eventually, the hero does. Because not only would the killing have been justified (perhaps), it was an accident.

I suppose here is where I should state that I am a fan of nobility, contrary to how I’ve made it sound so far. What I’m against is blind, dogmatic nobility, that gives characters (and people, for that matter) immunity.

You know what I’d like to see more of? I’d like to see the hero consciously pull the trigger, and then living with the consequences. I’d like the hero to cut the man’s throat open, and then find out the whole thing happened because his girl had hurt someone close to the now-dead man. And then imagine how things would’ve turned out if it were the other way around. I’d like to see killings happen not by accident, and not in a battlefield where things get shady, but in broad daylight, one on one, with the hero standing over a cold body still seeping blood into the earth and thinking “What have I done. I’ve killed a man. How will I ever go to sleep tonight?”

And from that question, others will arise. How do I know that anything I do is right? How can I be sure that the decisions I’ve made or will make are the better ones? What does it mean to be good when everybody’s definition of good is different? And how can I live knowing that because of me, a man who tried to protect a person he loved is no longer breathing?

Is his love waiting at home? Did she beg him to stay? Is she alone? Will she survive?

Have I killed two people with one blow?

And then he will look at his own girl, who will stand pale-faced and terrified, with rogue splatters of blood dotting her blue tunic, and she will think, “This is all my fault.”

And they will lock eyes, and nothing will ever be the same again.

What happens next? If the hero were utterly noble, the answer is easy: he killed the man because he had to. And if he were utterly noble, then the lady understands that he would’ve only done it if there were no other way to solve the issue. And so they will embrace, maybe she’ll have a little cry, and they’ll walk away thinking “It’s shameful and sad, but it had to be done.”

But if the character were not utterly noble, those questions can’t be erased so easily. They linger. They can’t be warded off by certainty of actions. And the events that follow the murder committed to protect the honour of his lady are uncharted territory. They are ambiguous. Anything can happen. Anything.

They are totally unstable, because no one person will react the same as the next.

But make a person completely noble, and suddenly everything is predictable.

And that is why they’re boring.

My point with this article is that I think writers need to take more chances; travel the road less travelled. Write about characters that are selfish, and that do lose their heads when self-preservation kicks in and they find themselves running fast and leaving behind the person with a broken leg. But I’m not saying get rid of nobility completely, because that’s boring, too. I just want to see the struggle more often. The guilt of doing something that isn’t morally acceptable. And then the journey towards the place where they can forgive themselves and learn from their mistakes. If a character’s claim to fame is being noble, I already know how the story ends. But if the character is conflicted, understanding that he should risk his life but unable to bring himself to do it, that’s when it gets gut-wrenchingly tense. That’s when I find myself turning the page so fast the paper snaps, my stomach flipping over with adrenaline because I truly don’t know if he’ll do the right thing. And then when he does the right thing, there is nothing that compares to that fulfillment.

So don’t get rid of nobility. Just…tone it down a little bit.

12 Responses to Tone Down the Nobility

  1. JoSV May 31 2012 at 8:30 am #

    Great post, Biljana! I couldn’t agree more. Things are NEVER so black and white in real life, so why should they be in books? Of course, it helps to have characters that fall more strongly on one side or the other of that line, but it doesn’t mean that they should be completely without fault (or completely without goodness…unless they’re literally psychotic villains, like the Joker).

    I do get frustrated when I read a review and the reviewer says “I was annoyed when Character X made this Bad Decision. It was so obvious to me that it was Wrong, and for this reason, this book is terrible.”

    Dude. Let’s be honest. How many bad decisions have we ALL made in our lives? Only to realize it was a bad decision in hindsight? And even sometimes, you know it’s a bad decision IN THE MOMENT, but you STILL do it…right?

    Nuff said.

    But yeah, great post! Clearly this is something I am passionate about 🙂

    • Biljana May 31 2012 at 2:32 pm #

      Ugh, you nailed it, the self-righteous reviewer claiming THEY would’ve done the “right thing” (which is sometimes so incredibly subjective that there’s no right answer). Another reason why I think it’s important that characters make mistakes or unpopular decisions; it forces the reader to actually consider what they would’ve TRULY done. One big recent trend I don’t agree with is people slamming the ending of Mockingjay because Katniss decided to try to live her life, rather than help “rebuild” the country. Honestly, at that point, how many people can say they wouldn’t do exactly what she did?

  2. Rowenna May 31 2012 at 12:50 pm #

    Great post–one more way in which a character can be *too* perfect. That isn’t to say that nobility can’t be an excellent character trait–I tend to find characters with moral fortitude much more interesting than those without. It’s just keeping them human, not stereotypes, where the trouble comes in. One noble character I think was rendered exceptionally well was Martins’ Ned Stark from Game of Thrones. His nobility was such it actually becomes nearly a character flaw because it makes him take unwise actions–and it adds to the suspense of the story because we as readers can see the mistakes his (predictable) noble intentions will force him to make.

    In the end, even the most noble person is human–if the point of your story is a character maintaining his moral courage in the face of opposition, that’s fine–even if he never takes an ignoble action, IMO. But he has to struggle with it, to decide every day to follow a certain path. No struggle, no point to the story.

    • Biljana May 31 2012 at 2:39 pm #

      YES. I love when nobility is turned into a kind of flaw and used against the character that harnesses it. Like you said, it gives those predictable actions the best kind of frustration because it moves the story along in a way that can be manipulated and taken advantage of by the less predictable characters, and before you know it, you find yourself in tears over the unfairness of it all, watching nobility trying to keep its strength up in the face of absolute doubt. It can be truly fascinating if it’s done well. And you’re absolutely right. If there’s no struggle, it’s not worth investment.

  3. April Tucholke May 31 2012 at 1:13 pm #

    Gray characters tend to be the only ones I give a damn about.

  4. Krispy May 31 2012 at 6:20 pm #

    Yes! Bravo! The most interesting characters are the ambiguous ones, the ones you’re never quite sure about. Putting a little of that ambiguity into our heroes makes them more interesting AND more real.

    • Biljana Jun 2 2012 at 4:17 pm #

      Yeah, exactly! They’re also the ones you fall in love with, because they take genuine effort to figure out, so you invest. By the time you get to the end, you feel like you actually “know” them.

  5. Vanessa Di Gregorio Jun 1 2012 at 9:54 am #

    Yes yes YES! This is it, exactly! Characters can’t be so clear-cut – they need to be flawed, they can’t always do the right thing, and they need to be believable. I hate when a character doesn’t go through with something because it’s not the “right” thing – we all, inevitably, will do something that’s not the “right” thing. And characters who struggle with the choices they’ve made are the characters you will stand by and believe in, even if they don’t always believe in themselves.

    LOVED this post, B!

    • Biljana Jun 2 2012 at 4:23 pm #

      Thanks, V! And yeah, seriously, when characters don’t go through with something, it’s like…why even suggest it? Tease! You get me excited for nothing!

  6. Meredith Anderson Jun 2 2012 at 1:26 am #

    I needed this post. A lot. I feel like I do this without even realizing it. I want my characters to be super good for some reason even though I KNOW how boring that can be. This is one blog post I definitely need to remember– because my nobility seriously needs to get a little shaken up.

    Thank you for the amazing advice!!!


    • Biljana Jun 2 2012 at 4:26 pm #

      No problem, I’m glad you found it useful! 😀

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