I'm a mild-mannered kind of gal.
I'm pleasant. I don't start fights. I don't hold many strong opinions, and I'm scared of those who do.
But do you know what really creams my corn? What gets my blood boiling in 0.2 seconds flat, and makes me throw hard-angled objects at people's heads? It's a sentence most commonly heard in English classes and literature tutes, and it goes something like this:
"Oh, I couldn't stand that character - they were too good."
Gah! Fizzerbizzerjalunkywoodakamada! Or words to that effect. I feel strongly about this, beyond vocabulary.
I think it first came to my attention during a tute on David Copperfield. Everyone seemed to be taking exception to Agnes. You remember Agnes, don't you? The "better angel" of David's life whom he ends up marrying after the laughable marriage to Dopy Dora ends with the help of some convenient consumption? Maybe you don't remember her, and I wouldn't blame you. She was, to own the truth, not very interesting. Apart from a lucky escape from having to marry Uriah Heep, she doesn't do much more than play the piano, smile and hug people.
I saw no problem with this. I, too, like playing the piano, smiling and hugging people. They are nice things to do, so I didn't understand why people hated Agnes for doing them. I wasn't especially attached to the character, though, so I didn't say anything.
But a few weeks later it happened again, and to one of my all-time favourite characters.
It was Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility.
Now I love Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility. He's thoughtful and caring and, although he doesn't yell about it, he feels deeply. He also engages in one of the noblest acts I've ever read. He doesn't fight a duel or withstand physical torture; he just rambles on about the weather to stop a conversation that is upsetting his friend, Eleanor. He's not in love with her; he has no ulterior motive. He just doesn't want her to be unhappy. What a truly nice guy.
So when someone suggested that Marianne had settled for a boring old fool, I flipped my lid. Colonel Brandon boring? He's gorgeous! He's perfect! He's Alan Rickman, for God's sake!
It's not just bored students that fall into the trap of mistaking "good" for "boring", either. I remember reading an introduction to an old copy of The Secret Garden (I don't know by whom as I've lost the book) that said that children always liked the naughtier characters of Mary and Colin over the simple, cheerful Dickon. I couldn't believe my eyes. Dickon was always my favourite. The other two developed more over the course of the book, sure, but Dickon didn't have to. He was perfect from start to finish. Where's the problem?
I think, if anywhere, the problem lies with this whole "character development" thing. If a character is already good, what can you do with them?
My answer: plenty. It's called plot, people. Good people can walk about and ride on buses and hunt for clues and jump out at the bad guys with the worst of them. I promise.
Just look at Dickens' novels. They're filled with good people charging about doing good things, the virtuous just as active, even more so, than the evil. My favourite example is probably the Brothers Cheeryble in Nicholas Nickleby (who are, incidentally, the truest, most wonderful depiction of twins that has ever been). They are aggressively good. They are violently good. They throw cream pies of good in the faces of the gloomy and grumpy, laughing heartily all the while. They are funny and noble and loveable and exciting and life-changing, precisely because they are so good.
(On a side note, I cannot think of a female character in a Dickens novel who is both good and proactive. Like Agnes, they seem to just sit around being virtuous, something that is quite possibly a product of the time in which they were written. Poor, unimaginative Dickens. I haven't by a long chalk read all of his works, though, so if someone can suggest one with a good girly extrovert in it, please tell me.)
Goodness needn't be so dramatic, though. If you want a nicely portrayed "good" character, try Will Stanton in The Dark is Rising. I adore Will. I want to be a member of the Stanton family just so I can hang out with him. He's so gentle and funny and wise, despite his youth. He's also happy, despite the burden of having to defeat his enemies and save the world. Think Harry Potter, without the whining. Will does just as much, just as determinedly, but with a truckload more patience. He's like a cross between a flaming sword and a cup of tea. How refreshing. How wonderful.
Some might argue that Harry Potter, with all his angst, is easier to relate to than Will Stanton. After all, we all know what it's like to feel pissed off and moody and hard-done-by, and not want to do our homework. We all have our bad days. We can't be good all the time, so it's hard to relate to a superhero with a chiselled jaw, impeccable morals and an unchallenged record in selfless acts.
But that's the thing. Maybe these characters aren't here for us to relate to. Maybe they're not here to show us who we are.
Maybe they're here to show us who we could be. To be held up as a shining example. And not just so you can pelt all manner of rubbish at them, thank you for your input, Mr Hardy. They're precious. They're our potential. They're what we have to become before we can save the world like they do in books.
Besides, I've never had any trouble relating to the smiling patience of Agnes, or the quiet nobility of Colonel Brandon, or the simple cheerfulness of Dickon, or the gentle determination of Will Stanton, or the wonderful twinishness of the Brothers Cheeryble.
I guess I'm just better than everyone else.