God’s blessings to you on this the fourth day of January in the year of our Lord’s incarnation, 2017.
First, if you’ve ever heard of Prince Rupert’s Drops, this video is awesome:
Second, yesterday and the day before, I talked about character growth. To continue with that idea, I think that the most interesting character arcs to see in adult characters is character revelation, not character growth. That is, we don’t want the character himself to change, we want circumstances to reveal what his character actually is. There are two ways this can happen; one is through action and the other through conversation.
Action is fairly straightforward. Talk is cheap, and many virtues are simply never tried by real life. Thus it is interesting to see circumstances where a character is put in a situation which requires a virtue and he has it. Far more interesting, though, is when a character is put in a situation which requires a balance of virtues, and he has them in a reasonable balance. Merely showing one virtue is what results in flat characters. Thus the hero needs to be brave, and is, and no one much cares. Well, outside of fiction for children. They’re thrilled by simple things, as Chesterton noted. But unfortunately the reaction to adults finding this uninteresting has been to try to make it interesting by having the adult fail at the virtue. Usually not completely, or rather not consistently; it seems like about half the time the hero who failed at first gets a second try and succeeds then. Yay. The other half the time, he fails but the writer is with him and circumstances make him magically succeed anyway. Yay. Of course part of what I don’t like is that these approaches have been done to death, but what I dislike far more is that they all involve the hero failing through a lack of virtue. Moral virtue, I mean. 80s action movies consisted almost entirely of heroes who failed through lack of natural virtue but who then acquired natural virtue. Usually the ability to punch quickly, hard, and in the correct spot. The Karate Kid is perhaps one of the best examples of this, where Daniel gets beaten up, then trains at Karate and manages to win. Though of course there is that kid part. Mr. Miagi is revealed over time, but he doesn’t really grow; it is his having already grown which is what allows Daniel to grow.
In terms of adults acquiring natural virtue, that is in part what the Christopher Nolan movie Batman Begins is about. Of course it does—sort of—have moral growth on the part of Bruce Wane too, but most of that is in the first few minutes. Mostly Bruce Wayne knows that he wants to use his wealth to defeat crime, but he lacks the ability to do so and his transformation is gaining that ability. The Batman comic series which came after Knightfall—oh, right, Knightquest—is about Batman, his spine having been broken by Bane, going on a quest to regain his ability to walk. He isn’t acquiring moral virtue, he’s acquiring physical virtue. Virtually every episode of Macguyver was about Macguyver acquiring the power necessary to defeat the villains through knowledge, ingenuity, and courage.
The problem with requiring only one virtue of the hero is that a single virtue isn’t all that hard. Don’t get me wrong—in real life many people fail to be virtuous in situations which require only a single virtue. But that’s between them and God. There’s no intellectual problem to be solved, and therefore nothing to interest anyone who isn’t that person or God. The thing that’s really interesting is when virtues must be balanced against each other. When courage must be balanced against compassion, or compassion against justice, or truth against justice; these are always interesting stories, though they often have disappointing endings if the writers are not wise. That’s the problem with writing really good stories: only good men can do it. There’s an interesting section in the, I think second, preface to The Screwtape Letters, where C.S. Lewis says that the Letters are only half of the book, the other half being the letters from an archangel to the guardian angel of Wormwood’s “patient”. But, Lewis said, he couldn’t possibly write them. The letters of a fallen creature like a devil can admit of faults, but the letters of a perfect creature would have to be faultless, and even if they contained no errors, the beauty of their style would be as integral to their perfect as would the wisdom of the words. A fallen man can reasonably presume put words into the mouth of a devil, but not into the mouth of an angel. (One reason there’s never been a successful novel with Jesus as a character.)
Telling the tale of a good but fallen man is accessible to other fallen men, but while you can fake virtue, you cannot fake knowledge. What is the right balance between two virtues which both have a legitimate claim requires quite a bit of that knowledge we call wisdom. There’s really no way around this, and I don’t think that the right solution is for fools to use crutches like making the hero vicious; I think the right solution is for writers to do their damndest to become wise. It will have more benefits besides making their writing better.
And before I go, here’s Camille and Kennerly playing Pahcabel’s Canon in D:
Glory to God in the highest.