Monday Motivation: Buttresses and rickety walls

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Benyon's blog

It’s called “argument by authority” and all the best rhetoricians frown on it. A bad argument, they say, is not improved by quoting an authoritative voice in support of it. A good buttress, you might say, can’t keep a rickety wall upright for long.

I’d prefer to say that what I’m about to do is make a good argument, and quote an authoritative voice in support of it. (Let me sidebar a passing thought: I don’t suppose a good argument needs further authority…)

The uncontroversial proposition is that characters in stories – whether on the page or on the screen – who are, simply, virtuous, are less interesting than characters with flaws and vulnerabilities.

A pig’s ear is, dramatically speaking, much more interesting, and offers far more story opportunities, than a silk purse.

Lee Child’s Jack Reacher is, for this reader at least, less interesting than, say, Michael Connelly’s Hieronymous Bosch or Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus.

Jack Reacher out-thinks, outfights, out-strategises and outflanks every available antagonist. He’s bigger and stronger and boasts more initiative than almost all of them. He’s Superman in a world without kryptonite.

By contrast, Harry Bosch bristles with sensitivities, fears and vulnerabilities. He almost fails more often than he succeeds. He loses battles, although he wins wars – but even his victories are sometimes ambiguous.

The same observations can be made about John Rebus, Ian Rankin’s heavy-drinking, taciturn and moody Edinburgh detective.

So if you were to conceive a story about, let’s say, a brave loner who decides to blow the whistle on the corruption that’s worming its way through the company in which he works, how would you build his character? Would he be just that: brave and fearless, heedless of the consequence to his career and his future, determined to see justice done and the wicked conspiracy brought down?

In real life, there have been whistle-blowers as pure and un-besmirched as that, I suppose. But in fiction they are few, because they make lousy heroes. (I’ve only managed to drag myself through one Jack Reacher “thriller” – although I have to admit that I’m in the very small minority on this.)

Now let me bring out the heavy artillery, in the form of Salman Rushdie, of The Satanic Verses, and Midnight’s Children fame. He was interviewed at the Hay Festival about his latest book, The Golden House. It features, among many other things, a character who transitions sexually – and the conversation turned to this very contemporary subject.

“I’ve known a couple of people in America in recent years,” he said, “who have pretty much fully transitioned, and actually, one in each direction. And in both those cases I would say they were very successful transitions and the people are much happier now than they were before.”

But would a happy transition from male to female, or female to male, make a good story? Here’s Rushdie again: “… I thought that instead of writing about… a successful transition, it’s more interesting to write about a tormented individual, because it allows one to get into the real difficulties involved in this question of gender.”

So if Jack Reacher had an anguished past, an inextinguishable sense of guilt about a wrong he committed, a hunger for something transgressive*, then Lee Child would have a character more interesting to work with.

Rushdie again: “So my character is very anguished about it. He doesn’t exactly know what he is or what she might want to be, and spends a lot of the book trying to work through that, with, in the end (I don’t think it’s giving anything away) tragic consequences…”

In life, we’re drawn to good people without complicated inner lives. We long for lives ourselves that are as full of interest and variety and as little conflict as possible, and even less tragedy.

But in fiction we like heroes who succeed despite themselves. Who have to overcome their own weaknesses to make it to the finish line. Who possess vulnerabilities that we recognize are similar to our own.

So there, I think, is a good argument made stronger by an authoritative voice speaking in its favour.

Happy writing,

Richard

*I have to concede that because my experience of Jack Reacher’s stories is so limited, that Child might well have broadened and deepened Reacher’s backstory, and given him a whole raft of flaws, without my being aware of them.

Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog ‘Writing Secrets: Tips for making reading an immersive experience

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