Wednesday, April 25, 2012

V is for Virtue: An Old-Fashioned Value We Need More Of

In the last year or so I have read a number of books by new writers that have sort of shocked me by their total absence of any redeeming value in any of the characters. The great Sol Stein said that in order to consider a manuscript for publication he needed it to have at least one character he could root for. The even greater John Gardner said that in order for writing to be true art it needed to be moral "it must seek to edify not to debase." I suspect both of them would be discouraged by many of the characters in some contemporary novels. 

The word "virtue" is traditionally used to mean "moral excellence" or at least the striving for that. The greatest stories throughout literature seem to always feature one character who may well be personally flawed but who is called to something greater than himself or herself and has to rise above all manner of personal flaws in order to triumph. I think one of the reasons that the Harry Potter books have been so consistently excellent is because young Harry, despite what he may want for himself, is called to rise above his circumstances and embark on the hero's journey -- no matter what it takes.

Recently I wrote a review for a book I read that was very discouraging because, by the end of the book, I did not like one single character in it. They were all whiny, self-absorbed, narcissistic twits. The author of the book responded to my review (a very unprofessional reaction, in my opinion) and said, among other things, it was too bad that I "needed" a certain type of character to enjoy a book. Sigh.

As a writer who has written about murderers, psychopaths, abusers and other nasty people, I know how to make unlikable characters but I hope I always offer someone in the narrative who, even in spite of themselves sometimes, rises above the situation and strives for some level of virtue. I think our culture needs more of that.

This blog post is part of the April 2012 A-to-Z Blogging Challenge. Thanks for visiting.


  1. I really, really, strongly prefer that a story (no matter what form it takes, book, song, movie, television show) I am investing my time and emotions in have at least one character I like. There have been exceptions, but they are pretty far between. I also think that if there are no likable characters that needs to have been done on purpose and not just happen as the result of poor writing.

    ~ Rhonda Parrish

  2. I have to agree. A book will be a disappointment to me if it doesn't have any characters to care about. It's my number one requirement: characters to care about. Otherwise, what's the point?


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