Perfection the Enemy of Drama

I am a naif in the ways of Amazon so today a good friend, Sage Walker, was guiding me through how to look up Amazon rankings, etc. As you all know I don’t read reviews. If they are positive you get a swelled head. If they are bad it just makes you feel shitty and helpless because at that point your book is published and there’s not a damn thing you can do to fix whatever the reviewer (or random person on Amazon or Goodreads) thought was wrong with the book.

But as I was discovering where to find one’s ranking (and I’ll never do that again) a review happened to catch my eye. Apparently this person was really, really upset with the second book in my space opera series IN EVIL TIMES because my protagonists, Tracy and Mercedes, proved to be rather flawed. They are both products of their culture, buying into and propping up a really terrible political structure, and both of them treat the second class citizens in my universe i.e. the aliens badly. This person also was very upset about how the Solar League was just terrible. Yes, that was deliberate. I wanted to talk about issues of gender, class, and xenophobia. I didn’t want the Star Trek Federation, but I also didn’t want Nazi Germany. I wanted a more nuanced society so readers could perhaps think about parallels to our current world.

But this person’s reaction got me to thinking about perfect protagonists and utopian settings. I had dealt with both when I was working on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and let me tell you it made it damn hard to come up with compelling stories, and it made for ultimately boring stories and dull characters. At one point The Powers That Be pulled in the writing staff to complain about how the conflict for the scripts was being generated outside of the crew of the Enterprise. Our response among ourselves was “yeah, no shit, Sherlock” because we had been given the directive that the crew of the Enterprise were perfect, they had no flaws and they didn’t want anything because in the 24th century all want had been removed. With those strictures on the stories it was no wonder we had to generate conflict outside of the Enterprise.

Because drama is ultimately about conflict. As William Faulkner said “the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about.” We read because stories help us process our own experiences and hopes and fears.

We’re inspired by the courage of these fictional characters, we mourn when Beth dies in Little Women, wonder if we would have the courage and honor to save a wrongly accused man from prison at the cost of our own freedom as Valjean does in Les Misérables, cheer when Sam goes from faithful servant to ultimately the real hero of The Lord of the Rings, and I’m sure people can think of a thousand more examples from literature that have transported us, terrified us, or made us laugh or cry or shiver in wonder.

But if the characters in novels never suffer from doubt or fear or jealousy or despair then they won’t seem real and we can’t identify with them. I can’t help but feel that books in which the good guys are very, very good and the bad guys are very, very bad are ultimately empty calories.

A book works on a number of different levels. There’s the plot — the stuff that happens. There’s the theme — why the stuff that happens matters. And there is the protagonist’s personal journey, how they grow and change and perhaps fail, but even in the failing they (and the reader) have learned something. Joseph Cambell wrote about this in his seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces which has now been reduced to a rather trite formula in Hollywood, but Cambell wasn’t wrong. A protagonist’s journey is vitally important if a book is going to rise above being a simple bagatelle — momentarily enjoyed but quickly forgotten.

I had one interviewer tell me that they thought I was “courageous” for making my hero, Tracy, at times unpleasant. I was startled by that. I had thought he was a man shaped by his society and his upbringing but comes to question as events puncture those assumptions. I guess I feel that reading shouldn’t be like a warm bath. A good story should make us uncomfortable, make us question, think about how we would react in a given situation, and see that just as a character can begin to heed the better angels of their nature maybe there is hope that we can do the same.

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