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Sunday, December 9, 2012

Are villains more fun than heroes?

"Flawed characters are more interesting because they are forced to make a choice.  A conventionally good character will always do the moral, right thing.  Boring."

-- bestselling historical novelist Bernard Cornwell.

So (in an Amazon blog) remarked the author of such hugely popular books as the Sharpe series. Cornwell has published 54 books ... so far.  Or so I am told. I've lost count of the Sharpe books.  All I know is that I have read them all, some of them several times.

Is he right?  It could certainly explain why I so thoroughly enjoy writing about Lieutenant "Kit" Forsythe in the Wiki Coffin series.  In his own words, he is a "real bastard."  But that leads to a nagging worry.  Wiki Coffin is definite hero material -- goodlooking, clever, dry sense of humor.  On the other hand, he doesn't hesitate to kill, if necessary, and he's certainly adept at jumping ship.  Maybe that saves him from being boring. Let's hope so.

But let's have a look at Richard Sharpe.

Sharpe, a rifleman in the Napoleonic and Indian wars, could certainly be described as a "real bastard."  He's a gutter fighter, lethal when on missions behind lines, and is addicted to looting when he can get away with it.  Yet, he is intrinsically moral.  As the excellent TV series captured so well, he is a gentleman with the ladies, decent to his men, and awesomely brave. In a pinch, he will always do the right thing.  If you want to hate anyone in either the books or the TV films, then the venal, inefficient, terminally stupid officers who mismanage the battles and send Sharpe off on suicidal missions provide plenty of material. 

In a nutshell, he is complex.  And I think that is the answer.  You can't make a character interesting by simply avoiding the pitfall of painting him as "a conventionally good character who will always do the moral, right thing."

It's not as easy as that.


Anonymous said...

A friend of mine is a voracious reader of Cornwell. I'll have to try out one of the Sharpe books. Thanks Joan!

Francine Howarth: UK said...


Without a baddie or a slightly corrupt character a book can seem dreary at best, even Mr Darcy had his dark side! ;)

Ha, read all the Sharpe novels, Hornblower series, and if you want a bad yet heroic warrior hero read Shaka Zulu!