Character Conflict: The Subjectivity of Goodness


A pet peeve of mine is when all of the nice characters approve of each other, when they all have a similar set of values and understanding of the world, and they recognize kindred spirits in each other.

It is the most basic of truths that all people, good or evil, have differences to clash over. A writer who does not use this does disservice to their story and their readers.

It is not only naive but dangerous to treat the world as if it works that way. Reality is much messier, and acting as if "good" people all behave and react in the same way keeps us from trying to understand each other and work within those differences to find compromise. It is when we believe that compromise should not be necessary that intolerance and hatred reign.

Growing up in the church, I knew about churches that split over issues that don't matter to me in the least. When in the service to have communion. Instruments or acapella. Which version of the Bible to use. The smallest things created these huge rifts because in those particular churches, no one was willing to compromise. These were life-or-death issues.

Anything, absolutely anything, no matter how small it seems to you, can be huge to someone else. Giving your characters these little inconsistencies makes them more human, more real.

Good is a spectrum and often subjective. The way I grew up, good looked a certain way, a Christian way. In a few stories I've read recently, it looks like love and acceptance of all gender identities and sexual preferences. The similarity the two share is that both are a bit rigid in their definition of goodness, leading to intolerance toward those whose definition conflicts with their own.

But I should define intolerance as I use it here. I don't mean hatred or cruelty or demeaning words or active opposition. I don't mean trackable offenses. Many who consider themselves good by their own moral code do not actually go out of their way to make others feel small or unsafe. Those who do engage in cruelty are not good people. No, the intolerance I'm talking about is simply the inability and/or disinclination to try and see things from another point of view. It is beyond difficult to fully understand a point of view that conflicts sharply with one's own, but I've learned that the only way to truly embrace tolerance is to give others the benefit of the doubt that they are not actually bad people just because they see the world a different way. Or rather, that they are not trying to be bad people. That they are trying to be good and honest and fair according to their understanding of goodness; subjective goodness recognizes a set of morals and dedicates itself to living by them.

It is these intrinsic differences, the subjectivity of goodness, that give characters the potential to both be good and be in conflict with others who are good, even if that conflict is as subtle as a bit of awkwardness during a conversation.

On the other side of the coin, it is important to recognize that people with intolerant habits can change. Not their core values, usually, but how they treat and react to those with conflicting beliefs. Kindness and friendship and love are not impossible no matter how different our interpretation of goodness, and forgetting that sets us at a disadvantage not just as writers but as human beings.