On Good Men as Protagonists

Carrie recently weighed in on the good man as protagonist. And by “good man,” we may wish to clarify this wholesome term more wholesomely: maybe Ward Cleaver or Father Knows Best fits the bill. The irresistable person who can do no wrong. The person who has few problems other than how they’re going to refinance the house or, worse yet, the type who spends most of a novel lounging about a silk dressing gown.

While I generally tend to favor protagonists who have significant problems (not necessarily outright bastards), whether obvious ones or, even more interestingly, flaws hidden beneath tightly sewn seams of life experience leading inexorably to a dilemma we are about to experience, there’s something to be said for Carrie’s plea. Certainly the human perspective isn’t limited to madmen or druggies or pedearasts. Nearly every community has a do-gooder. Not a nagger who gets in the way of other people’s affairs or a sanctimonious Dimmesdale type copping a feel in a garret. We’re talking a genuinely outstanding member of society with nary a blemish on his record.

And I don’t want to cop to the easy defense that these types of characters don’t make for conflict. However, I think good men must be thrown into conflict in order for us to recognize their virtues. We must understand how they arrived at their goodness over the years, what efforts at self-purging and ascetism that allowed them to become the people who they are. Transposed against a narrative template that involves people from the past coming into this good man’s life, I can see this working as a way to compare and contrast the good man of today versus the developing good man of the past.

I haven’t yet read Gilead. In fact, it’s a stone’s throw away on my own bookpile. But I’ll be quite curious to see if this hypothetical development is one of the linchpins of the book. To understand and ruminate upon virtue is perhaps a trickier thing to know than vice.