The darkness is seductive, luring readers into a world of ruthless and selfish characters. This has been particularly true in epic fantasy novels, as the moral gap between protagonist and antagonist has narrowed dramatically over the past two decades.
Years ago, the dark lead character was far less common. There was a time where most fantasy novels featured a protagonist with a good heart, imperfect but well intentioned. Somehow, the cynical nature of the real world around us has prevailed, compelling readers toward the morally ambiguous lead who would just as soon slit your throat as shake your hand. As an example, this type of character dominates The First Law universe. The edginess of it all can become a rush for the reader, making him or her feel that it’s good to be bad.
As a reader, I found myself caught in this fishnet, drawn into a sequence of fantasy series featuring dubious characters driven by their own selfish personal agenda. Not every character was outright nasty, some landed in an ambiguous region where black and white blurred to gray. Even worse, some authors opted to include a few honest characters for me to love, only to kill them off and leave me destitute and in search of replacement within the story. Yes, Game of Thrones, I'm looking at you (A Song of Ice and Fire series).
After a few years of enduring tales featuring individuals who were as bad as they were good, I decided I could take it no longer. It’s one thing to read a novel or series and find a character who is good at heart, but goes through a troubled period. A good example is the Wheel of Time series. There were times when I really disliked Rand, feeling frustrated by his arrogance and self-pity. However, he eventually got past it and found balance to show that he remained the good person we remember from when the series began. I get it. Behavior changes and internal conflict are natural human responses to the events that impact our lives.
However, I would like to know when and why it became unpopular for the main character to be a good person. Books featuring a protagonist who tries to do right, using a moral compass to guide them, often find reviewers labeling the protagonist as shallow or one-dimensional.
What is wrong with the main character in a novel being likable? Shouldn’t readers gravitate toward a likable character? I'm not saying that darker tales featuring cold-blooded lead characters shouldn't exist, it just shouldn't be at the expense of stories intended to inspire.
It’s obvious that a morally conscientious protagonist provides a good role model for young readers. However, I believe that even adult readers need a reminder that compassion and integrity are traits that define humanity and without them, we will at some point cease to be human. For the sake of making all worlds better, real and imaginary, I beg you not to allow the good guys fade from the pages that feed our imagination. Embrace the light, don’t let the darkness win.