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How to Write Good Characters

By Britton Perelman · August 13, 2020

The television landscape is full of antiheroes – lead characters with questionable morals, dark secrets, regrettable pasts, and bad judgement calls.

And although the world may not be completely devoid of bad people, it certainly isn’t as full of them as television (and the news cycle) would lead us to believe. Most people are decent, which is why television shows are often even more compelling when they center on characters who are innately good.

Related blog post: Improving Your Screenplay’s Characterization

Take some of the best good characters out there — Jane Villanueva, Coach Taylor, and Leslie Knope.

Each of these characters goes through his or her life intending to do good — to improve their communities, enact positive change, and be a decent human being in the world. Not only are these admirable goals for any character, watching characters go on these journeys is deeply satisfying.

We are Coach Taylor: trying like hell to unite people who don’t see eye to eye around a common goal (in his case: The State Championship). We are Leslie: going up against a town that doesn’t believe in her time and time again. We are Jane, the Villanueva family, Raphael, and Mateo: striving to be the best we can be for the people we love.

While the character arc for an antihero might be easier to plot out, good characters can be more relatable to audiences. We connect with them because we are them. And even though character arcs for good characters may be more complex, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Character arc is typically synonymous with change or growth of some kind. Those who are not innately good must either come to grips with the fact that they are bad or change and become a good person instead. Maybe they are a good person to begin with, but life turns them toward something darker. Perhaps they are a decent person forced to make bad choices for the greater good. All valid arcs for characters, but none that include a character who is simply trying to go through life as a good person.

Crafting a character arc for an innately good character is tough, because it means throwing them up against challenges time and time again. It means putting them in compromising positions, having bad things happen to them, and constantly letting them choose to remain steadfast in their goodness.

In Jane the Virgin, life is bonkers. There are several different crime lords, evil twin sisters and nasty mothers, conniving exes, malicious kidnappings, and (arguably worst of all) bitchy parents to deal with at preschool. Yet through it all, Jane remains positive. She strives to be a great mother, daughter, friend, and partner. Every time she has to deal with the ugliness of the world, she radiates light.

Now, that’s not to say it’s all smooth sailing for Jane. No siree. But it’s so satisfying to watch her deal with her wild telenovela world in a grounded, realistic way. In a way that you or I might deal with it, as decent human beings just trying to make it through to whatever our version of a happy ending is.

It’s the same with Leslie Knope and Coach Taylor. No matter how many times Leslie faces Pawnee citizens who don’t give a crap about all the good she’s trying to do for their town, she never gives up. She loves her town, so she keeps fighting for it. And no matter how many games Coach Taylor loses, no matter how many setbacks he faces during the season, he still shows up for his players. He still looks forward to next Friday night.

Though they may not be as iconic as Walter White, Tony Soprano, or Daenerys Targaryen, good characters are all over television. Comedies like Parks and Recreation, the Office, Schitt’s Creek, New Girl, Friends, Grace and Frankie, and Atypical are full of them, but dramas feature them as well. Friday Night Lights, Parenthood, This Is Us, Grey’s Anatomy, Outlander, Once Upon A Time, Gilmore Girls, and Lost all feature characters who are trying to be decent in life. And I haven’t even mentioned the subsection of good characters featured in The Good Place. That’s another article.

Writing characters that are good is a noble endeavor. Not only because it’s inherently a bit more challenging than creating characters who lean more toward the dark side, but because it reflects reality in a way that audiences understand, relate to, and connect with. Characters who are good often cement themselves more firmly in our memories because they’re more like us.

Audiences like to watch characters who are good because we ourselves want to be good too. And there’s nothing bad about that at all.