There’s a difference between writing a strong character and writing a morally strong character. There’s a difference between writing a good character and writing a character that sometimes does the wrong thing. It’s very rare that you will go through your life without upsetting people or choosing to do the wrong thing, so why should we expect our characters to? When we put restrictions on characters and what they should and shouldn’t be teaching readers, we end up with poorly developed and unrealistic characters.
Here are few things to remember when building your characters:
Your protagonist won’t always do the right thing.
Great character development is when your character grows in some way throughout the novel. It’s very important to remember that great character development for your protagonist DOES NOT mean that they will turn out perfect and wonderful in the end. Maybe they will learn to be more selfish. Maybe they will learn that doing the right thing all the time has only brought them misery. Maybe they will become hardened in some way. The protagonist does not only represent good things about human nature. They do not have to have perfect morals to be the protagonist. They also do not have to be a hero or role model. The protagonist is simply the main character of your story, the one we are told to focus on. They have the potential to represent all aspects of human nature, not just a “good” and “moral” perspective.
Characters that do “bad things” are not always brought to justice in the end.
The antagonist will not always pay for their actions at the end of the novel. This isn’t an injustice or something the writer screwed up. Not everyone who does awful things in this world will have to pay for it. It’s important that you tell your story how you want to tell it because it’s not your job to preach to your readers about good vs. evil. Sure, readers will hate it if there are no consequences for your characters’ actions, but not every character needs to be systematically punished for bad deeds. Maybe the antagonist learns something in the end, maybe they’re captured, maybe they get away, or maybe they work with the protagonist. This is really all up to you and the story you want to tell.
We do not have to preach to our readers through our characters.
Writing a novel never has to be about teaching your readers a lesson. If you’re writing a novel about good vs. evil, good doesn’t always have to triumph in the end. If a writer decides to end their novel in a negative way, that doesn’t mean they believe the antagonist was right, that’s just how they felt the story should go. On the other hand, if you want to teach a lesson or talk about an issue—do it. It does not have to be your main focus, however.
Our characters really don’t owe our readers anything, except to be themselves.
Characters aren’t supposed to act a certain way or learn certain lessons to satisfy readers. IT’S IMPORTANT THAT YOUR CHARACTER’S ACTIONS MAKE SENSE TO YOUR CHARACTER AND THE WORLD THEY’RE LIVING IN, but they don’t need to be something in particular to be a good character. For example, I personally believe Daenerys from Game of Thrones is a great character. She doesn’t always do the right thing. She doesn’t always know what she’s doing. She might not be a good person. But she’s a skillfully developed, interesting character that I like seeing progress. Daenerys doesn’t owe it to us to be anything but herself, flaws and all. She’s not good and she’s not evil. She doesn’t have perfect morals, but as we learned from Game of Thrones, that doesn’t really matter. The books don’t really make a statement on who’s right and who’s wrong—the author leaves that up to us.
This isn’t to say that the choices you make as a writer don’t have any consequences. You still need to do your research and be responsible for the choices you make. The choices of your characters might still reflect on your choices as a writer. You can’t get away with saying offensive things or excluding diverse characters by explaining that “this is just how my character is!” I’m just saying that your characters don’t need to fall into a certain category to be a good character.