Before I start, I just want to make it clear that, in this case, I’m not lumping all characters who have strong beliefs into the idealistic set. This rant deals, instead, with protagonists or secondaries who have both strong ideals and a lack of information about how they apply to the pragmatic world, or about their consequences.
1) Identify the source of the lack of information.
The most common source is innocence—lack of experience—or naïveté. A character like this will need a different graying from someone who has encountered the bad consequences of her ideals before but didn’t recognize them, or someone who already suspects that not everything is sweetness and light in the group she works with or has joined, but prefers to stick her fingers in her ears regarding it, or someone who can ignore the truth because it’s happening to people she doesn’t care about or at a distance. After all, a character with lack of experience can just be confronted with one bad thing and change her mind completely, while the others are harder.
One reason I groan when the Terminally Innocent Boy (or Girl) crosses the page is that I know their natural mate, in most authors’ eyes, is the Single Heavy-Handed Epiphany. So we’re about to see a button-mashing scene wherein the author has the people the protagonist has always trusted beat children, or rape someone, or burn someone to death, and then the protagonist is going to scream, “How could you!”, and the people she has always trusted will defend themselves with stupid “arguments.” Then the protagonist runs away and joins the other side.
And that, right there, is the biggest problem I have with this “cure” for innocence. Too often, the protagonist simply becomes a convert as blind for the opposite side (who are, of course, always the Good Guys) instead of learning to see the nuances. Her naiveté is still present, and she is not a more complicated character than she was, since she’s still engaging in false dilemmas and black-and-white thinking.
If you have an innocent character who should not be innocent by the end of the story, then do something to attack the innocence. Don’t preserve it through an easy emotional reaction.
2) Use multiple epiphanies.
Time to start deconstructing some common ways that authors get characters to pay attention. Many of them are not inherently bad ideas; they’re simply subject to bad handling (see the example above).
So the protagonist is someone who suspects that, yeah, the rebels who saved her life and gave her a sense of purpose are also the same people who kidnap nobles’ children and return them to their parents in bloody pieces, but she can ignore it if she really tries. After all, no one has said they’re using the nobles’ children that way; those might be false rumors planted by their enemies. And everything else they do is good. And it’s not as though anyone she cares about is being hurt, so why should it matter to her? And don’t the nobles kind of deserve it, anyway, since they’ve caused so much suffering and misery?
Set up multiple justifications for her beliefs, and then have multiple epiphanies go off like bombs at the base of them. Instead of having her stumble into the middle of a scene of slaughter—the Single, Heavy-Handed Kind—she might notice that she’s brave enough to ask some questions and not others; she might find out that the nobles’ reprisals against the rebels have begun to spill over onto people she does care about; she might discover that, while there are some aristocrats sympathetic to the rebels’ cause, they’re changing their minds as the attacks become more and more violent and personal; and she might develop a sense of duty through the tasks the rebels have assigned her which eventually pushes her to take responsibility for everything she’s involved in, not just the immediate actions.
Does this mean that she has to end up converting fully to the opposite side? No. (See point 6). But it’s a combination of things that, by themselves, don’t weigh much, but which pile up like snowflakes on a mountain until they start an avalanche. Who knows? By the time she begins to act, others in the group may have become disgusted, too, or at least eager to change the methods used for reasons of sheer practicality, and will back her. It’s her courage that inspires them and begins things, but not her courage that does everything.
In fact, that might be one of the very best ways to turn someone grayer.
3) Give your idealistic protagonists people to fight for and with.
Show me a fantasy character who’s willing to die for a cause, and I will show you someone who, 99% of the time, is a loner. Probably, everyone she cared for is dead and the living hate her (since fantasy writers are far too fond of orphans and those who are despised by all the people in their immediate environments for no particular reason). She may have distant relationships with some people—like an employer, a foster parent, or an older sibling—but those people don’t greatly matter to her day-to-day conceptions of things. She can die safely because she has no one to live for.
I think fantasy protagonists in general should be more loving. And no, giving someone three love interests is not the answer. Show them able to build families, even if their blood families are dead. Show them able to accept what romantic love means earlier than the very end of the story, and in deeper senses than just physical passion. Show them able to have friendships in which the friends are not inevitably reduced to sidekicks. Show complicated bonds with others—parental figures, people who’ve blown hot and cold on them, past love interests, the people they serve or who serve them, neighbors, fellow prisoners or members of a minority—you know, the kind that most people have.
These are the people who can best open an idealistic protagonist’s eyes. If she sees that she’s hurting them in her blindness, then she has a legitimate reason to reconsider her actions (and add a twist to her bond with them). If she sees that consequences she never anticipated are falling on them and not her, she can shed that “Well, it doesn’t matter what I do because it only affects me” shell. If she takes large risks and then is forced to realize those risks matter to others, too, or that the others want to share them with her… well,now you’ve got the core of an ensemble cast.
People who care about others are more vulnerable and more a part of the world than people who isolate themselves. And being a part of the world is usually a required state for a person to become more nuanced and take other shades—not just gray—into her soul.
4) Take some risks with the audience “getting” it.
If it’s important to take the Single adjective away from the Single Heavy-Handed Epiphany, it’s even more important to remove the Heavy-Handed one. There are some cases where an author can make a single experience traumatic enough to make the protagonist question her beliefs or open her eyes to what she’s actually doing with them. However, too heavy-handed and the author veers into preaching or melodrama, both of which are more likely to turn an audience off than sheer gore or unpleasantness in one part of the story.
So be subtler than that. If there are three important moments in the story that the protagonist has to pass through, then a third of the “message” can be in the first one, the second third in the second, and the final piece in the third—and so on. Maybe everything doesn’t make sense until she sees everything. The first unexpected secret knocks her reeling, but, well, she can put it down to tiredness or her mind exaggerating what she saw. (Believe me, people will make up excuses, even stupid ones, to avoid thinking that something fundamental about their belief systems needs to change). The second one is harder, but it’s still only one person who shares her beliefs acting like that, not everyone. And then perhaps the third one occurs as she crosses the line, and realizes that she is doing something she would previously have found unacceptable in pursuit of her ideals. This is the moment when she can start pulling back, reconsidering what she’s willing to do, or perhaps abandoning the ideas that brought her this far altogether.
The risk here is twofold: that the audience may think the character stupid and believe she should “get” it immediately, or that they may trust her interpretation of events completely and thus be shocked when she changes her mind and see it as a deviation from her actions so far. In the first case, however, you can show her exhibiting some of the same behaviors—making excuses, refusing to trust her senses, holding debates with herself—in other parts of the story, so that it becomes possible to see she’s simply a different kind of person than the readers are, not stupid. (It helps if there’s another part of the story in which she’s exceptionally quick, intelligent, or talented, to counter any impression of stupidity). In the second case, the pieces of her change are there; like a mystery story replete with red herrings or surprise twists, they simply need to be reread.
How can you know which line you’re treading? Let others read the story, of course. There will be some people turned off no matter how hard you try, but that’s true with everything. I still think the risk is less than the one you take with over-explanation, or the sudden lightning bolt from heaven that reveals all the possible problems with her values to the protagonist.
What exactly is wrong with the protagonist’s idealism? This is the complementary question as to why she believes in the ideals in the first place, and needs as definite an answer. After all, it’s no good if you create your Terminally Innocent Girl (or Boy), mock her (or him) for not knowing everything yet, and then prove that there’s really no reason to change her (or his) mind at all.
So, isolate the problematic part of the idealism. Is it its extremity of beliefs, so that the protagonist thinks X group of people is always evil, no questions, no exceptions? Is it lack of knowledge of history or fact, so that the protagonist doesn’t know what’s likely to happen when she does a particular thing? Is it lack of foresight or too much abstraction, so that she’s incapable—or partially incapable—of realizing that consequences actually follow from actions? Is it exceptionalism, in that she knows problems with idealism exist, but believes none of them will touch her because she’s uniquely intelligent/uniquely talented/special in some other way?
Once you know this, then it will help you enormously in creating situations that will show the protagonist why she needs to change, or which actually change her. It also helps in not tarring an entire system of beliefs, or behaviors, or morals, or ethics, with the same brush. Consequences and the protagonist’s acquiring of other colors in her soul should make her more nuanced, yes; they do not mean that the only way to become more nuanced is to abandon one’s beliefs altogether.
6) Think about modifications she can make, once she knows something’s wrong.
The protagonist has, unwittingly, done something horrible in pursuit of her ideals—perhaps agreed to what seemed a fitting traditional punishment for a crime, only to find out that the punishment caused far more suffering than the crime did. Now she’s found out, and she’s got to decide what she does next.
What she doesn’t need to do is abandon all her belief in and support of her culture’s traditions, and completely join the people who want to destroy them. Why? Or rather, what the fuck? As I mentioned in point 1, this is essentially saying that what went wrong was her system of beliefs, not the way she approached them. If she turns around and just as idealistically embraces the destruction of tradition, everything will be okay!
This is the hardest part of the story, and—not, I think, coincidentally—the one many fantasies avoid tackling. The protagonist finds out something is wrong with her family, and runs away from them. There turns out to be a terrible secret at the heart of utopia, and the book ends with the protagonist deciding to remake the utopia, but not actually remaking it on-stage. The protagonist unwittingly makes a mistake, and perhaps the plot is her getting past her guilt, but we don’t get to see the atonement. (Some stories suggest that the atonement doesn’t really matter, which rather undermines the effectiveness of the mistake story in the first place). She changes her mind about what she should be doing with her life, and flies at once to the opposite side or simply withdraws from human contact in jaded bitterness, rather than acting, rather than deciding, rather than trying to convince others who might be just as idealistic as she used to be that their actions have consequences.
She can still love her ideals. She can still believe deeply in them. Her personal growth can change her personal attitude and approach to them; they don’t need to result in the destruction of them, or of her as a person.
And, really, isn’t it a greater, harder, and worthier thing to pick up the fallen pieces of something beautiful but imperfect and try to build that thing anew, rather than withdrawing from it, or running away, or criticizing it for being imperfect while never offering anything better?
Grayness need not equal cynicism.
The next rant will be on fantasy-and-science-fiction hybrids.