Brown and Fit to Break Bread With

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


The title of this post comes from a passage early on in The Game of Kings, the first book of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. In it, the (blond) Lymond has encountered the (black-haired) Mariotta, and their conversation diverts briefly to old Scots folklore about hair color:

“Or didn’t you know the family coloring? Richard hasn’t got it. Poor Richard is merely Brown and fit to break bread with . . .”

“The poem I know at least,” exclaimed Mariotta, chafing her wrist. “Red wise; Brown trusty; Pale envious –”

“And Black lusty. What a quantity of traps you’ve dropped into today . . .”

It’s stuck in my mind because Richard, Lymond’s brother, is almost the sort of character you’ve seen before: brown-haired and solid, the dependable “good guy” to Lymond’s incandescent “bad boy.” It’s a dichotomy that shows up a thousand times in fiction, where one character is the fiery, clever, not-wholly-trustworthy one of the pair, and the other stands for all the decent, respectable values you’d want to live with in daily life. These characters are almost always male, and they’re frequently two vertices of a love triangle, with a woman trying to choose between excitement and the character we are supposed to understand will make her actually happy.

The thing that makes Richard different is, he isn’t boring.

Because that’s how it often goes, doesn’t it? The bad boy is the far more interesting character of the two, because he gets to have a personality, while the other guy is mostly defined by being Not Him. Sure, in real life the good guy would almost always be the better partner. But he isn’t very engaging to read about, and a lot of the time, it feels like that’s because the author doesn’t care about him as much.

I like it when the “boring” one has a chance to be cool — which is to say, when the author bothers to invest some effort in him. Richard has a whole sequence in The Game of Kings where he goes off to investigate something, and during that time, he’s chucking drunk guys into ponds and doing other things that are much more interesting than his type usually gets. He’s got skills and talents of his own — some of them overlapping with his brother’s, even — and places where he fails to do what’s right. I won’t claim he’s as awesome as Lymond is (few characters are), but at least you can say he’s a character in his own right, rather than merely the bland alternative. Gale and Peeta in The Hunger Games aren’t quite this kind of set, because Gale doesn’t show up often enough to really be on the same footing, but Peeta initally comes across as “merely Brown and fit to break bread with.” He turns out to have more depth than you’d expect, though, being an active agent in the plot, instead of just a hapless, lovesick puppy trailing around after Katniss. I cheer for Stefan in the TV adaptation of The Vampire Diaries when he gets a moment of coolness, since most of the time he’s playing second fiddle to the mercurial and untrustworthy Damon.

It’s interesting to ponder why this is. I think that for a writer, the bad boy is easier to make narratively engaging, because he’s unpredictable: he’ll lie, cheat, take risks, do things no other character in the story will do. And for the reader, that persona is more often an escape from daily life — since most of us, I imagine, are reasonably law-abiding in daily life. But maybe we need to rethink both of those assumptions. After all, there’s a point at which being the guy who will lie and cheat and so forth is entirely predictable. (Oh, he’s going to go in with all guns blazing? What a shocker.) And sometimes reading about the character who will do what’s right is a wonderful escape from the world around us. To really make this dynamic work, the author needs to care about both characters — and to not let the dichotomy between them become a straitjacket. Find the places where the upstanding one will do something underhanded, and the moments of honest virtue for the unreliable one. Make them characters instead of types.