- A concept or standard of supreme perfection.
- A person or thing taken as a standard of perfection.
- A high principle; lofty aim.
Funk &Wagnalls Standard Desk Dictionary, Vol. 1, 1969.
“Mom, what does ‘humble’ mean?”
“Check the dictionary, dear!”
“Dad, what does ‘patriotism’ mean?”
“I’m a bit busy right now. Look it up in the dictionary and I’ll explain anything you have a problem understanding later, okay?”
I am one of those fortunate people who had parents who would tell me what a word I did not understand meant – once I checked it in the dictionary! If they themselves did not know its meaning, or were uncertain of it, they would grab one of the (many) dictionaries in the house and find the answer there. When I was old enough, they taught me how to do it.
For a while, I found it irritating, not least because some of the definitions were as confusing as the word I was looking up. But after a while I grew to enjoy it; these days, I could literally spend an afternoon perusing the dictionary just for fun.
Anyway, not long ago I was thinking about one of my favorite things in the world – fiction. I was thinking about how professional critics like to praise really nasty characters these days. You know the ones I mean – Hannibal Lecter, Dracula, Moriarty, or characters like them. And I was trying to figure out what these people see in such characters. What do they like about them? I wondered. What do they find so interesting in these black holes that are void of everything that makes a person good? Why do they hate the characters with principles and extol the characters that have none?
The only answer I was able to come up with is that a lot of these critics seem to hate the standards the good characters embody or aspire to achieve. As an example, one of the things I heard said about Captain America prior to The Winter Soldier’s release was that Steve Rogers had the “most colorful” uniform of the Avengers but the “least colorful” personality.
I was confused by the statement. “How can Cap be bland?” I asked. “He’s a great leader, a compassionate man, and he will protect people who cannot protect themselves. He’s magnanimous, he’s just, and he is someone who will stand up to evil no matter the cost to himself. What’s so dull about that?”
Apparently a lot, if you listen to some people.
In contrast to what they said about Cap, professional critics babble endlessly about the bad guys and how “great” they are. How much “depth” they have and how the reader/viewer/audience-in-general can “sympathize” with them when they see the reasons for their behavior.
I am not sure I sympathize with the likes of Magneto or Khan Noonien Singh. They are both men who will kill indiscriminately in order to gain power. After all, in a world ruled by mutants, should not the strongest lead? What government was Magneto planning to set up after he achieved global mutant dominance? If his rule of Genosha in Wolverine and the X-Men was any indication, he had a Fascist/monarchal government in mind. Khan’s ideas were about the same: “My race is supreme and I am the most supreme of them all. As for you – well, if you’re a normal human, then you’re just scum. If you’re enhanced, like me, then you’re simply less brilliant than I am.”
Nevertheless, I do pity Magneto and Khan. They are two brilliant men who squander their intelligence by trying to subject the world to their will. They are smart enough to help society in so many ways, but instead they choose to force their idea of perfection on everyone else. So they are unwilling to hear anyone say, “No, I don’t want to do that,” because those words offend their pride. Those words remind them that they have no business ordering other people to live by their twisted wills, and their pride will not accept that. It is this that makes them so pitiable.
However, while I feel sorry for these characters, I definitely do not sympathize with the likes of Hannibal Lecter or Moriarty. At least Magneto and Khan tried to be good initially. Lecter and Moriarty went bad almost the minute they were old enough to decide between up and down. Such a choice is not going to engender even a drop of pity from me.
“But how can the critics hate the good guys?” some may ask. “They never say they do!”
As a friend of mine likes to say, this is where language matters. And this is why it is a good idea to look up words in a dictionary – or read it just for fun.
Professional critics rarely state plainly that they hate fictional good guys. They know that anyone who likes fictional good guys will not listen to them if they state flatly, “I hate Superman/King Arthur/Frodo/fill-in-the-good-guy-of-your-choice because they’re good.” So instead they use language that makes the good guys seem weak, unreal, and thin. They label Cap a “Boy Scout,” old fashioned, or the old standby of “idealistic.”
Now you understand why I started this post off with a partial definition of ‘ideal,’ readers. The full definition has been cut in most modern dialogue so that its adjectival meaning alone is present. So when one hears phrases like “He’s very idealistic” or “He has great ideals,” one immediately thinks that the person being spoken of is not in touch with reality. They get the impression that the ideals the person espouses are “Capable of existing as a mental concept only; utopian; imaginary” (also from Funk &Wagnalls Standard Desk Dictionary, Vol. 1, 1969). In other words, ideals are about as tangible as rainbows and as real as the Sidhe of Irish mythology.
Yet the definition of ideal goes beyond that. An ideal is a “concept or standard of supreme perfection;” it is a torch in the dark that you take up to give you light as you walk around. An ideal is a goal, like a dream job or a trophy. If you want it, you have to work for it. And that is hard, daunting, labor to say the least.
The particular ideal(s) we want can be societal or personal. Societal ideals, such as justice and honor, are hard to achieve. Personal ideals such as compassion, self-sacrifice, and related virtues are even more difficult to achieve. I know – I have been trying to attain them and others for years. In fact I am still trying to reach them. So I know from my own small experience that working toward these ideals is a tiring vocation.
The thing to remember about achieving an ideal is that those who choose to pursue it are never satisfied that they have actually mastered it. For instance, others might consider a compassionate person a great hero, but that person will always feel as though they are not compassionate enough. So they practice it more and more, becoming even more heroic in the eyes of others. But in their own mind they will always sense that there is more for them to achieve – something that does not make the puzzle complete, something just over the next hurdle that they have to reach in order to be perfectly compassionate. And they will feel this way until they must transfer from this life of time to the life of eternity. Why? Because this life will never let them be perfect.
But you know something? That does not stop these committed people from continuing to work at being perfect – at least until they are in forevermore and do not have to worry about it. Because once such people are in forever they become as perfect as they can be.
So what does all this have to do with good guys and bad guys in fiction? Good guys are, as I said above, either the embodiment of an ideal or they are striving after an ideal. That ideal can be societal or personal, but it is an ideal all the same. Galahad is the ideal of knightly virtue, Cap crystallizes all the virtues that define the U.S. as a country in his personality, and Aragorn is the consummate model of a good and noble king. Other characters like Spock, Teal’c from Stargate SG-1, or Jason Bourne are all pursuing an ideal. Spock pursues the ideal of humility, recognizing that he and the entire Vulcan species are not superior to humans, while Teal’c and Bourne are each in pursuit of redemption for their past evil acts.
The most important fact about all these characters is that they are trying to be something better. Even Galahad, Cap, and Aragorn are not satisfied with their current levels of what we could call perfection. They are not as perfect as they can be and they know it. They are still striving after perfection. It will always elude them because, unlike us, they will be in this world for centuries to come. We will be here only for a short time, and one day we will be allowed through the curtain separating this life from eternity. They will not follow us because they are here to help keep us focused on the goal they are not designed to attain.
Some of the critics who go into raptures over the bad guys know this. What is more, they reject it. Why, I do not know. And as the old saying goes, “Misery loves company.” Rejection of ideals, of the race that we each feel the need to run toward perfection, leads to absolute misery in the here and now. And it is an awful thing to be miserable in solitude, because one knows precisely why he is miserable. Excuses for it make a thin shield which is only strengthened when more than one person is using them.
This is why, I believe, so much attention is being given to fictional bad guys by professional critics these days. No, not all professional critics are bad. But some are making everyone else toe their line, just as Magneto and Khan each tried to make the people of their worlds follow their wills. If there is no one to try and disarm these mistaken critics of their flimsy defenses, then they have no need to battle their own inner darkness and can sit pretty on it.
How can we combat this evil that they have accepted? By liking the fictional good guys and explaining why we like them. An even better method is to imitate the good guys’ virtues as best we can – after all, that is why they are here.
The best response, though, is to never stop trying to be better than we are today. Our own real competition is with our own bad tendencies. We are naturally inclined to choose good and not evil, despite what others may say. And as long as we stick with the good, as long as we fight to keep it and make it grow, we are running the great race and fighting the good fight. There is no greater challenge in life.
I do not know about you, but I enjoy a good fight. And if it is with my own faults, then that makes it an even better battle. I hope I win.
But more importantly, I hope you win your own inner battles, readers.
Until next time!
The Mithril Guardian