The Problem with Piebaldery

The first problem is that I’m not 100% sure that “piebaldery” is a word. In fact, I’m almost certain it isn’t. But bear with me and overlook that for now. What I mean by “piebaldery” is the act of segregating “good” and “bad” in writing.

In other words, creating characters who are “good”, stand for what is “right” and never do anything “wrong” and pitting them against villains who have absolutely no values or beliefs but instead stand for something many people would have a hard time accepting. Something like meaningless bloodshed or power or destruction without a thought of construction.

Things like that.

Things where the black is so obviously black and the white is so obviously white.

You may be tempted to call this a morality play, but I’m not so sure I agree. In most of the successful morality plays I’ve read, the main character is actually tempted to do something wrong and they often do it. It is this act which royally screws them over in the end and lands them in an unfortunate situation.

Original faerie tales were like that too. (See stories written by the Brother’s Grimm.)

Currently, I’m unsure of where this style of writing came from or if using it could be beneficial in anyway. However, I am sure of one big gaping hole in its construction, however: adults, and sometimes even children, find this method of story-telling childish.

Let me give you an example.

My friend and I went to the Renaissance Faire last weekend. Like usual, we attended every single jousting event, out of our mutual respect for the recurring villain of the series, but, like usual, the plot was very piebald.

The “good knight” stood for truth, justice and chivalry.

The “bad knight” made snide comments and just wanted bloodshed.

The “good knight” stood for his people.

The “bad knight” just wanted blood shed.

The “good knight” earned his shield by saving an orphanage.

The “bad knight” earned his shield by burning it down.

That kind of thing.

From Pelican Pete
His caption: “The Evil Knight never wins in the end. That’s why he’s the villain.” Best ever.

The unfortunate thing is that often people react to this the opposite way you intend. Take my friend and I for example. We see a good guy who seems so upitty, so good by society’s standards that he’s not even human. We can’t relate to him.

But we can relate to the bad knight.

Sure he’s mistaken in his ideas–but so are we sometimes. Sure he loses the battle–but we often do too!

We look at this battle and remember all the times self-righteous people have pushed us around and spat on us. All the times we’ve lost to someone seemingly better.

And we root for the very knight you want us to despise.

Life isn’t perfect.

People aren’t perfect.

Dilemmas in life aren’t piebald.

The only thing you should make perfect in your story should be Jesus Christ–otherwise you are risking readers pulling away and/or joining hands with the very characters you want them to hate. Even many children’s stories understand this–and they’re some of the most successful stories to boot. Children aren’t as daft as some authors think they are.

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wisely argues. Every character is capable of being a villain. Every character is capable of being a hero. The difference in how we classify them comes from what they choose to do with their potential.

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1 Comment

  1. EFoley said,

    August 2, 2012 at 02:54

    I’m so glad you worked the Solzhenitsyn quote in there. That’s one of my all time favorites!


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