Thinking Fiction: Why we like characters who work undercover for the ‘good’ side

I’m forever on a quest to discover why I like what I like. This is part of my foray into ‘types’ of fictional characters and why we as readers like them.

Who or what are ‘characters who work undercover for the ‘good’ side’?

I’m not sure if this is a universal ‘like’, but it’s certainly one of mine. I really enjoy reading a book or watching a TV series in which a character has to hide their true allegiances from others.

These characters appear ‘less than’ noble, ‘less than’ dependable, and at times downright villainous to most of the other characters, yet are actually working for the side of ‘good’. If they are the protagonist they are likely striving to ‘help’ society or a faction thereof, if they are not the protagonist, they are often an undercover champion for the protagonist’s cause.

An extreme example of this is when an individual the protagonist believes is ‘evil’ is revealed at the end of a series or novel to have been working for ‘good’ the entire time.

This is an extreme and difficult example to plot for three reasons:

  1. every action of the character must be able to be seen by the protagonist in a negative light, while actually being enacted for the protagonist’s good
  2. the evil or self-interested actions of the character must actually genuinely appear to be thus with no other options or apparent reasons for his behaviour
  3. there must be a good and maintainable reason the individual cannot reveal his true allegiance or motives

Caveat I:  here that I’m not talking about a trusted companion being outed as a traitor, or choosing to defect from the protagonist’s camp.

Caveat II: I’m also not talking about a last minute redemption, in which a primarily self-interested character suddenly defects to the ‘good’ side.

Examples of characters who worked undercover for the ‘good’ side:

Severus SnapeHarry Potter (book series)

Snape appears to be working against Harry Potter up until the final book when it is revealed that he has in fact been protecting him as a double agent. He is motivated, not by a love of evil, as most believe, but a love for Harry’s mother.

ElphieWicked (the Musical)

This is an interesting example as the playwright knows the audience believes Elphie to be ‘evil’ and so does her ‘society’ and yet it is revealed that she was in fact working ‘for good’ or at least, with less-than-evil motives.

Sydney CartonA Tale of Two Cities

Appearing dissolute and shiftless, Carton does not reveal to a single character his love for Lucie. He gives his life for her husband, yet at the conclusion of the novel not a single character is aware of either his motives or his sacrifice.

ChildermassJonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (TV series)

Childermass appears to be the bulwark of his master’s plan to ‘make English respectable’ and yet it is finally revealed he is driven by the desire to see the ‘return of the Raven king’, the opposite of ‘respectable’ yet clearly the ‘nobler’ cause

Merlin The Adventures of Merlin (TV series)

While the audience is aware Merlin is working for the return of magic, Arthur and his society assume Merlin is as anti-magic as themselves. Interestingly, Merlin eventually chooses Arthur over magic, but destiny won’t be thwarted and Arthur dies, leading to the return of magic after all.

Note I: for all these characters, there is a solid reason they can’t reveal their true motives and must ‘work in the darkness’ for practically the entirety of their story.

Note II: that if they are ‘outed’ their character arc ends abruptly: Snape dies, Elphie ‘dies’, Carton dies, Childermass leaves Norrell, Merlin becomes immortal.

Note III: links refer to other mentions of these characters on my blog – I told you I like them!

why we like characters who work undercover for good

When a character who works undercover for the ‘good’ side is written well:

  • We are encouraged by the humility of these characters in their choosing to forsake recognition
  • We can explore the effect it has on someone to have to hide the truest part of themselves
  • We can look critically at what structures/societies prevent someone from revealing their true natures
  • We are given examples of patience and forbearance enacted for a greater good
  • We begin to value what these characters value as they sacrifice so much for it
  • We realise that hiding is not always cowardly, and forgoing praise is not always wrong
  • We begin to ponder the weight of others’ perceptions: how important are they?
  • We wonder: what is worth struggling for? What is ‘good’ and how important is it?

When a character who works undercover for the ‘good’ side is written poorly:

  • The secret of a character’s alliances is used to raise tension, rather than the more complex and interesting outplay of what it means to keep a secret and what harm that does
  • Other characters can appear stupid or blind because they fail to see the truth of the character’s allegiances
  • The ‘secretly working for good’ character has no solid reason to keep their secret, and appear stubborn, contrary or needlessly mistrustful
  • It is not clear what the character’s true allegiances are or they appear to change so instead of a character who is going through hardship to keep a secret, we have a character who can’t make up their mind
  • The ‘secret’ rather than the ‘sacrifice’ is portrayed as the praise-worthy deed: enacted in real-life, this can cause more harm than good.
  • The ‘secret motives’ are added merely to complicate the story and do not serve to highlight the theme
  • It is used as a sort of ‘revisionist history’ rather than embodying a true moral struggle. Ie. : this character is not really good but if you squint and stand on your head, they are sort of sympathetic

Why is this character type popular?

I think, secretly, we believe those around us don’t see the ‘good’ inside us. We are frustrated at times when people don’t praise us enough or realise that ‘we’re doing this for them!’ So we sympathise with characters like these, who are perhaps like ourselves. In the same way these characters are often written in a noble light, and that, too, is how we like to see ourselves.

These characters give us hope that we too are good, and we too are heroes, and recognition will come in the end.

Not only so, but characters like these give us hope for the world. They remind us not to judge people by the way we perceive their actions. Perhaps that grumpy teacher or morose colleague are actually decent. When we feel like we meet few ‘good’ people, characters like these reassure us that perhaps humanity is better than we think, perhaps there’s more goodness underneath than evil.

We also long to see ‘comeuppance’ so when a character doesn’t receive it immediately, we keep on reading. We want hidden characters to be praised, we want to see rights wronged and people seen for who they are. We like this because it brings a feeling of balance, satisfaction and moral rightness to our world. Furthermore, it gives us hope too, that one day we too will receive the praise we think we deserve. 

What about you?

Do you enjoy reading about these types of characters? If so, is it for the reasons above? I’d love to hear from you!

images courtesy of the BBC/Shine

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