Saints, Gentlemen and Scoundrels

So a great while back I read something that stated “Chinese traditionally classified people into people with morality and ability.” People who are moral and capable were classed as “saints.” Moral people with low ability are “gentlemen.” Skilled people with low morality are “scoundrels.” People with neither are mediocre. Ideally saints or gentlemen are the top dogs in government with scoundrels under them. The scoundrels get the work done, and their superiors keep them from moral lapses.

Being a writer, I started thinking about this as a way to classify fictional characters.

Saints. Doc Savage. Batman. Sherlock Holmes. Obi-Wan Kenobe They have the skill to get the job done, and they wield it in a righteous cause. Not necessarily what society says is moral: Doc Savage brainwashes criminals rather than jail them and Sherlock Holmes has no qualms letting someone escape punishment if he thinks it’s best.

This group should probably include some villains who can make a claim to acting in a moral cause. Fu Manchu, for example, seeks to reverse British imperialism and restore Chinese independence, which is certainly a commendable goal. In the real world, Robert E. Lee fought as a “traitor to humanity’s god,” but doubtless believed he was fighting in a righteous cause (Fu Manchu was more on the side of justice than Lee). The Punisher probably counts too.

Gentlemen. This one doesn’t work so well for fiction: people with limited ability are more likely to be supporting characters than leads. The hero’s best friend or significant other, for instance. Average ability characters are a little more common. The typical cozy mystery protagonist isn’t a Sherlock Holmes-class detective, they’re not professionally trained; as I’ve written before, part of the appeal is that they’re regular people. But when faced with a mystery they have to solve, they go ahead and solve it, despite whatever death threats they face along the way.

The same applies to the average cop or the average G.I. who rises to the story’s challenge when they have greatness thrust upon them. In the film A Walk in the Sun, our heroes are just average American soldiers fighting in Italy, but they prove themselves heroes. Science Investigator Steve Flanagan in my own Atoms for Peace isn’t a superstar as an agent, but he’s tough, determined and capable enough to fight and win.

And of course countless superheroes start out as regular people before getting blessed with their exceptional abilities —though as they do become exceptional, possibly I’m pushing the interpretation.

The evil equivalent would be, I guess, generic Nazi soldiers going down before Captain America’s fists or the nobody villain who acquires superpowers.

Scoundrels. These protagonists range from Han Solo — a good guy at heart, even if his goodness needs a nudge — or Spider Scott to completely unprincipled shits such as Harry Flashman. They may have their own code of honor (the rogue as hero) or completely unscrupulous (the antihero). As villains, they’re the crooks or schemers who look out for number one: they have no ethos other than what’s in it for them. Magneto qualifies as a villain-saint; Doctor Doom, despite occasional flashes of decency, is purely interested in his own power.

Mediocrities. To me, if a mediocrity is the protagonist it’s probably a serious drama (Death of a Salesman) or a comedy (a lot of Bob Hope’s old films) rather than an adventure. In a fantasy story I think mediocrities are more likely to be villains or obstacles: the dishonest cop who’ll let the scoundrel walk in return for a payoff, the annoying coworkers who populate Aggretsuko and countless other workplace sitcoms, the bureaucrat who insists on you going back and filling in the third paragraph of Form XQ-y-23 correctly.

I’m not sure this has given me any writing insights, but it was fun to post.

#SFWApro. Cover by James Bama (t) and Zakaria Nada (b) all rights remain with current holders.

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