The Problem with “Moralizing Niceness” in Fiction

A great deal of nonsense is written every day about characters in fiction–from the side of those who believe too much in character and those who believe too little. Those who believe too much have an iron set of prejudices about what characters are: we should get to “know” them; they should not be “stereotypes”; they should have an “inside” as well as an outside, depth as well as surface; they should “grow” and “develop”; and they should be nice. So they should be pretty much like us. In The New York Times, a critic complains that the “decrepit womanizer” played by the septuagenarian Peter O’Toole in the film Venus . . . and Hector, the elderly teacher “who gropes his male students” in The History Boys . . . are meant to be relatively “benign,” but instead their actual behavior makes them seem “venal and self-deluding.” There is what she calls “a significant ick factor” in watching such elderly people “stalking” their young victims. But, she argues, instead of portraying these characters as the predators they really are, the filmmakers seem to want us to sympathize with, even applaud, such behavior. The problem with The History Boys is that it “assumes that the audience will embrace its lecherous hero as fully as the film’s creators do.”

In other words, artists should not ask us to try to understand characters we cannot approve of–or not until after they have firmly and unequivocally condemned them. The idea that we might be able to feel that “ick factor” and simultaneously see life through the eyes of these two aging and lecherous men, and that this moving out of ourselves into the realms beyond our daily experience might be a moral and sympathetic education of its own kind, seems beyond this particular commentator, of whom all one can say is that she is unlikely to be so unforgiving when she herself has reached seventy. But there is nothing egregious about this article. A glance at the thousands of foolish “reader reviews” on, with their complaints about “dislikable characters,” confirms a contagion of moralizing niceness.

James Wood, How Fiction Works