I’ve been running a survey on Reddit and on Facebook to find out the extent to which readers perceive different fantasy characters to be good or evil. The results are now in, so thank you to everyone who took part. At this point, a statistician would probably say something about sample sizes and statistical significance and ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZzzz. This is not a scientific survey, though, so take the results with as great a dose of salt as you wish.
Average score out of 20 (where 20 is flawless paragon and 1 is evil overlord):
15.5 Fitz (Farseer Trilogy etc., Hobb)
14.7 Boromir (The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien)
12.8 Severus Snape (Harry Potter, Rowling)
12.8 Locke Lamora (Gentlemen Bastards, Lynch)
11.5 Felisin Paran (Malazan Book of the Fallen, Erikson)
9.6 Monza Murcatto (Best Served Cold, Abercrombie)
8.9 Raistlin (Dragonlance, Weis/Hickman)
6.9 Thomas Covenant (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Donaldson)
5.8 Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones, Martin)
4.5 Jorg Ancrath (Broken Empire Trilogy, Lawrence)
I wasn’t surprised to see Fitz at the top. Fitz may be an assassin, but his profession was chosen for him as a child, and I think he acts more or less honourably throughout the books in which he features.
At the bottom, I’d say Jorg Ancrath merits his low score. Though he does display some character growth during the Broken Empire trilogy, and he shows a degree of loyalty to those close to him.
Which character divided opinion the most?
There is no clear answer to this question, and for me, this is where the results are particularly interesting. In terms of the highest and lowest scores, most of the characters had double-digit variations, as shown below. This is a huge disparity when you consider that the characters were only scored out of twenty.
High score, Low Score
Fitz 19, 10
Boromir 20, 9
Severus Snape 19, 8
Locke Lamora 18, 8
Felisin Paran 18, 5
Monza Murcatto 13, 6
Raistlin 15, 3
Thomas Covenant 12, 2
Cersei Lannister 11, 2
Jorg Ancrath 11, 1
Perceptions of Jorg Ancrath vary from “the embodiment of evil” (1) to “more good than evil” (11). Cersei Lannister falls (nearly) in the same bracket. At the other end of the scale, Boromir was considered to be everything from “flawless paragon” (20) to “more evil than good” (9).
What explains the variation?
The first thing to say is that, reducing any character to a single score is inherently misleading, since each of them is capable of a range of actions on the scale of good and evil. So whilst Cersei is guilty of horrible acts, she also exhibits a lighter side in the devotion she shows to her family. (As an aside, I would tentatively suggest that it is this range of possible actions that stops a character from being flat or one-dimensional. Complex characters have a number of different motivations and influences. Anyone who is always good or always evil is, for me, simply not interesting or – arguably – realistic.)
Even accounting for this range of behaviour, though, it seems clear that readers have different interpretations of the characters in the survey. Interpreting a character’s acts is not always straightforward. In my own books, I am a firm believer that the adage “show don’t tell” applies as much to my characters as it does to any other aspect of my writing. I won’t always spell out in neon letters why a character is doing what he is doing. And even when I do, you can’t always trust me to give you the full picture! I write in a limited third person voice, so the story is told from the perspective of the relevant point-of-view character. He or she might not be a reliable narrator, and that leaves scope for readers to reach different conclusions as to the nature of that character’s . . . character.
Even once we have decided what sort of person a character is, there is of course still space for us to score them differently based on our individual moral compasses, our propensity for empathy, forgiveness, etc. Personally, I found it harder to give marks to characters who were children at the start of the books in which they feature. Jorg Ancrath, for example, is still a boy in Prince of Thorns. We learn that he has been shaped by his father’s cruelty, and by seeing his mother and brother killed. Even if he is a product of his upbringing, though, that doesn’t make his subsequent actions justifiable. But it may make them understandable to some degree.
Who is the “greyest” character?
Based on the scores in the survey, it seems that Monza Murcatto is the “greyest” character. She showed the least variation (7) between her highest and lowest marks, and she has the average closest to 10 (9.6).
Are women or men more generous markers?
Where it was possible to deduce the gender of the scorer from their name, I did so. I was curious to see if men or women were more generous in the survey. Overall, women were slightly more charitable with their marks. The largest variation in scores between the genders was for Fitz, with women scoring him higher by an average of 3 points.
Which scores were the most surprising?
On average, the scores were slightly lower than I expected, but perhaps I just need to work on my cynicism.
I was surprised that any of the characters should receive a score of 20 or 1. Boromir was the only character to receive a score of 20. My reservation here is, if Boromir is a perfect 20, what score should be given to Aragorn, Frodo and Sam?
Jorg was the only character to receive a 1 – he got three of them, in fact. Bearing in mind the marks are for the characters as portrayed at the end of their stories, I wonder if Jorg in Emperor of Thorns is really as evil as it is possible to be. Personally, I can think of “worse” characters – like Jorg at the beginning of the series, for example!
So which character’s score surprised you most? Who do you think was marked the most harshly and most leniently?