Your novel blows because... it's morally rigid and predictable
I read a lot of books. Some a great, many are decent and some are either terrible or nondescript, like they have no soul. Point is, I see the same patterns repeating all the time and it's not always pretty. I want to help you get it right. In this series, I will tell you what I hate reading and why I hate reading it. Because if you get it right, my life become instantly better.
Today I want to talk about a problem that's so widespread people don't see it as a problem anymore, but just as how things are: thinking of your narrative in terms of good vs evil.
When I read a novel, watch a movie or whatever, I want to make my own idea of what's going on. Believe it or not, audiences are mostly comprised of intelligent people. All you need to do is explain the who's who and what each character wants. They can figure out the rest for themselves. Last thing you want to do is tell them who they should root for by making your novel/movie morally rigid and simplistic.
What do I mean by that?
The idea of good vs evil in pop culture
The idea of good vs evil narratives hasn't always been so prevalent in pop culture. If you go back to sixties and seventies' cinema, it was marginal. In literature, it was almost the privilege of fantasy authors like J.R.R Tolkien who made a flaming eye on top of a tower the principal antagonist of his otherwise super complex and multilayered novel. But there was a paradigm shifting moment in 1977 that galvanized the masses for the idea of good vs evil: the release of Star Wars: A New Hope.
A space opera featuring warriors of the light and an army of darkness that fought for the sake of the universe using laser swords is what we get every year at Christmas now, but it was fucking revolutionary, back in the days. When you think about it, it's such a simplistic concept, so why did it work well enough to redefine the overall landscape of storytelling in mainstream fiction? There are probably several answers, but the easiest one is probably the same answer as to why World War II movies are still popular today: people need to feel like they're the good guys.
Star Wars was so popular back then, it trickled down into every sphere of storytelling. Antagonists gradually dehumanized over the eighties, a dehumanizing decade you'll tell me, but protagonists also gradually became more stereotyped. Before it was brilliantly rewritten for television, the Hannibal Lecter vs Will Graham dynamic was a good example of that. A blank sheet protagonist who is defined by his function (FBI profiler) is trying to usurp information from an evil, predatory and cannibalistic serial killer for whom this entire life of death investigation is just a game. Because he needs to stop another evil and predator serial killer, of course.
I'm simplifying things out there, but I want to show you how culturally we've internalized the idea of good vs evil in narratives. Why is it a bad thing, though? Excellent question, let's go there.
Fuck Knights and Kind-Hearted Cowboys
Sure, it's existentially comforting to root a character you know to be pure-hearted. When everybody is clearly labeled at the beginning of a novel/movie, you know where to invest you emotions and, most important, that you won't be let down. But, you also know exactly what's going to happen: the protagonist is going to confront the antagonist, lose, learn a little bit about himself, go back and triumph. The narrative is over before it started because it's driven by an idea so fucking binary it doesn't leave any room for nuance.
If Darth Vader wins in Star Wars, he's going to enslave the galaxy. Of course you don't want that to happen. If Hannibal Lecter is set loose, he's going to torture, kill and eat people until he gets bored of it and does something more fucking up. Of course you need him to be stopped. Same goes for almost every bland, stupid Marvel villain in recent years. When your antagonist wants things so fucking extreme because he's an avatar for evil, that makes your protagonist just a means to stop him. And that's horseshit. That makes for the blandest, most straightforward characters that don't have anything to offer.
Conflict is about a clash of desires. I don't know anyone on Earth who would like the universe to be destroyed or who would enjoy having a people-eating monster walking the street. That's not cause for conflict at all, it's merely recreating the moral clarity of World War II, which was arguably the latest moment of moral clarity in the world. The last time where we all knew were were banding against the bad guys. Of course, there were great nuances to this conflict, but we're barely starting to wrap out minds around it.
Contemporary knights and kind-hearted cowboys will make you feel good about yourselves because it's easy to imagine yourself at their place, fighting the good fight, but they don't have anything else to offer. I say fuck 'em, you deserve more.
What are good examples of morally nuanced narratives?
Ah, my favorite part. I love to bag on the Marvel Cinematic Universe for creating some of the most simplistic narratives with over-simplistic stakes, but I was pleasantly surprised with the latest Thor movie. It ultimately respects the good vs evil formula, but it has interesting bends in the road.
The antagonist in this story is Hela, Thor's estranged sister, and what she wants is way more complicated than rule/destroy the universe. She wants to reign over Asgard, which is technically her right as first born. She was exiled by Odin when he turned on his own war-mongering days and reinvented his legacy inside his own kingdom. He completely shut her out of her own people's legacy out of fear they'd never stop waging war. So, outside of being terribly powerful and violent, Hela is understandably angry. That makes Thor and Loki understandably confused and slightly heartbroken at their dad.
Suddenly, there are stakes other than the survival of the universe. Thor and Loki have to fight Hela for the legacy of their own people. The victor will dictate how the Asgardians will be remembered.
I've been ceaselessly yapping about Joe Clifford's novel Give Up the Dead over the last couple months, but it's another example of nuanced stakes and therefore nuanced morals. Ethan Crowder wants Jay to find his son Philip, who's been kidnapped by a radical recovery group. It's clear who's the good and the bad guys here, right? Hold your horses. Ethan is a rich, dick-swinging businessman who wants to snatch his son from is mother, who allegedly contacted the radical recovery group. Has Philip been kidnapped or hidden for his own sake? There's no wrong or right answer in a custody battle, just a side that's more irrational than the other.
I'm not saying you should blur the lines of morality in your novel/movie to make it interesting. I'm merely saying the stakes should be more interesting than: destroying the universe or killing people for the sake of killing people. It should be about conflicting desires first and foremost. If your stakes are too simple, good luck hooking an audience up for 300 pages or two and a half hours. If I know exactly what's going to happen because you're high-strung on the idea your protagonist triumphing over evil, I'll check out on page 30 and sleepwalk through the rest of your book.
We want more than simplistic, morally rigid stakes. Be bold. Swing for the fences.