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Shady Characters

Here is a literary exercise which might help illuminate a dilemma nagging my real life. When we are done with the exercise, hopefully, you can give me counsel.

Think of one or more novels (or movies) that have shady characters. In the comments, list the title of the novel (movie) and the shady character. Now, by shady I mean to imply a character of doubtful reputation. A shady character is not definitely bad. Neither is she certainly good. Usually a shady character seems to be up to good but somehow gives the impression her motives are dubious. Sometimes they are. Sometimes they are not. Other characters are attracted to a shady character but never feel comfortable they should be drawn to her. Almost always, no matter how the shady character turns out in the end, the other characters are better off for having journeyed with the shady character for a time . . . but not always.

A shady character can be as subtle as Mr. Tumnus leading Lucy Pevensie into the woods. A shady character can be as enigmatic as Sunday taking Syme on a wild goose chase. A shady character can be as unpleasant as Haymitch Abernathy mentoring Katniss Everdeen; Katniss herself is a shady character. Shady characters are most of the people sitting around Edna Spalding at church in that final scene of Places in the Heart.

Got it? So now, name some shady characters and where you find them in literature or film. And do this, too. Tell me if you would like to journey through life with that person for a time.

This is what I am wrestling with of late. When I do this exercise and keep it safely contained to books and movies, I think to myself, “It most certainly is not going to be pleasant hanging around that shady character. But, how could I not?” I imagine the discomfort and also the growth of my soul. I feel more adventurous, more alive, more streetwise, more capable of empathizing with others and even my own fretful heart. This little exercise works out well in the end, so long as I stick to books and movies.

Not so when I invite real people from my real life into this imaginative experiment. There are some shady characters lurking around the margins of my life of late. They are the kind of shady characters who, if I met them in a novel, I would endure their company in anticipation of a worthwhile plot twist. But off the page, I keep my distance. So what is the difference? Should we extol the efficacy of shady characters, unless they are real? No need for risky plots in real life? How do you decide which shady characters make it into your life journey?


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