Noah Millman offers some interesting remarks in response to C.S. Lewis’s note about evil characters:

It suggests, among other things, that C. S. Lewis saw himself as insufficiently “good” to provide himself the basis in knowledge for creating a “good” character – that, in fact, he possessed none of the “real high virtues.” Indeed, he uses the plural in talking about who does not possess these virtues – “we” do not posses those “high virtues.” At all.

To my mind, that raises the question of whether the premise – that there are good and evil characters as such, and that virtues are “possessed” rather than exercised – is simply false. It certainly isn’t Christian, at least if we’re talking about human characters – Christians believe we’re all inherently sinful and, but for God’s grace, would be deserving of death. It isn’t Jewish either – the classic Jewish notion is that we all possess a good and an evil impulse (and even that isn’t right – better would be a “selfish” and an “altruistic” impulse).

I’m genuinely perplexed what Lewis is talking about. Is he under the impression that the history of literature is bereft of heroes? Presumably, those would be people possessed of “high virtues” if the phrase has any meaning at all. I suspect Achilles wouldn’t pass muster for him as “good” – but if he’s not possessed of “high virtues” then I don’t know what the word means. Or does he think that bourgeois virtue is pale and boring? Is he under the impression that Dorothea Brooke is an uninteresting character? Or Leopold Bloom? Or John Ames?

I ‘m not Lewis–and certainly no Lewis scholar–but let me push back a bit very quickly.

First, Millman is right, of course, as he notes later in his post, that all writing is hard. But I think Lewis’s general point–though I think his 90% figure is way off–is that mostly bad characters are relatively easier to create than mostly good ones. I’m not a writer, but this makes sense to me. In my own life, I find it much easier to imagine the worst in someone rather than the best because, well, I project what I am. I think this is Lewis’s gist.

Millman is right, though, that many of the most engaging characters possess both attributes of what we would call good and evil, and I don’t think Lewis would disagree, but I think he would say that there are no entirely good characters in literature because there are no entirely good people.

This is not to say that there are no “heroes,” because, of course, heroes don’t have to be entirely good to be heroes, and if they were, we wouldn’t feel much attachment to them because they would seem so unreal.

The real “high virtues” to which Lewis refers, I think, are things like self-sacrificial love, justice, and so forth. And I think Lewis would say that our love, our justice, is always muddied by some bit of selfishness or impartiality. We never love someone completely self-sacrificially. We never exercise justice that is guided by good alone. Whenever a prophet came into contact with God in the Bible, he almost always became paralyzed by fear because, among other things, he was coming into contact with a purity of goodness that was foreign to him.

Whether or not it makes sense to speak of virtues in this way, though, I’m not sure.

And are virtues “possessed or “exercised”? Well, this is in part a question of semantics. Virtues, it seems to me, are attributes of things—like the freshness or rottenness of an apple. And I think Lewis would say that there are no fresh apples in the world, though there are, of course, gradations of rottenness.