It should be fairly obvious that interesting, believable characters make or break a story. A one dimensional villain whose only motivation is to be evil for the sake of being evil tends to make for a boring story. It therefore is interesting to recognize a number of cases in fiction and non-fiction where the characters involved have unusual depth that greatly contributes to the stories being told.
The best cases of this in recent fiction that I’ve seen are in the Harry Potter books and in the recent Avengers vs. X-Men crossover series. In the former, the characters are truly three-dimensional. Most of the characters have a certain style of acting (a certain set of personality characteristics that generally govern how they act), but are not bound by them. They’re human at their core. They lash out at one another. They feel pain, deal with it in unique ways that deepen their character, and generally learn from their mistakes. Voldemort is perhaps the best example of this. He spends his entire life fearing death and trying to avoid it, an incredibly human sentiment. He viciously denies his half-blood heritage and takes his rage out on any of those who are not pure-blood wizards (intentionally ironic).
The Avengers vs. X-Men crossover series (still being released) is deep and complex, but in a different way. Harry Potter makes it unambiguous that there is a hero and a villain, and who is who, but AvX is a “heroes versus heroes” story, so there is no obvious labelling of heroes and villains here. This is more of a “everyone is trying to save the world, whatever that means” type of story. But the true gem in this story is that even individual characters have their own loyalties. The Avengers are divided on how to deal with the problem of the Phoenix coming to Earth – as agents of the United States government, do they try to negotiate, or just run in guns blazing? The X-Men are divided on whether the Phoenix comes to help mutantkind or destroy humanity (or both), and as storylines develop, it’s hard to say “this side is right” – it’s a lot of cases of “it’s complicated”.
The conclusion of “it’s complicated” nicely brings us to the best work of non-fiction that I’ve read in a long time, Enemies: A History of the FBI. Enemies tells the history of the FBI in three parts: the J. Edgar Hoover days, the last 20 years of the Cold War, and the war on terror. This story is a riveting tale of how the United States can survive with liberty and security. It details the long list of constitutional abuses carried out against American citizens in the name of national security and what it accomplished. There’s a ton of cases where it gained the FBI invaluable information, and number of cases where it either didn’t help at all (because the targets were innocent) or caused great embarrassment to the FBI. Its main characters are real, complicated people. Hoover is particularly interesting – he’s complex and intriguing, and does what he thinks he needs to do to protect the nation from perceived threats to the United States. The increasing conformity to the rule of law is also interesting, and hinted about the CIA just enough to make me immediately pick up that book after I had finished this one.
Enemies is also interesting in this discussion because the fiction stories above made it clear exactly who the players are in the game. Enemies tells us the story from the point of view of the FBI, where they need to find out who their enemies are, how to find the evidence to put them away, and actually enact a plan of attack. They have what we in the cloud computing space would call the “big data problem”, where they’re trying to find a needle in a haystack as fast as possible (for national security) and through legal purposes (to obey the rule of law). And it’s a world where one person actually can make a difference in government – the book is a huge collection of “one person decided that X needed to get done” and did it. Hoover keeps control over the FBI for forty years and avoids any leaks coming out of it through a combination of respect and fear. Spies creep into all of the government agencies, and even a single spy can leak a tremendous amount of information. Mueller is able to stand up to Bush and tell him that he won’t continue to tolerate illegal spying on Americans through the NSA’s Stellar Wind program. And all throughout, everyone is a three-dimensional. Nobody is patently good or evil. To quote Magneto from the recent Not a Hero series: “There’s no such thing as good or evil. There’s just what I need to do and what I’m willing to do to get it.”