Satan is the best drawn of Milton’s characters. The reason is not hard to find. Of the major characters whom Milton attempted he is incomparably the easiest to draw. Set a hundred poets to tell the same story and in ninety of the resulting poems Satan will be the best character. In all but a few writers the “good” characters are the least successful, and every one who has ever tried to make even the humblest story ought to know why. To make a character worse than oneself it is only necessary to release imaginatively from control some of the bad passions which, in real life, are always straining at the leash; the Satan, the Iago, the Becky Sharp, within each of us, is always there and only too ready, the moment the leash is slipped, to come out and have in our books that holiday we try to deny them in our lives. But if you try to draw a character better than yourself, all you can do is to take the best moments you have had and to imagine them prolonged and more consistently embodied in action. But the real high virtues which we do not possess at all, we cannot depict except in a purely external fashion. We do not really know what it feels like to be a man much better than ourselves. His whole inner landscape is one we have never seen, and when we guess it we blunder.
Noah Millman rather strenuously objects:
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?
And what about those evil characters? Iago, yeah, he’s a pretty rotten piece of fruit. But is Othello evil? What about Anna Karenina? Or Captain Ahab? For that matter, is Edgar really less-interesting than Edmund? Really? Are you sure?
And dare I mention in this regard Huck Finn’s own estimation of his damnedness, versus our own estimation of his heroism?
Saying “all it takes” to write a successful character is to release one’s own pent-up desire to do evil is akin to saying that “all it takes” to make a hit movie or television show is to show a little skin. Which is to say: it isn’t correct at all. Writing a successful villain is extremely difficult – because writing any kind of successful character is extremely difficult.
(Depiction of Satan, the antagonist of Milton’s epic poem, by Gustave Doré circa 1866)