Monday, September 1, 2008

Take Your Inner Creep for an Occasional Dairy Queen

In story, action is character, which is to say that a character is best described and in fact most remembered by what he or she does or, appropriately, does not do at a particular time. More than adjectives, metaphor, or even synecdoche, movement and attitude reenforce our perception of an individual. Even memorable Bartelby is defined--and often misread--by the aggressiveness of his refusal to contribute to a stifling landscape, making him arguably the first American Buddhist.

Every genre has its keynote character types, wound about the armature of good guys and bad guys.

Protagonist is he or she who causes things to happen, fuel sources that drive story. Antagonists are merely hims and hers who oppose the protagonist on some agenda relating to the instant story. They are not bad guys or creeps per se, they are bad or creepy according to which if any star in the moral heaven is his or her pole star.

The protagonist is no better on the moral Richter Scale, thus both types, protagonist and antagonist are hybrid vehicles, formulated to be human as we all are, their strengths and weaknesses writ large.

Some critics will translate this humanity as a Fatal Flaw or characteristic weakness, both of which reek from the slightly Lysol reek from the halls of academe and which is more often than not overdone.

William Rawls, a major in the Baltimore Police Department in the alternate universe of The Wire, is clearly a politician on the make, clearly an antagonist to the agendas of one of the protagonists, Detective Jimmy McNulty. As episodes in the first season progressed, we even see Rawls actively trying to get enough leverage on McNulty to cost him his job. In their day to day encounters, Rawls is not by any account civil toward McNulty, making maximum use of his power to frustrate McNulty. Toward the end of the first season episodes, Narcotics Detective Shakima "Kima" Greggs, recognized by McNulty as a superb detective, is shot during the course of a sting operation that comes apart at the seams. In the hospital, after the incident, with McNulty visibly shaken by the shooting and the guarded prognosis for Kima's recovery, Rawls, with no lessening of his disrespect and distaste for McNulty, argues persuasively with McNulty that neither the operation itself or the shooting were because of McNulty's failure to perform well. In short, Rawls was showing some humanity, at once making him more human, more complex, even more of a menace.

No more than the sight of one robin makes a spring, one lateral show of kindness from Rawls makes McNulty's career any the more secure. You could easily say that the basic theme of The Wire is career path or if that is not political enough, bureaucracy. Many of the front-rank characters are protagonists, regardless of their profession, meaning some of the persons in the drug trade are protagonists, some of the persons serving in the legal profession as lawyer and judge, are corrupt and antagonistic.

Moving away completely from The Wire, we make the observation that a protagonist needs a worthy opponent, one who is human rather than evil for evil's sake, a creep because we may be as we write seeking revenges on creeps in our life. The nicer we make our creep, the creepier the creep becomes and in the bargain the more believable. In some ways, this is of a piece with readjusting our reflexes when we cross heavily trafficed streets in England. We look to the creeps and losers and YMCA hot tub Nazis as having more admirable qualities rather than less. We look to creeps and losers as having more integrity or loyalty or intelligence or sensitivity than our protagonists.

Why is this so? This is important because the goal of the story is for the protagonist to win something, however small it may be. Maybe as small as dignity or satisfaction. (See A Loss of Face by Jack London. Go ahead, see it.) A protagonist who wins in the face of significant opposition, however narrow the win, is more believable.

See Mrs. Coulter in The Golden Compass.

And to indulge in overkill, if you believe as I do that Clarice Starling was the protagonist in Silence of the Lambs, you will appreciate Dr. Hannibal Legters all the more because he likes, appreciates, and shows some kindness to Clarice.

If there is a lesson to be learned, it is: Beat up on your protagonist; ease up on your antagonist.


Anonymous said...

Well, the story I sent you didn't have a creep, but should you ever happen to read a story of mine with a creep in it, you'll have to let me know if they're full of enough ice cream.

(I try to be nice to the fellows on the blog, but since they're real, I don't know if they want to go to DQ with me.)

Anonymous said...

You've made my day. Thanks.

Unknown said...

I think there are a number of stories in which the nominal antagonist is actually the protagonist, but is masquerading as the antagonist due to the oddly-still-relevant "morality" code of fiction, in which the protagonist tends to be a better person, somehow, than the antagonist, even when the antagonist is a fully-drawn character. Mervyn Peake's "Titus Groan" and "Gormenghast" come strongly to mind; the whole thing goes to hell in a handbasket after the "antagonist" Steerpike is done away with, because he is such a fantastically perfect antihero. Actually, as I'm considering this, I'm thinking that some of the most interesting fiction occurs when the protagonist and antagonist really add up to make one person, as in Red Dragon the first book about Hannibal Lecter, in which Lecter is quite obviously the shadow side of Will, the protagonist.

Which is, I realize, something completely different from the point you're making here, but you know, sometimes I just start typing and I can't be responsible for the relevance of whatever comes out.

Reading your blog lately has made me very curious to see The Wire; I'll have to check out its availability on Netflix.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I keep thinking about this. If I take my creep to DQ, does that make me a coconspirator in my protagonist's suffering? Am I the instigator? "Psst. Here's a hot fudge sundae. Now go do this..."

Unknown said...

You could make up for it by causing the antagonist to need Weight Watchers counseling later.

Anonymous said...

Re: David R's first comment... an interesting children's/YA series are Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl books. Somewhat similar to the Harry Potter books -- contemporary setting, but one in which magic and magical creatures play key roles.

What makes them interesting in this context, though, is that the protagonist is a "criminal mastermind" in his early teens, dedicated to the making of money by any means -- an immoral "hero." (Over time it becomes obvious he's not interested in money for money's sake. But he does glory in his "ha ha, look at me and how evil I am!" persona.

Btw, Colfer reportedly has described the series as "Die Hard with fairies." Which cracks me up.

Querulous Squirrel said...

I'm very confused about the whole black/white antagonist/protagonist thing, which I understand you are suggesting we make less black and white and even, perhaps, on the surface, reversed. I do appreciate David's comment, because I think that it's a traditional model in fiction that there must be an antagonist/protagonist instead of, say, serial antagonists like when someone keeps repeating a compulsion to be attracted to the same type of bad people, or just people constantly throwing obstacles up at each other in an ever-escalating struggle where there is no clear good and evil, like much of life, each of course believing he/she is the good one.

Also, Rawls in the Wire is very pathetic, comical in his bile and terrible at being manipulative. He doesn't even rate as a sociopath. But, yes, he is also sympathetic in some ways and McNulty could not be a more flawed protagonist. David: see it. I'm watching the whole series for the second time.

Anonymous said...

Well, I admit it. I don't watch The Wire. When I'm not with my kiddo or grading papers, I'm here instead. I miss a lot of things. When I do watch television, my weakness is Torchwood. And I don't have room in my life for any other.

But I try to look at a show I like and figure out what it is about that appeals to me, what makes me care, what makes it meaningful.

I also love many of the complicated characters in Hayoa Miyazaki's films. I suppose I like my complications with a mix of the fantastic.

Sigh. I hope my characters are complex enough.

And in case you missed it over at my place, I'm interested. Send me a story.

Querulous Squirrel said...

The language in The Wire is so vile you wouldn't want your kiddo around, but it is also very funny in its nuances and part of the charm.

Wild Iris said...

I tend to prefer a set of dual protags that antagonize one another in the face of additional outside antagonism. Where both protags have a common goal, just different ideas about how to get there, and flaws are marvelous. All good characters need inherent as well as acquired flaws in logic, morality, sensibilities, emotions, etc. The dueling epitomes of good and evil just simply become boring, and generally has but one conclusion.