Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Dark Heroes and Mad Men

I've been thinking a lot about Sinead's post on Friday, and a dilemma I know she's having with one of her WIP's, and also thinking about some workshops I've attended, where the topic was making the protagonist sympathetic or emotionally identifiable in the opening scenes. While I usually think of that in terms of romance heroines, I'm starting to think this is the key to making readers accept dark heroes, too. That the "make your hero sympathetic or relatable rule" isn't just for the nice guys. It's for the bad guys, too. Let's face it, every well-rounded character's got two sides, but maybe the darker the hero the more important it is to show the positive traits early.

The thing is, it's hard to do this with a dark character, because you're trying to characterize him/her as dark at the same time. And I agree that it can be cowardly or a cop out for writers to soften the dark stuff too much. Also hard not to fall into a clichés like having them pet a puppy (or literally save a cat as in the title of Blake Snyder's screen writing book). But while challenging, it's not impossible and it doesn't mean you need to have the hero regret his/her bad choices right from the start, or otherwise soften whatever it is that makes them dark. Rather you can show something positive as well, or show him/her experiencing something the reader can relate to/empathize with. I'm going to have to pull out Susan Elizabeth Phillips' Ain't She Sweet again. Actually, I think I borrowed Sinead's copy. Need to get one of my own. But I'm quite sure SEP did this masterfully with her anti-heroine in Ain't She Sweet.

And another writer who's done it masterfully is Matthew Weiner, the writer/creator of Mad Men. AMC showed the first season of Mad Men back-to-back on Sunday, in anticipation of the second season starting next week. (Can't wait!) And I watched the opening scenes from the pilot episode about 5 times.

Okay, Don Draper might not be what many of us think of when we think "dark hero", but let's face it, he's a pretty dark guy, with some very dark secrets, who has done and does a lot of bad things. Yet, he is the protagonist of the series. (Peggy being the secondary protagonist and I'm going to have to go back and think about her introduction, too...)

So, how does the writer introduce Don Draper, dark hero...

First scene: Noisy, crowded bar. Everyone's drinking and smoking and chatting in groups. Having fun. But not Don. He's alone. Concentrating. Working. Writing ideas on a napkin.

In less than 5 seconds of the pilot episode we know Don is hard worker. Has a strong work ethic. Positive traits.

Then he asks a busboy (older black man) for a light and tries to engage him in conversation. The waiter (white) misinterprets the situation, tries to intercede and insults the busboy. Don brushes the waiter off, making it clear he wants to talk to the busboy. So, now we're maybe 15 seconds into this series and we know: Don is nice to people with low-paying jobs. Don is nice to a black person in 1960, when most white people weren't. Don respects the "little guy", cares about underdogs. More positive traits.

Then the conversation continues and he's asking the busboy about his brand of cigarettes and why he smokes them and what Don could say to convince him to switch brands. In a 20 or 30 second conversation we see more of Don respecting this man, valuing his opinion and Don being insightful and smart about his job. Look at that: Good at his job. Another positive trait. He respects others' opinions. Another one.

Oh, and the actor playing Don is very good looking, dresses well, has a great smile. Not trivial details. Good looking. Another positive trait.

Scene is over. Less than a minute. And we already like and respect Don, think he's a good guy. He's dedicated. A hard worker. Nice to underdogs. Good at his job. Good looking. At least five positive traits in maybe 40 seconds.

Second scene: Don goes to visit a woman in her apartment. It's late at night. He's not expected, but she's clearly glad to see him, but no push-over either, and she's attractive. And witty. Hmmmm. An attractive, witty woman likes Don. Wants to have sex with him. And she does the seducing/makes the first move. Another clue to him having positive traits. Others like him so he must be likable. And his lover is a bohemian, an independent woman. An artist. Plus, she has more than one lover. Interesting. His lover is a woman who is very rebellious given the time period. Earns her own living. She's interesting. That he's her lover makes him more interesting. And he talks with her about a problem he's having at work. Makes us think he respects women, respects her opinion. Because of this and the way he treats his new secretary in a later scene, we believe Don respects women more than most men of his time. We're proved wrong later in the episode. But the point is, we believe it now, as we're getting to know Don and it helps us become emotionally attached.

But back to the second scene. In addition to this scene cementing our impression that this guy is fairly liberal for his time--asking for opinions from a black man and now a woman!--it does something even more important. In discussing his work issues, we learn that he's vulnerable. Scared in fact. Scared that he won't come up with an idea for his cigarette manufacturer client, scared to go to work tomorrow, scared that one of the young execs will steal his job, scared that everyone at work will discover he's a fraud. Now, if you watch the series, you'll know that this last fear is a loaded one for Don. But we don't know that it's foreshadowing at this point. All we know is he has insecurities about his job and his biggest fear is that some day everyone will discover he's a fraud. These are fears and emotions almost everyone can relate to. The writer has made him emotionally identifiable, by putting him in this vulnerable situation we can relate to.

So, at this point, we're maybe 90 seconds into a series with an anti-hero and already the writer has given us five or six reasons to like and respect Don. To identify with him emotionally. Connect with him.

Next scene. Wakes up in bed with his lover. Says, "We should get married. ... You have your own business ... What size Cadillac do you take?" She replies: "You know the rules. I don't make plans and I don't make breakfast." Hands him his watch as a signal he should get up and get out.

Now we're wondering if Don might be a romantic. If she'd agree to it, he'd marry this woman. On top of that, he's fine with women in business. in 1960. Cool. All these assumptions turn out to be false, but Don wasn't lying in this scene, he was being ironic. Seeing it again, knowing all we know about Don after the first season, I think when he says "we should get married," to Midge, he isn't being romantic at all, but a making a wish for a different life because of the unhappiness and emptiness caused by living a lie. Midge is an escape. He doesn't have to feel badly that she knows nothing about him, because she doesn't want to know much about him. But -- big but -- at this point, we don't know any of this, so the writer is giving us more reasons to empathize with Don. Poor guy is in love with a woman who won't commit and has other lovers. And he's generous. He offered her a Cadillac, even if it was jokingly.

We're thinking Don's a pretty good guy. And we're maybe only 3 minutes into the series.

Then we start to meet the other characters and learn what pigs most of the men are and how badly they treat the women and Don starts to look even better by comparison. (Even the clearly closeted gay man does his best to sexually harass and insult the women. But Don mostly abstains and actually defends Peggy.)

After all this, by the time the negative stuff starts to come out about Don's character, we're already pretty invested in him and willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. When he makes anti-semitic remarks we think, "Yes, but it's a sign of the times, plus he was nice to the black man and respects women." Two out of three ain't bad. ;-)
Then he insults a woman when she dares to question him, and says: "I'm not going to let a woman talk to me like this," before storming out on a female client. We're shocked, sure, but since we'd already decided he was a good guy in the first 2-3 minutes of the episode, we see these negative traits as complexities, not reasons to think he's a villain rather than a hero. When we learn he's a total cynic about love, we wonder, "Why does he feel that way? How was he hurt?" instead of hating him for it and thinking he's a jerk. When he's clearly sad when describing how advertising is all about happiness, we care and are curious about what's causing him pain.

And then, at the end of the episode... he goes home to his wife. Big reveal. He's married. A big-time cheater. But then even this blow is softened, because he loves his kids. And he loves his wife. And his wife loves him. And he's a good provider. We see all that in a tender 30 second scene when he gets home. (In future episodes, when we get to know his wife better, we realize everything wasn't as rosy as it seemed in that scene... but the writer is smart about that. Paints a pretty picture of his home life to start with.)

Do we hate him at the end of this first episode? Hard to say. Some people will. I didn't.
But I also think that, love him or hate him, most people by the end of this first episode are captivated by Don Draper. Fascinated. Drawn in to a complex character who just gets more and more complex as the series continues.

Stellar writing. Stellar acting. I see more in this opening episode each time I watch it. And I'm starting to think it's a master class in introducing dark heroes.

Is Don a dark hero, as in a murderer or rapist? Well no. (At least based on what we know in the first season.) But he is -- without giving any spoilers, for those of you who need to catch up and watch season one -- a bit of a scum bucket. Okay, maybe not a scum bucket. Just deeply wounded. See? I'm so invested I can't even call him a bad name.

I was totally drawn into his story. I think a good part of this is because of those masterful first scenes, those two minutes of screen time that made him emotionally identifiable to me and showed me his positive traits before revealing all the bad stuff.

(Now I want to go back and rewrite the first scene of my new book for the 60th time...)


Heidi the Hick said...

Great post! And I haven't even seen this show!

I think the hero is so important to the story, even -- especially-- if he's a dark hero. I love that complexity.

I had a problem with my last book because my villain-hero was about to get all soft on me. I spent so much time building his complexities and why he's such a tough guy, and what his damage is, and whoops- all of a sudden I felt all sympathetic to him. He wouldn't like that, so I let him go ahead and do something really nasty.

Turns out he's not 100% awful... See? I still can't say anything bad about him!

I really like how you analyzed the writer's progression, charting out how the viewer is manipulated into feeling a certain way about ol Don. I guess this shows that we writers need to be very choosy about the details we reveal.

Nelsa said...

Great analysis of a great pilot episode, Maureen.

I loved Don Draper and how he was painted by the writers and portrayed by the actor. When I was hit with the reveal of his being married I reacted with an equal measure of WTF?? and 'Oh, but he's emotionally wounded -of course he is. I still like him.' Kudos to the writers who pulled me in, stopped me short, and still kept me liking him.

So, my question is: for dark heroes is the 'trick' (for want of a better word) to show their positive traits first - make them sympathetic - then hit the reader/viewer with the bad stuff at the end? But then how do the writers who show the bad stuff up front manage to switch the negative feelings from the reader/viewer to positive?
The only example I can think of is maybe Sawyer in Lost who was at first unlikeable yet his humour (and hotness) made the viewer like him anyway? Or the Richard Armitage character in the Robin Hood series. I've only seen a few episodes but he's thoroughly unlikeable yet his love for Marion (or lust?) makes me feel more sympathetic to him. But, maybe it's because he's just too darn sexy for me to care about how nasty he is :)

How do you keep a reader invested in the dark character long enough so that you have time to reveal his positive traits? At what point do you do the 'positive character trait reveal' and will it be enough to counteract all the negative traits you've shown before -or at least temper them?

As usual, I have loads of questions and very little answers...

Great topic Drunk Writers!

Maureen McGowan said...

Thanks, Heidi. Choosing which detail to reveal is the key to writing/characterization, I think. Particularly at beginnings...

Nelsa, Don't have a real answer... But Sawyer isn't the protagonist of that show -- Jack is. And with Jack, the writers did something similar to what the Mad Men guy did with Don Draper, if memory serves. They made us think Jack was a REALLY good guy, before revealing all his dark stuff episodes in... and they saved Sawyer's good stuff until later... And I think the good looking thing comes into play, too. Screenwriter guru Michael Hauge says that attractiveness is like a super power... and we instantly bond with super heros... So the creators of Lost were no dummies in casting that actor for Sawyer. Same with Kate. If she weren't so gorgeous, would we have bonded with a fugitive so easily?

I might talk about this attractive thing again sometime after I think about it some more... Romance always gets criticized for the fact the hero and heroine are always gorgeous... but perhaps there is a lot of method in that madness...

I haven't watched Robin Hood. Have heard good things. So many DVD's so little time... (Okay, maybe I could cut down on the reality TV, but do I want to? No.)

Sinead M said...

This is the second time I've written a post, hopefully, this one will actually get onto the comments.
I know I've said this before, but Maureen is really, really smart.
and while I heard this before, reading it again, blew my little mind.
For those of us who write dark and want to skirt the edges with our main characters, this is a great example.

Molly O'Keefe said...

Maureen has a giant brain.

Excellent post, excellent analysis - my tiny little brain is as blown as Sinead's. I think -- in terms of romance writing -- the superhearo thing is a great clue -- the hero being attractive and really sexy blows us past a lot of negative things. Hinting at that deep inner wound in a supersexy guy who does some crappy things will keep us going a long time. Seriously, Maureen - great post.

Alli said...

Loved this post, Maureen. Thankyou! Now I'm going to have to get my hands on the first series. After your description of the writing, I'm already hooked.
Your timing with this post couldn't have been better. I'm starting a WIP and was trying to work out how to make my anti-hero loveable. You have now given me a lot to work with. Hooray!


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