Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Morally Ambiguous Heroes(ines)

Eileen's post yesterday got me thinking some more about introducing characters, especially ones who  have a lot of moral ambiguity.

And then I went to see Identity Thief. And it wasn't as bad as I thought it might be.

I think there are several "tricks" or techniques writers can use to make us like morally ambiguous characters. And here are some thoughts on the ones I can think of right now...

Give the protagonist an enemy who is way worse than they are. That is, if the hero is morally ambiguous, put them up against someone who is so morally corrupt that the hero/heroine looks better in comparison.

On the TV show Banshee that Sinead I were talking about. The hero/protagonist is a thief. He's a murderer. He's out of prison now but is definitely not reformed or repentant. And in a fairly far-fetched scenario (the whole show is intentionally far-fetched and over-the-top) he ends up impersonating the sheriff of a small town.

But in spite of his criminal past (and present) we like the dude. We're rooting for him. Why? Because he has a man searching for him who is *really* scary. And because there's yet another bad guy in town who's a more immediate threat who's also really scary. And because he obviously loves someone--a lot--which gives at least his initial motivation for being in the town.

Another way to deal with this is to keep the audience/reader guessing. In the first season of Homeland they made us think that Carrie was crazy (or at least wrong) while we were building sympathy for Brody--his wife is sleeping with his best friend; he loves his kids and family; he went through a terrible ordeal; he's really trying to adjust; etc. We see things to make us think Carrie is right too, but we're kept guessing. And then by the time we knew the truth about him (sorry for spoilers if you haven't seen it) a much worse enemy has already been established in Abu Nazir (or two worse enemies, if you count the Vice President).

And thinking about it, one of the many reasons we sympathize with Tara Jean Sweet in Molly's Can't Buy Me Love is because Lyle is such a villain. Sure. What's she's doing is a tad slimy. But what Lyle's doing and has done in the past is so much worse, which makes Tara Jean look less bad in comparison. And what she's doing for him, even if it's morally ambiguous, is nice. She's trying to help a dying old man reunite with his kids.

In Identity Thief... In the beginning the Melissa McCarthy character is fairly unlikeable because of what she's doing. And at the start you believe that Jason Bateman is the protagonist and she's the antagonist... but by the end, I think she's the protagonist and he's the side kick/facilitator/mentor character. The one who helps her on her journey and transformation. Hmmm.. Yup. They change each other, but she changes the most.

And how do we first meet her? In her opening scene, she takes a stolen credit card, goes to a bar, and tries to make friends with everyone by buying them drinks. And we see how desperately lonely she is. And then when things get out of hand and the bartender says something mean to her... we really feel her pain along with her. These little hints of vulnerability continue to come through in the movie so that, by the time we learn the real depth of her sense of abandonment it's heartbreaking.

And the movie also uses the "have worse antagonists" technique. She may have done something bad, but way worse people are after her...

It's far from a fabulous movie, but I was entertained. I know it's getting mostly terrible reviews, but I thought Melissa McCarthy was amazing. Going from wacky, OTT comedy to serious drama on a dime.  A life-of-the-party, bold character, who can be cut down in an instant by a cruel word that hits home. Masterful really.

7 comments:

Sinead M said...

I haven't seen Identity Thief, but I love McCarthy and Bateman, and she's pretty appealing over all, so it would be easy to like her.
I'm really enjoying Banshee right now, because all the characters are so twisted. No one is good, or bad, and they all lean towards bad, but that main character and it's a combination of the actor and a couple of key scenes, like having him stand up against the town bullies and his friendship with the bar owner, but I'd in. He'd have to go a long way towards making me dislike him right now.
But my tolerance for ambiguous characters is high, and the episode this week, I found kind of awesome..

Eileen said...

I like somewhat ambiguous characters, too. I do think there's a point that can be crossed where the character can't redeem him or herself. I also think that point is different for every viewer/reader.

You're right, though. The reason they do things is sometimes as important as what they do. In the cases you mention it's defeat someone worse than they are. It could also be to protect someone more innocent than they are, IMO. I'm sure there are tons more reasons.

Brie said...

Keeping us guessing and having worse antagonists is part of it, especially in visual mediums like TV and movies. But to me, books are more about internal motivations and character complexity than about the way they compare to others, especially if the idea is to make us like and/or understand morally ambiguous characters. To use your same example, in Can’t Buy Me Love, Lyle is a villain but we see him though Tara’s eyes, and to her, he is a savior. So by the time we get other character’s perspectives, we already see some of the good in him. What redeems Tara, or at least what makes us understand her is when we see her work hard, repent, not make excuses for her mistakes (or Lyle’s for that matter), and her complicated past. And that has nothing to do with Lyle being more evil.

Fia Mac said...

I love morally ambiguous heroes(ines). For me, the more ambiguous the better. I find white knights and righteous crusaders not only predictable but also emotionally shallow, and they make weak protagonists. It's too easy to be the good guy when you have an absolute fix on right vs. wrong. I want to see what characters are really made of, and wading through ambiguity is the best way to accomplish that.

Maureen McGowan said...

I liked this week's Banshee too, Sinead. I just couldn't watch some of that flash back scene in the prison. Or rather I watched through a filter of my fingers. A time-tested self-protection technique developed watching Scooby-Doo ghosts and flying monkeys in Oz. ;)

Maureen McGowan said...

Brie, That's so true about Lyle and Tara. All that complexity is why I love Molly's books (not to mention Molly) so much. :) <3

Maureen McGowan said...

Me too, Fia Mac.

It would be spoilerish for me to say what, but the heroine in my YA did something really horrible in her past. And the book opens with her killing rats. And she's lying to the people closest to her... But she has reasons.

And the 2nd book in the series is pretty much all about moral ambiguity... Maybe that's why the topic is so much on my mind right now...

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...