Sunday, December 10, 2006

Repugnant Protagonists Part Two

My current writing project demands a grasp on how to engage the audience in a character who is less than noble. I touched on this briefly earlier this year, but hungered for a better understanding of how to write repugnant protagonists as compelling and sympathetic characters. This required studying films where the primary protagonist is a thief, scoundrel, murderer, or rogue.

What did I find out? You write sinners the same way you write saints.

Karl Iglesias did a series for Creative Screenwriting that broke character development into three elements and suggests that a writer must use a combination of these elements in order to craft ANY character that an audience will invest in.

Recognition - Understanding and Empathy
(1) We care about individuals we feel sorry for
(2) We care about individuals who display humanistic traits
(3) We care about individuals who have traits we all admire

Fascination - Interest and Intrigue
(1) We are interested in individuals who contradict themselves
(2) We are interested in individuals with internal conflicts

Mystery- Curiosity and Anticipation
(1) Plant unanswered questions about the past, present or future
(2) Create uncertainty about the past, present, or future
(3) Build anticipation about the future

Recognition, fascination, and mystery can invoke the same interest in villainous characters as laudable ones. The difference in not in the result but in the how you there. If we want to use recognition so our audience can identify with the character, we still need to get the audience to feel sorry for him, have him display some humanistic traits, or give him an admirable trait that the audience can hang their hat on. Throw in some fascination and mystery and you've got a compelling character. It's not harder, just different.

What I did notice, though, is that villainous primary protagonists fall into one of these categories. As usual, there may be more, but I've only identified these:

Hereditary bad guy - it runs in the family and he pretty much doesn't know any other way

Justifiable bad guy - he has a good reason for being bad like vindication or rescue

Misunderstood bad guy - he's not really bad, he just looks that way

Involuntary bad guy - he was forced into it, had no choice but to participate

Accidental bad guy - he didn't mean to enter into the lifestyle but is now trapped

Understandable bad guy - he had a choice but the viewer can easily understand why he took the less noble route

Lesser bad guy - our protag is the least bad of a whole community of bad guys

Loveable bad guy - yeah, he's unscrupulous and chooses to be that way but we don't really care
I wondered if Bourne Identify and The Long Kiss Goodnight might qualify as some kind of amnesiac bad guy, but they were bad in a former life, so they aren't villainous characters. Or, are they?

My favorite all time evil protagonist film -- Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? I'd say she's "involuntary" since she's mentally ill.

What have I missed? In your favorite film where the primary protagonist is villainous or dastardly, does he or she fit into one these categories or does the list need work?


ECHenry said...

Marry Ann,

I was just currious, why do you devote so much energy to studying movies and compling "lists," while in the midst of writing a screenplay (movie) of your own?

It seams to me by doing that, your going to loose your own unique voice, which ROCKS I might add, and begin to amble down the path of being a hack, where your work turns into knock-offs of the work you're studying.

My point is, I think you need to trust your God given talent and write from the inside. Don't seek to brand the characters your in process of creating utill you're done. And I mean done to point where you can hear them talking to you.

Anyway, for what it's worth, I think you're one of the most wittiest girls I've ever met. And I'll bet the translates on the pagr. Is your character-to-character banter as sintillating as I think it is? What do you see as your biggest strength as a writer?

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

oneslackmartian said...

What? Marrie-Anne is just one person? I thought this was a co-hosted blog.

Or maybe she's just the smart girl in school.

Wait, she works in govt. I'm at a loss.

Yeah, what E.C. said!

oneslackmartian said...

Oh wait, my 2 cents on topic

The True Believer Bad Guy – he has bought totally into a belief system, but when all the available facts come to light, they are in direct opposition to his world view.

The True Believer faces a stark choice: acknowledge complete failure of his delusions or reject reality completely

This might fit into category you already have.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

E.C., they aren't lists just for the sake of making lists. In fact, I don't think of them as lists at all. My posts are examinations of story elements, character development, and issues I think will help me or a reader become a better writer.

I sing reasonably well and yet I rehearse every week and take periodic professional lessons. A writer needs to read. A writer needs to watch films. And, a writer needs to actively improve his craft. And, blogging about screenwriting gives me a "working break" from my everything else. I appreciate your faith in me. It's good to read. But I have a lot to work on. Trust me on this.

OSM, so the true believer doesn't KNOW what he's doing is wrong? Or, he thinks the world is wrong for thinking it's wrong? I can see how that is certainly different than the justifiable bad guy or the understandable bad guy. You wouldn't happen to be able to think of an example off the top of your head, would ya? I think I'd like to write my character this way!

oneslackmartian said...

humm, I'm trying to remember the film . . . possibly Harrison Ford (?) in Mosquito Coast. Uh, he wasn't a bad guy, though.

Or EVERYONE in "And Justice for All" except Al Picano.

uhh, maybe Darth Vader, but I've not seen SW 1-3.

Sal said...

How about X (Daniel Craig's character) in Layer Cake? Is he a True Believer? He's undoubtedly a bad guy, he's a drug dealer, but he sees himself as a businessman; he doesn't like guns or violence so in that sense isn't a gangster, tho he hangs out with gangsters.

Good list, MaryAn, I'm pondering still!

Mystery Man said...

I relate very well to bad boys. Let's just say I'm not hanging a stocking this year...

In any case, I'll watch a bad boy protag if he's just plain ol' interesting, ya know? How do you define that? I would probably define it as contradictions in the personality so that they are able to surprise you enough to keep you hooked for two hours.

I'm trying to think of an example. I love "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." They were cool and funny and entertaining, and yet, unlike the usual bad boys, these guys were total chicken shits and when their time was up, they just took off.

I think you also have to look around at current cinema and what's been done lately with bad boy protags and do the opposite.

Great post, MaryAn.