Characterization: Relatable = Insecure

Characterization: Relatable = Insecure

The task of characterization is multi-faceted. The classic advice says to make your protagonist “likable.” Enough literary evidence exists to negate that claim. I’m reading Lolita right now and I hate Humbert Humbert.

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I think you can shuck “likable” and instead focus on “relatable.”

I’m going to focus on Lolita in a future post, but for now I’ll raise the question: is Humbert Humbert relatable? Despite being a monster, he seems aware of his own monstrosity– which is why we hate him. He knows better and he continues to act in his deplorable self-interest. While Humbert lays down a lot of unreliable justifications for his behavior, there is a steady thrum of self-loathing under-riding his confession. Humbert hates himself as much as the reader, and that’s what makes that book, ultimately, readable.

I’ll focus on the question: how do you affect relatability in fiction?

The classic advice is to give your character’s an Achille’s heel. No one wants to read about invincible characters. Superman is the classic example of a character so strong, the writers had to contrive a series of convolutions to make him vulnerable, which usually made him seem more improbable and cartoonish. The Watchmen had a clever take on the Superman surrogate, the god-like Dr. Manhattan, by rooting his story in his depersonalization– he distances himself to the point that he no longer can empathize with the human beings he protects and sees their struggle as merely a problem with cold and precise solutions.

It’s in that psychological development that the reader can, ironically, relate to Manhattan. Everyone’s gotten so sick of all of the terrible things that human beings inflict on each other that they retreat from society for a while– there’s a reason people vacation on solitary beaches and stare at nothing for hours on end, the same way Manhattan disappears to Mars and creates intricate statues (for lack of a better term) that have been unfouled by man.

But to the point I’m driving at, relatability becomes more intriguing when you expose the character’s psychological insecurities, instead of their physical limitations. In Sin City, the badass Marv takes a moment of pause, crying along a bridge when he realizes the scope of the evil he’s dealing with. In David Wong’s John Dies at the End, the character of David Wong takes a moment to reflect on his own fragile masculinity in a moment of weakness only hinted at previously. Silence of the Lambs takes this notion and applies a meta-literary tactic of Dr. Lector specifically needling Starling’s insecurities out of her. Think about Harry Potter and how the fifth book underlined Harry’s hormonal dickishness to round out what had previously been a squeaky clean character.

It’s an effective device because while everyone desires the fantasy of being powerful and in control of their own world, everyone has a shadowy valley that cuts through their ego. It’s in that acknowledgement of common fear, doubt, anger, jealousy and self-detrimental habit that the reader can attach their struggle to the hero’s. And that makes the victory that much more rewarding when the hero is finally victorious.

The other major benefit of diving into psychological insecurities is that it builds the internal conflict. While not always necessary, effective pieces utilize the inner turmoil of the protagonist concurrently with the external.

Think about Fight Club which demonstrates this in a very literal sense– the protagonist has become depersonalized and spiritually vacant to the point to which he creates an alternative personality that is capable of achieving everything that the narrator cannot. Superficially, it’s a realization of one’s own potential. Cynically, it might come off as “the magic was inside you the entire time.” In a slightly deeper read, however, one remembers that everything has to do with a girl named Marla Singer. Other passages/scenes (I’m borrowing a lot from Fincher’s film adaptation) indicate a fear of forming a family– specifically the bathtub scene in which the mutual resentment of the narrator’s/Tyler’s father is redirected towards a rejection of women (finding a wife, settling down, “setting up franchises,” “I can’t get married, I’m a 30 year old boy.”); the chemical burn scene that redirects the paternal resentment into a resentment towards God (which should indicate that this resentment and fear of cyclically becoming what you resent literally rules over the narrator’s internal conflict).

Of course, there are undeniable homoerotic undertones to the story, but as far as I can tell from interviews and essays with Chuck Palahniuk, the driving motivation of the narrator is attempting to find a reconnection to the familial world. Also, because the story ends like this: once the narrator accepts his responsibility for the actions (and desires) of his shadow-self and violently cleaves him from existence (indicating the climax of a maturation plot), the narrator and Marla Singer come together, stunned at the destruction of the city scape, seemingly with the narrator finally coming to terms with his adulthood and no longer allowing his fear of his own masculinity to keep him from entering an actual relationship with a girl he fancies.

That’s the film version which, as Palahniuk admits, is thematically more complete. I haven’t read the graphic novelization that serves as the sequel, so I can’t say how that all shakes out. The point is the reason that the narrator, who’s kind of despicable and pathetic in a lot of ways, is able to maintain an effective through-line that engages the audience is that there is an internal conflict that is subtly suggested throughout the novel/film that resonates with nearly everybody in the audience. Most people, I think, harbor anxieties about the reality of becoming an adult and making the same mistakes that their parents imprinted onto them. Fight Club is able to take that and make it into a pretty radical story about punching the Christ out of your buddies and blowing up coffee shops.

And if you can find a way to sublimate your character’s deep-seated intentions in such a way to drive the external plot along? Without the reader necessarily realizing it?

Nobel prize, here you come.

 

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Black Box: The Art of Restraint

Black Box: The Art of Restraint

There’s a concept in illustration called artistic restraint– at least, that’s what I call it. It’s knowing when to stop adding texture and detail before you over-complicate the image and make it harder for the eye to engage with it. The idea is that the viewer will fill in the missing pieces subconsciously. The full image is implied by the artist’s “incomplete” rendering.

This applies to fiction and I’m not talking about brevity, either. I’m talking about the pacing of information, because in a lot of ways, the best examples are those that are technically “overly-complete,” in its exposition, while burying the lead– the grander narrative, so to speak– under layers of storytelling .

The classic example of this is Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” wherein a couple has an intense conversation without ever directly acknowledging the subject of debate. One of my professors once told me that this story was a failure, in that no one understood what the story was actually about until Hemingway gave it away in an interview. I kind of agree to an extent (anyone who tells you what that story is about was 99% likely to have been told themselves. It’s not exactly evident in the writing.) but I also appreciate that all readers understand that something bigger is going on in this little exchange.

Easier discussed examples are found in the horror genre. I’ve mentioned before that H.P. Lovecraft loves to obfuscate the true horrors of his stories with psychosis, doubt, and scientific reasoning, while only allowing a mere, vague glimpse of the monster before the story ends. His contemporaries, such as John Carpenter, do likewise– you never see what the Thing actually looks like, just the perversion of its replicated host. The doubt and conflict is born out of the fact that anybody could be the Thing.

A modern novel that understands informational control well is Bird Box by Josh Malerman. The premise is this: there are “somethings” floating around outside and if you see one of them, you go insane and kill yourself and those around you. The entire book is therefor written, essentially, blind whenever the characters are not inside of a boarded up house– which also creates a sense of blindness to the outside world, despite the sensory details of a home. The amount of information as to what the hell is happening is minimal, and experienced minimally. As such, there’s a pervading sense of paranoia and claustrophobia throughout the entire book, expressed through these sensory limitations. Also, the climax contains one of the most appalling things that has ever entered my brain.

It Follows takes this concept and makes it one of its primary themes. The horror is only experienced by the protagonist as they’re the only person who can see the monster in pursuit. Furthermore, it’s relevant only to their life, taking on the image of someone they know personally. Essentially, the cursed person’s experience of the horror is filled in by their own subconscious– generally with the broad strokes of Freudian of sexual formation (Jay first sees an elderly naked woman, possibly her grandmother; Greg sees his own mom in a night gown; Hugh claims to see a girl in a yellow dress). The horror experienced is a black box that no other character can access. What’s excellent about It Follows is that it spends just as much time with its secondary characters, usually slasher-fodder, and actually develops them into a unit of friends concerned about the protagonist undergoing a difficult time that they don’t understand– because they don’t have the information that the protagonist has. As much as you sympathize with the main character’s isolation, because you’ve been there, you also empathize with the others’, because you’ve been there today.

Information becomes currency in stories. Look at Silence of the Lambs and pay attention to what information does. The main storyline unfolds like a procedural tracking down Buffalo Bill until Hannibal Lector comes onto the scene. He understands that information is powerful. He delivers information about Jame Gumb to thread the narrative along for what? Information about Clarice Starling. Specifically, personal, traumatizing information about Clarice Starling’s childhood. Quid quo pro. It does something to a reader, having to face a character’s darkest memories. The reader, along with Clarice, has to access their own personal account of darkness and attach the weight of their own traumas to hers. But the character of Hannibal Lector does something even more insidious– he gets the reader to goddamn like him. You do what Crawford always warned Clarice about: you forget what he is. So when he finally bursts out of his cell via the grisliest means necessary, you’re suddenly stuck between cheering him on and personal betrayal accompanied with self-disgust.

It’s called a psychological thriller for a reason.

The thing that you carry away isn’t necessarily the way that the story ends, but how it affected you. Silence of the Lambs is effective because it’s main plot line is almost a red herring for the more subtle horror of Lector accessing Starling’s/your mind. Buffalo Bill is disturbing. Hannibal Lector is seductive. Silence does this by foiling Lector with Crawford, both manipulative men. The story controls its flow of information so carefully, that while you, along with Starling, are wary of Crawford who remains stoic, vague and unyielding of his intentions, you buy into Lector, who’s smart, polite and generous with his knowledge. It makes Starling, and you by extension, despite everything in her power to remain at the head of the curve, naive. 

The Black Mirror episodes, “Shut Up and Dance” and “White Bear” execute this perfectly by stringing along an increasingly cruel set of circumstances for the main character, encouraging our sympathy the entire time, before dropping the curtain and revealing who the main characters really are–a simple revelation that makes us question whether or not our sympathy was deserved. It puts the entire narrative we were just told into another light with a single line of information. That’s the power of limited perspective.

In the batshit crazy House of Leaves the information we are given is… a lot to take in. The worst but only way I can describe it: this is a book about a guy who’s writing about a book he found written by a different guy about a film a third guy made about his house that doesn’t make sense. And that’s just scratching the surface.  I think I’ve mentioned before that reading this book in public makes you look crazy– you have to turn it around to read all of the annotations, flipping through several pages, back and forth, as there are annotations to annotations, forcing you to reference the index in the back and you journey through the narrative only to find that it folds into itself endlessly. And then, if you’ve done the homework, solved the puzzles, educated yourself about architecture, documentary film-making, and cryptology… the real story emerges like a 3D painting.

And it happens weeks later after finishing the fucking thing. It’s a study in forming broad strokes via intricate design.

I know what you’re thinking: how does this relate to True Detective? Funny you should ask because I was just about to go there, you pidgeon-toed, gawking ratfink. Hardboiled noir fiction runs on the engine of gathering information about a crime or infidelity. Usually this is done with a progression of interviews, voyeurism, and clever deceits. Like all stories, it becomes complex and then it simplifies. Which you have in True Detective, expressed as a buddy cop procedural. Within that basic structure, you have the narrative device of flashbacks, contextual to the interviews of Cohle and Hart. It’s a simple thing to point out, but the fact that you see these guys as ruined, possibly insane old men makes you wonder what exactly the hell happened 18 years ago to warrant these changes.

 

True Detective also plays out as a horror story. There’s an encompassing feeling of dread threaded throughout the miniseries. But it’s only glanced at as reverberations in the “psychosphere,” mentioned by junkies, felt but never seen– the closest we come to seeing it is Cohle’s hallucination of the black star while he’s being choked out by Errol. Usually we see it in brief glimpses through Marty’s eyes– his daughter’s recreating a ritualistic murder scene with dolls, or the entropy of of a tasseled tiara stuck in a tree. Likewise, the protagonists never face the shadow society responsible for the historical murders in the area. They get Errol– which disappointed a lot of viewers but is thematically on point. Sticking with concrete leads brings them to a concrete, yet impotent conclusion and Cohle understands that the bigger, elusive (and allusive) culprits are still at large. Hart acknowledges their own limit of understanding by the consolation “We got our guy.” The story becomes complex in its information and then it simplifies, but the difference here is that there is still incomplete, complex, deliberately placed information that hasn’t been digested by the narrative, speaking of a much larger conspiracy that appears unconquerable.

All of this is to say that the most effective story you can tell is one that subtly asks the reader to tell themselves a story along with you. They’ll meet you halfway.

 

Villain For A Day

Villain For A Day

Spoilers for Blade Runner, Westworld, Silence of the Lambs, Ace Ventura, The Dark Knight, and so much more. Basically, don’t watch anything. Or just don’t read this blog post.

I’ve got a theory about the purpose of fictional media and how it relates to the social consciousness of the human species as a whole. First, you could say that it is our social consciousness. Hollywood is the dream machine, and our culture provides the content of those dreams. But the way that we address and view antagonists is particularly interesting to me.

Godzilla (or Go-jira, if you prefer) is the filmic representation of Japan grappling with the horrors of having two cities decimated by Atomic power. It’s a coping strategy. By making the tragedy into a literal monster, the concept was easier for Japanese citizens to digest and then move on. Others have drawn the parallels between 9/11 and Hollywood’s fascination with destruction porn.

Hollywood’s bad guys generally represent what we’re afraid of. Blade Runner comes to mind because it gives us a villain who is so sympathetic and genuine in his fear of death that a sense of humanity is given to him; whereas Deckert’s humanity is questioned. Fast forward 34 years later to 2016, an age that is increasingly concerned about the potential dangers of AI and you get Westworld, a series that portrays “Hosts” with artificial consciousness as the protagonists and self-absorbed, slave-tasking humans as the antagonists. (Kind of). The question remains the same in both stories– How can you deny a being who is conscious the right to be alive– but the values have shifted from sympathetic villain to sympathetic heroes.

Another progression: Silence of the Lambs came out in 1991, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective 1994. The bad guys are a crossdresser (kind of) and a transitioning woman. A lot has changed since then in attitudes towards the LGBTQ community. Now, while I don’t want to defend the portrayals in those movies (which would be easier for Lambs, as Buffalo Bill was based, in part, on Ed Gein and possibly Jeffrey Dahmer), it would be naive to think that Hollywood would’ve nailed those portrayal right out of the gate, because, if you believe our culture creates the media we ingest, at the time, this was (and still is in many parts of the country) a scary, outsider element that we didn’t understand. However, for all of the damage that negative portrayals of certain demographics can incur, there might be a silver lining– in seeing through film that transexuality, at the end of the day, is harmless, audiences can drop their fearful attitudes and embrace more progressive ones.

If you take a look at Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back‘s famous twist (“No, I am your father.”) and sync it up to what was going on in American Divorce Law (1969, California passes no fault divorce, other states to follow in the ensuing decades, changing the structure of what a family looks like). In A New Hope, Luke is a twice-orphaned farm boy who goes up against an iconic evil (Vader). In Empire, we learn that Vader is Luke’s father and the space opera pretty much becomes a melodramatic family soap about the Skywalkers (with laser swords! fwoosh!) after these two near perfect movies. The reason, I think, that the series moved in this direction is because of the de-nuclearization of American families and Lucas and Company striking the vein of familial anxiety, attaching the uncertainty of fatherhood to the biggest badass in the galaxy. Lucas would argue that he had planned it this way all along. Lucas is a bit of a fibber. Vader wasn’t written in as a father character until the rewrites of Empire. By the end of Jedi, Darth Vader has redeemed himself, trading his own life to protect the life of his son’s and restoring a sense of paternal love to the Skywalker’s broken family. Likewise, divorce rates began falling in 1990, 7 years after the film’s release, enough time to digest the redemption message. Or I’m just stretching this. Moving on.

The other major favorite villain in the American pop culture zeitgeist: The Joker. He embodies chaos and in Nolan’s trilogy, playful nihilism. We fear him because he’s unpredictable, and his mind remains a black box, but his actions are at once calculated and random. The Dark Knight came out in 2008, and while a particularly successful politician ran on the platform of HOPE, the ensuing years embraced a darker paradigm, a reinvigorated apathy that put the early 1990’s to shame. 2016 seemed to personify this chaos and a sardonic sense of nihilism became our strategic coping mechanism as our news feeds filled with a relentless stories of death, violence and viral politics.

It becomes a chicken-egg problem as to whether our attitudes are shaped by media, or our media is shaped by our attitudes– but the general point I’m trying to get at is this: what’s scary now, will be the norm in a decade or two. So it merits some thought as to who/what we’re putting into the villain seat. I could also be waaay off base.

Bonus Lightning Round:

Jason Voorhees embodies sexual anxiety during a period of an HIV epidemic. Sexual attitudes relax concurrent with improved sex education. Jason’s relevancy in pop culture plummets. (This can be extended to nearly all slasher movie monsters)

The Terminator is the unflinching march of technology. As I linked to above, we live in a time in which Bill Gates is scared shitless of AI. So as to not be redundant, a different approach to read The Terminator is the shallow aspect of his humanity. His skin is just a thin veneer which he casts aside casually, without pain. This might be a stretch, but part of where our tech march has landed us is in a superficial sphere of human interaction via social media where your (genuine, presumably) human interactions are stored digitally, reduced to cold data to be mined monetarily later.

Voldemort is the embodiment of the fear of death (similar to Vader), a perennial fear that doesn’t have to be pinned down to any particular time in history. It also accompanies wizard racism. I think this is less about how hatred is going to be normalized, but it does speak to a sense of what’s going on in western Europe and America, where fear (in our case, of death by terrorism) is intrinsically linked to outsider hatred (personified as Islamophobia).

Current state of Super Hero movies: Internal fighting, villainizing your teammates (Batman v Superman, Captain America: Civil War, Daredevil vs The Punisher, etcetera) concurrent with the lead up to a divisive election cycle. It’ll be interesting where we go from there.

Happy New Year.