Thursday, February 3, 2011

Not Every Character is Meant to be Loved

I find a great deal of inspiration in the programs and movies that I watch for my writing.  And I don't mean in the plots or the characters per se, but rather in the writing itself, and the development of the characters and the plots, and in the way they are utilized.  Lessons which can be translated and implemented in my own writing, lessons as valuable as any offered by a writing teaching, made more effective by the visual mode through which they are conveyed.

Point in case today - Rome.

Rome was a short-lived series which ran for two seasons on HBO, 2002 and 2003 I believe.  I only recently began to netflix it and am currently well into the second seasons.  This is a most excellent series, and it combines a number of my personal interests into one well-done and entertaining bundle: great stories, writing, acting, characters and - one of my favorites - history!  These are real people whom are often portrayed in our lackluster history classes as names and dates and deeds long dead and forgotten, but here they are given life and shown for what they really were - actual people.  This is the sin of which most history teachers, in my opinion, are guilty - not impressing that the people of today are tomorrow's historical figures; that the ones that lives before us were just like we are now, except they lived first.  But they were all human, with all the quirks and desires and foibles that people possess, and thus worthy of our interest, rather than our dismay at reading about them.

So are our characters, the ones we write about, real people - in our heads.  It's up to us to convey them as living people upon the printed page, as it is the job of historians and teachers to do the same thing with their charges, although sadly many fail to do so.  Rome does it well.  I can't possibly look at Julius Caesar the same way any more, and his murder, in the Senate of Rome by those he considered to be friends and wellwishers was never more vividly impressed in my mind, despite Shakespeare's dramatic portrayal.  Sorry, WS, but the series drove it home in a way in which the play never had.

The first season of Rome takes place during Julius Caesar's reign and ends with his assassination.  At the point where I'm at now, Octavian has become consul.  He now calls himself Caesar, having been adopted by JC before his death.  Things are a bit bleak, though.  Octavian has demanded that the Senate brand Brutus and Cassius as murderers for their actions in the death of Julius Caesar, a divisive act as many in the Senate are yet their friends (these two fled long ago, by the way, and are lurking outside of Rome, with their forces). Cicero sent word to them of what has happened, encouraging them to return with their forces to oust Octavian.  That put him in a pretty pickle - he was told they had 10 legions to his 4, and even if the numbers are exaggerated, Octavian knows his is the weaker force.  So, being the very shrewd and intelligent young man that he is, he does the only thing he can - he has to make nice with Marc Antony, who is still beloved by the common soldiers, who flock to join him.  Well played, young Octavian, well played!  For those who don't recognize him by that name, later he'll become the Emperor Caesar Augustus.  Ring a bell now?

Now, how he does this wooing of Antony is simple - he uses his mother, Atia, who is Antony's lover.  Today's episode ended with Octavian and Antony embracing like long lost friends.  If you'll remember your history, they will become co-consuls of Rome.  For a time, anyway.  My point here is not to give a history lesson, per se, but to talk about the characters involved.  On the surface, it would seem that Atia is a loving mother who only wishes to help her beloved son.

Wrong.  Atia is and has always been all about herself, which is evident from the beginning.  She's a very narcisstic selfish bitch who only wants what is best for herself, and to be on the winning side.  She is Julius Caesar's niece, and she does not hesitate to reap all the benefits of that relationship, nor to wield whatever power she can from the Julii name.  She treats everyone abominally.  Even Antony.  And yet  her character serves definite purpose in the plot, and that is my point.  Having people to hate is important.  So many books have villains we love to hate but actually love that having one we can unabashedly hate and despise is important.  You can't like everyone, and you shouldn't.

Then there are the other characters, the ones that different people will see differently because of their own perceptions.  Brutus - he was Caesar's friend, but he agreed to off him because he was too weak not to.  We see that he isn't a bad man, but a weak one, who has seen his own ideals for what Rome should be twisted and turned against him, until he is left with only one way to go, and so he went that way.  Marc Antony - another very selfish man, but he's more true to his own purpose, and he remained Caesar's friend to the end.  I can read  his most famous speech in Shakespeare's play now with a better understanding of what is actually happening, the cunning behind the lines which don't outwardly condemn Brutus for what he did, but there the truth is, just below the surface.  Such masterful writing, so incredibly dramatic.

There is just something about watching people we hate, getting ourselves and our emotions and our knickers all twisted as we curse them - silently or otherwise - and root for their destruction.  The important thing to carry away is that the writer, as well as the actors, have brought them to life for us and we feel.  This translates to our own writing.  Our goal is to make our readers feel for our characters - love them, hate them, everything in between.  To make our readers feel something.  If they aren't feeling, chances are they've nothing vested in the story, so why continue reading?

By creating hate for some, I think we enhance the love for our other characters, trigger a protective mantel, so to speak.  Without those villains, I don't think those feelings would run quite so deep.  In other words, there'd be no conflict, and what's a story without conflict of some sort?  True, conflict does not always have to be other people.  Remember the three basic types of conflict?  I still do, even after all these years, having learned them in grade school:

1) Man vs Man
2) Man vs Nature (or God)
3) Man vs Himself

Personally, I find that the last two only go so far to keep my interest; it's an exceptional story that can do that, especially when it's a man and some animals, such as Call of the Wild (sorry, it bored me), and while I like psychological dramas, there is just something more satisfying in pitting man against his fellow man.

It's natural to want your characters to be loved, but not all of them should be.  There will be people who don't even like the ones you'd think they would, because everyone has their own point of view, and one person's hero is another villain.  But it's all good, so don't be offended.  Hey, they read the story, didn't they?  They don't have to agree, as long as they took something away with them.  Isn't that the point?  If they care enough to feel something for your characters, then you've done something.

I have a character in a novel which I am about to submit to Silver of whom I am very fond, not surprisingly, but my daughter Sarah delights in referring to him as a douche-canoe.  But at least she remembers him.  I may complain at her characterization of him, but secretly I am delighted to know she cares that much.

There is a lot that can be done with these characters, to make them multi-layered and unexpected, at least to a degree.  At the end of today's Rome, as Atia led the reconciliation between the lover she'd not seen since he fled Rome without her and the son whom she had allowed that same lover to mistreat and abuse,as she had never been a good mother to him, I couldn't help but think that she hadn't changed - still the same selfish creature she'd always been.  Characters can and do change and evolve, and I love when that happens, but there does have to be logic involved, not just wishful thinking as in I want Character A who's always been evil to be good now - you have to know why, and show it, so we can embrace it.  But it's okay to have a serpent remain a serpent, and that's what I think Atia is and always will be, and I'll continue to despise and hate her (I'm waiting for the fallout when her daughter Octavia marries Antony, though I'm not sure if that comes out in the series or not)

In conclusion, although we love to love our villains, despite how dark we paint them, we need to have characters we'll never love, because they serve purposes too. That is a lesson we can take away from watching well-done series, which allow us to watch the character development, the interactions, and the growth.  All things we can carry back to our writing, so that we can make it come alive as much as possible upon the printed page and in the minds of our readers.

Do you know of characters you hate and could never love?  Your own or those you've seen?  Share them here!  I'd love to hear your thoughts!

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