Friday, November 30, 2007

flaw flaunt

It seems common sense to me that a protagonist (main character, etc, call it what you will) should have inner complications, a sort of personal struggle with what he/she considers right versus wrong in the face of what the world considers right versus wrong. I've been learning about this since the first writing workshop I set foot into, and it seems I still loll back into the same old non-complicating ways. Put into practice in my own fiction, I find making my main characters multi-faceted in this regard to be more difficult than I would imagine it to be.... I wouldn't say that they're not flawed, but they tend to be "normal" or single-minded in a world of more colorful characters. I think I'm afraid of making my main characters ugly, or at least giving them the ability to do ugly things. This is something I need to get over. Complicated and flawed central protagonists are more interesting than one-note benevolent do-gooders.

Leading to another bullet of storytelling maxim: main characters should incite action, not let action happen to them. Too often I have things happen to the main character instead of the main character making things happen. Like I said before, it's a cop out, and it's easy, and I think that's why I keep stumbling over it. Oh, but I'm not the only one.

Instead of listing all the wonderful examples of flawed/warped/ugly central protagonists (you won't have to look hard, they're often times the very element that makes a story/novel/movie as good as it is), I thought I'd bring to light two examples that present the opposite.

1. Dave Eggers' novel What is the What, finalist for this year's National Book Award in fiction, is the story of a Sudanese refugee recounting his horrific nomad childhood as he lives and schools in the United States as an adult. I'm almost finished with the book, and as is the case with all of Eggers' writing, it's quite enjoyable. I don't think it's his most accessible read, but I find myself wrapped in the story and gaining a history lesson and awareness of political oppression in eastern Africa. The problem? The main character, Valentino Achak Deng (told from the first person, based on true accounts of the actual person mixed with tales of other Sudanese refugees), seems to be utterly flawless. As we read, we're viewing the world through the lens of his awareness of the absolute chaos reigning over southern Sudan and the devastating plight of refugees across eastern Africa. At every point, Valentino is the subject of events that are always happening upon his people.... and this is not a bad thing if it is the inciting incident of the novel, but instead the entire novel is fraught with his passive participation. Not many people can seem worse than the faceless horde of mass murderers that the Sudanese government is made out to be, but Valentino is positively angelic. We trace his adolescence and his naiveté with little regard to any *personality* on his part. He's always a witness, doe-eyed and a passive participant of it all. We're given the impression that he becomes an active speaker and demonstrator once he arrives in the United States, but not given much proof that he has a personality to be such a person. Even in the present plane of the novel in "today's" United States, Valentino is *still* the victim of events; he is robbed and beaten in his own house and is neglected by the staff at a hospital.

2. Maybe you've noticed ABC's recent attempt at resurrecting the nighttime soap with freshman show "Dirty Sexy Money". The basic premise is that a filthy rich New York socialite family can't put on their underwear without the help of a family lawyer, and they hire a family friend to do so in the wake of said lawyer's death. The main character here, played by "Six Feet Under" alum (not to mention from "Cybill" too, a favorite of mine from eleven or twelve years ago) Peter Krause, struggles against the over-the-top decadence of this family and mops up their messes at every turn. I don't need to go into detail about each of the family members' dysfunctions (though Donald Sutherland is perfectly cast as the pristine patriarch), except for the fact that the writers of the show have decided to make Krause's character absolutely perfect. This guy can do no wrong. He even donates the money he earns to build parks for disadvantaged city children! He is every step the moral center, has his head screwed on straighter than anyone else in this world, has an infinite amount of patience, and in his spare time is trying on his Nancy Drew shoes to find out if his father was murdered (the show's attempt at a serial storyline). It doesn't matter what mess what family member has gotten themselves into, Krause's character is always there to hold their hand and guide them to the light, grudgingly or not. What gets me the most? He knows *from the very pilot episode* that this family will be his undoing (and likely the completely unsurprising catalyst for his divorce.... stay tuned for Season 2, I guess) and that they're troublesome ways are more trouble than they're worth; i.e. he never incites action, but instead the family incites action on him. But he plugs along, with more ethics than a sunny early 1960s sitcom.

Bottom line: What is the What and "Dirty Sexy Money" aren't bad, but they'd be miles and miles more interesting if their main characters carried more weight instead of the story doing it for them in the background. For my money, What is the What is more worthwhile and "Dirty Sexy Money" needs some massive retooling in order to be more inherently interesting. I do find it curious, though, that these two are so popular in the face of such a fundamental storytelling flaw.


Writeprocrastinator said...

"Too often I have things happen to the main character instead of the main character making things happen."

Hey, that's the basic tenant of noir, right? The protagonist has so many things happening to him/her that they don't have the opporunity to do anything about until it is almost too late.

Christina said...

Would I like Dirty Sexy Money? I need a new show.

Still haven't seen the new Coen brothers. Maybe this weekend?

is that so wrong? said...

Christina: The jury's still out on "Dirty Sexy Money".... I'm not sold on the premise of a world full of wackos and one guy who is so sound of body and mind all he can do is roll his eyes and say "Oh, you know, those guys...."

Watch "Pushing Daisies".... much more worth your time, and at the same time fulfilling.... a trait television shows have seem to lost.