Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Unlikeable Hero or Heroine

As a writer, I always watch movies from that perspective. I watched the new movie Melancholia last night, which is the newly released film by Lars von Trier, the outspoken writer and director. The beginning of the film was a beautiful surreal exploration of the character and situation in images. Strangely enough it reminded me of the beginning of A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick what with the music and processional of images. I felt like I had walked into a surrealist museum. I haven't thought of surrealism in years, but I used to have a Salvadore Dali poster hanging in my cubbie when I worked in corporate. It was my small rebellious artistic statement about how much I hated being in "drone" world, which thankfully I am no longer. The movie is an usual story about the end of the world told in parts. Part I: Justine is about her descent into depression on her wedding day. I was intrigued. The darker she got, the more unlikeable she became as a heroine in the story, which begs the question of this blog. You walk a very fine line when you make your protagonist unlikeable. The moment she crossed the line over to ditching her sweet and caring brand new husband Michael to go have sex with some earnest young man she just met, she definitely became not so much an enigma but just downright unappealing. Trying to understand her motives for despicable behavior was difficult because you didn't really have her back story. Hints were dropped here and there, but without those missing pieces you could hardly feel sorry for her. The only person I felt sorry for was Michael, who you catch a glimpse of looking at her walk back up to the house after her emotionless tryst on the front lawn. You wonder if he saw what she did too, because a little later he comes down with a bag and leaves. You're left wondering why in the heck she married him to dump him less than hours into the reception. Then the movie moves into the second half and the end of the world.

Well, I didn't intend to do a movie review as much as a contemplation on making unlikeable characters. You have to walk a fine line when you're writing a character who is the protagonist and main subject of the story. If part of the story requires the character to do and say things that don't reflect on him or her in a flattering light then you risk alienating your readers and audience. In my opinion, if you're writing something where you're not planning to redeem him or her in the story, you might make that person a supporting player in the storytelling. Rooting value rarely lies in the character people don't like. It's one thing to love to hate a character or hate to love a character, but if you just don't outright like them, it's hard to hold the audience. I've grappled with this question in California Girl Chronicles. As I've explored the character of Brea (now in book two), I have carefully constructed her actions to never go over a certain line. As you read her, you know she has foibles but it's important to keep her motivations in the right place. While she's rather hapless, she is really deep down seeking the common desire we all share -- love. She's anchored as a person because she's not maliciously making mistakes -- she's just misguided. I definitely hit points in writing her, though, where as I developed the character arc I had to ask critical questions about when it had gone too far and she might become unlikeable. If the answer was vague then I went on the side of conservative so that I would not completely erode her inner goodness. Brea always has heart ... you'll see.

On a final note, Alexander Skarsgård played Michael. He is my favorite contemporary actor, and I am looking forward to seeing more of him in the future. He has one of the most expressive faces and eyes I've seen in a long time. The part of the rejected husband Michael gave him one of the first roles where I've seen him vulnerable and real. You can hardly play "real" when you're a vampire on True Blood. When Justine spurs Michael it was just sad. At one point Michael gives Justine a picture I presume of an apple orchard on some property they just bought. They seemingly connect and bond, and Justine professes she'll keep the picture with her always and proceeds to leave the picture laying on the sofa. The look on Michael's face was one of being caught off guard and then a profound realization of what that meant. It was so sad! Kudos out to the incomparable Skarsgård who I suspect is going to end up with one of those gold statues sooner or later. Because the worst scene comes when during their wedding night when an attempted seduction goes awry and poor Michael is left dejected and alone on their bed. The funny little detail that I caught was when he pulls up his black sock. It was a rich, little detail that said something awkward about the character. Fantastic!!! Like I tell writers all of the time -- details people. Specific details!!

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