My Favorite Characters Hate Themselves

Recently I did a little writing exercise. I thought about my favorite characters from movies and television and drafted up a few paragraphs on each. I focused on their strengths, weaknesses, and the various inner conflicts that give them depth. Now it seems like the most obvious thing in the world, but once I had it all on the page, I realized that all my favorite characters are highly self-destructive.

Okay, so maybe they don’t hate themselves, but they all have internal compulsions that drive them in conflicting directions. They do things they know they shouldn’t; a dark side compels them, and they seem to have little or no control over that darkness. Even as they do their best to be good, they are subconsciously their own worst enemy.

Don Draper is a perfect example of a great, three-dimensional character. He is a brilliant ad man because he quickly knows what people want, what drives them to act, and he plays on their primal urges. But when it comes to Don’s own urges and wants, he seems oblivious, and so he treads upon himself with profligate sex and alcoholism, trying to fill a gulf of want, but wearing himself down until he can’t find his talent.

One of my favorite movie characters is Dignan from Bottle Rocket. Owen Wilson’s wannabe career criminal has an infectious enthusiasm that is so innocent and childlike he draws otherwise upstanding people into poorly considered criminal schemes. He’s a terrible criminal and realistically has no hope of fulfilling his dreams, but his wide-eyed charisma makes it hard for people to say no, or to be honest with him about his ridiculous plans. Dignan doesn’t hate himself, but if he ever faces the reality of his decisions, he might.

Conflict is necessary; without it, there cannot be a story. But most characters lack that subconscious self-loathing that dominates my list of favorites. (I’m not sure what that says about me.) Generally the more divided a character is, the more rich their internal struggle. It’s easy to say that The Dude from The Big Lebowski is self destructive since he’s so generally sloppy, but he is just too easygoing to hate himself, and his character isn’t as rich or compelling as Dignan in the same measure that Lebowski is less tragic.

Think about Breaking Bad’s Walter White, True Detective’s Rust Cohle, Bill Murray from Groundhog Day or Ghostbusters or Scrooged or Lost In Translation, Eddy from Hurlyburly, Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul from The Conversation or “Popeye” Doyle from The French Connection, Jake LaMotta from Raging Bull, Humbert Humbert from Lolita, Romeo, Hamlet, Dracula.

These characters are some of my favorites. Their internal tensions drive the respective plots forward with an sharp edge. The problems generated by these inner conflicts give me a thrill because I sense that I’m not just watching an external narrative advance step by step; I’m seeing an existential crisis in action. I get the sense these characters sometimes wonder, “How can I be this way?”

Even when the plot doesn’t have to move forward, great inner conflicts lead to memorable characters. Sam Malone from Cheers is a recovering alcoholic, a washed up baseball player who, since he knows nothing else, buys a bar and works his days away with his ex-coach, nailing as many ladies as possible. Diane Chambers, a self-styled intellectual and scholar, takes a job as a barmaid and cannot resist Sam’s charm. To my mind, this is one of the best premises ever for a sitcom.

I resonate with these characters. I feel quickly and deeply invested. I want these characters to struggle with themselves and I usually want to see their better natures win in the end. We all have inner conflicts, and we generally see ourselves as the heroes of our own stories. A well-crafted character should gradually invite us to project our conflicts, to see ourselves in the character’s skin (to some extent) and reciprocally, to share in their emotions.

And the best characters aren’t necessarily revealed right away. Sometimes it can take multiple viewings or readings to tease apart the antipodal motivations, to really get inside a character’s head and start to understand those primal urges that drive him or her. A great character should be rich enough with content that they can surprise us, but once we get inside their heads, it should all make perfect sense.

My favorite character ever might be the darkest of all: Laura Palmer. Her death at the beginning of Twin Peaks marks the beginning of our discovery. In 30 episodes we never properly meet her, but we learn so much of her inner conflicts we can infer depths to her that most characters cannot touch. And when we finally meet her in the movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, we get a touching and disturbing portrait of struggle between light and darkness. Laura is a heroine who still resonates with culture today, echoing all over the media landscape in shows like The Killing.

Truly great characters live forever.

Breaking Bad, Raising The Stakes On TV

Everybody and their brother will blog about Breaking Bad this week, so I don’t need to chime in on that…so…what else are we going to talk about? Please. Some say we’re in a new Golden Age of television. Some say Breaking Bad is one of the best series of all time. Both ring true to my ear. There will be some spoilers here, in red.

So what made Breaking Bad so great? Was it the Nietzschean “will to power”, expressed in an honest way for the first time on television? Was it the lethally hip admixture of high chemistry and street drugs? Was it the character of Walter White? Jesse? Was it the magnetic acting? I could argue all these points, and strongly, but I think the setting in which all these facets found their gleam is the vision and execution of creator Vince Gilligan.

And execute he did. One of the strongest elements of Breaking Bad is its narrative economy. The storytelling is very straightforward, 96% pure, and doesn’t waste a lot of our time with non-essentials. Walt’s journey reaches very clear milestones regularly throughout the show, and the clarity of his journey make the simplistic narrative a deeply affecting one.

Walt’s journey, the central story, demonstrates perfectly this fundamental of storytelling: in a narrative, the stakes must rise toward a climax. Breaking Bad might be one of the best examples of how to raise the stakes. The magic of the show is that while the stakes went up continually and intensely, the story never felt like it was reaching beyond itself. Each new plateau of was handled realistically (at least in the psychology of the characters), and only until it was time to raise the stakes again. I have never seen a show escalate its dramatic action so consistently and effectively before now.

So many people died in the show. But think about Walt’s involvement with these deaths and the moral implications of each: in season one he kills someone in self-defense. Then he kills someone when there is no other safe option, when letting the person go would endanger his family (and think about how much he struggled with this conflict). Eventually we see him stand by and watch a girl die. He could have saved her life, but he lets her die because she has become inconvenient to him. Through coincidence, his negligence causes the death of an entire passenger plane full of people.

But still Walt remained reticent to take a life. We saw him bowl over a couple hood rats with his Aztec in order to save Jesse’s life (in one of the most intense television episodes I’ve ever seen). And on and on, Walt slowly lowers his criteria to the point where he orders the slaughter of a dozen prisoners in order to sever ties and stay clean.

The fact that his moral barriers were struck down so methodically makes me jealous of Vince Gilligan and all the people who got to work on Breaking Bad. What an impressive feat to sustain over 5 seasons without letting up or losing steam.

The storytelling of Breaking Bad might not be quite as nuanced as other dramas like Mad Men or The Wire, but its simplicity makes it more effective in many ways. Some of the “higher-brow” shows require slower action, more time for reflection and character development. But Breaking Bad kicks into high gear early on and doesn’t let up. And while it’s efficiently telling its story, highbrow concepts (such as the Nietzschean “will to power,” grey-scale ethics, etc.) present themselves as a digestif to the intense action.

And unlike many of those other shows, Breaking Bad sought to tell a finite story about one person with a beginning, middle, and end. The series closer Sunday night was a great piece of drama and the developments in it made perfect sense, whereas many other shows leave me without a strong sense of closure.

If the last episode didn’t seem quite as mind-blowing as you had hoped, consider the beautiful realm of possibilities created by the writers during the lead up to the finale. In the heat of the previous season, we could have cast our minds forward to any number of fantastic climaxes. It’s only because those potentialities were reduced to an actuality that the final episode might have left people a bit lukewarm. That, and the somewhat telegraphed convenience with which Walt’s final plan came together (to borrow a phrase from The A-Team).

The show ended as I hoped it would, without abandoning Walt completely to an immoral demise, but redeeming him just enough (through Jesse) so that people wouldn’t hunt down and kill Vince Gilligan. Way to watch your back Vince. He originally intended to kill Jesse.

For those 10.3 million of us who watched the finale together, Breaking Bad truly gave us one of those “shared moments” of TV legend. I’m naturally disappointed there is no more to look forward to, but I prefer a firm ending to a diluted story. Breaking Bad was somehow succinct in its 60+ hours, and I look forward to watching it again.

Weekly Insanity

Good sitcom characters are likeably insane. The television industry is very careful with its money, preferring long-running franchises to succinct, original storytelling. This means that sitcoms are populated with characters who generally will not change week to week. We want to count on Diane Chambers to act intellectual, Michael Scott to be inappropriate, Sheldon Cooper to be a difficult genius, and these characters have to get into the same kinds of problems every week.

I’m using Einstein’s definition of insanity here – each week these characters do the same things but expect different results. Characters are usually coloured with at least one type of mania. Their obsessions and blind spots serve as the engine of their adventures. Real personal growth in any of these characters alters the dramatic dynamic of the show, which is why if there are any major character changes, they usually happen after the first season (often redundant characters are written out and where the dynamism is weak new ones are written in or roles shift).

In Modern Family, for example, Cam and Mitchell each are foils. Cam is full of flair and fabulousness while Mitchell is the neurotic, nervous type. Each week they are afraid of getting caught being who they are and they usually lie to avoid awkward situations. These awkward situations each week resolve in reconciliation and life goes on as usual. But each week they make the same mistakes. They never learn, never become less fabulous or nervous, things don’t get better or worse for them.

Because television needs to generate stories dependably, fictional characters need their blind spots. A conscientious character would stop getting into trouble while a slightly insane character provides more dramatic latitude, more comedic opportunity and a more consistent viewing experience.

If these characters were friends of ours we would be frustrated they keep getting into the same trouble. Unless, of course, we were stuck in a complimentary pattern of enabling.

While sitcom characters are generally unrealistic. Of course there are plenty of people in the world who do make the same mistakes every week. None of us fix all our mistakes, but some people are particularly bad. Enter reality television.

The reason shows like Jersey Shore are compelling is that they actually do feature insane people who seem to learn nothing from their experiences. They repeat mistakes ad nauseum. In fact, these people don’t seem to notice their mistakes at all. If every week you get drunk and get into a fight, I must assume it is because you want to get drunk and fight. In which case I don’t like you.

The challenge for sitcoms is to make characters insane while remaining likeable. Jack Donaughy, super-Republican of 30 Rock, pursued corporate and social domination every week but remained hilarious. By contrast Leslie Knope, political nerd of Parks and Recreation, ran out of steam after the first season and has grown consistently more erratic to keep us entertained.

Every week we can count on Sterling Archer (Archer) to get the job done while bagging girls and killing spies, and because the character is a fresh iteration of an old archetype, we don’t get bored. Reagan Brinkley from Up All Night started as an ambitious TV producer, and when she decided to stay home with her child the show fell apart, both creator Emily Spivey and star Christina Applegate left, and the show now hangs in limbo.

The insanity is just a matter of personal taste. Give me someone with my own brand of insanity and I’ll watch. If the insanity mirrors some of the mania I have in my own life, it will resonate and I’ll tune in to vicariously experience my own passions and paranoia play out every week.

Even better is to watch shows with dynamic and nuanced characters. Have you seen Breaking Bad yet?