Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Creating characters we should hate but can't.

My inner editor no longer whispers to me while I'm reading or nudges at the back of my brain when I see a poorly devised commercial. She screams at the top of her voice. Not long ago I learned several writing lessons while watching the movie Gran Torino, starring Clint Eastwood.

This article isn't a movie review. Gran Torino came out in 2008 and if you haven't seen it yet, you probably weren't planning to. The point of this article is to tell you what I learned watching it, and how you can glean good and bad techniques from watching good movies or reading good books, the same as you can learn from watching and reading drivel.

I can’t help noticing when I see a story that works, or equally when one doesn’t. For now I’ll stick to the topic of creating believable characters since the writers and directors of Gran Torino managed to make a character as bigoted, bitter and hateful as Walter Kowalski so darn lovable.

If you’ve seen the movie, you already know it follows Walt Kowalski, a recently widowed Korean War veteran who is alienated from his family and angry at the world. Walt's young Hmong neighbor, Thao, is pressured into trying to steal Walt's prized 1972 Ford Gran Torino by his cousin for his initiation into a gang. Walt develops a relationship with the boy and his family.

Sounds straightforward enough. Except there wasn’t a reason to root for Kowalski. All writers know if you want readers or viewers to care about your characters, thus following your project through to its satisfying conclusion, they must empathize with the character, even if he's horrible.

And Kowalski was horrible personified. He hated everybody, and I mean everybody. He was an equal opportunity bigot. He had a negative, profane slur to throw against the Irish, Italians, Jews, African Americans, the young, the old, women, men, Asians, auto mechanics, religion, the Church, and his own children, just to name a few.

Picture a bigger, meaner, more opinionated Archie Bunker having a really bad week.

His reactions to the world were so mean and over-the-top, I couldn’t keep from laughing out loud. I could also understand why he felt the way he did. The movie's writers knew they had to make him funny and relatable or viewers would throw bricks through theater screens. Of course the character was played by Clint Eastwood, and you expect certain things from a Clint Eastwood movie.

Once viewers got to know Kowalski, they realized there was a reason for his bitterness. There must be a logical explanation why your character is the way he is or readers won't forgive you. And they won't keep reading. I won’t explain here, but the story would’ve been downright insulting if Kowalski been a sweet old gentleman who passed out candy and witticisms to neighborhood children.

The point is Kowalski’s character was multi-layered. Underneath the bigotry and bravado was a heart. I won’t go so far as to say a heart of gold. It was Eastwood after all, but we saw cracks in the veneer he presented to the world.

At one point in the movie he gazed at a picture of his dead wife and asked the dog; “We miss Mama, don’t we, Daisy?”

Who wouldn’t get a catch in their throats at a question like that? That’s probably why Gran Torino's writers gave Kowalski a dog. American viewers—and readers—will forgive almost any sin if the jerk doing the sinning loves a dog enough to talk to it as though it understands.

What about your villain? Why does he hate his mother? He can't be mean just for the sake of being mean. Your heroine must have a reason for her crippling distrust of men. Even if the dog bites, something must've happened to make his suspicious of the meter reader.

All characters--good and bad--must be multi-dimensional. No one is all bad or all good, and they shouldn't be that way in your work. We want to empathize, even with the bad guy, and we want to relate to your heroine. It's a lot easier to do if she's not rip-roaring perfect.


Jodie said...

Great post! And you are so right about the dog thing. Something in us softens when a hard-to-love bad guy is gentle with a dog, a kid, or his great-grandmother. We almost start to like the guy, at least for a moment. I think it's like a bank: you deposit a moment of soft so you can withdraw a moment of harsh later.

Molly Noble Bull said...

Great article, Teresa. Your natural talent for characterization never fails.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Jodie. Anyone who can love a dog is not irredeemable. We can understand why someone would hate people, but it's hard to understand someone hating a dog. In fact, if you have a truly bad villain, maybe he should kick a dog to prove it.

Aggie Villanueva said...

Molly, it's always a joy to go back to basics with a post as insightful as this.

I waited a few years to watch this movie because I thought it was a typical Eastwood movies, which I don't usually care for.

I loved this movie for all the reasons you list and more. And the dog thing, I've found, also works in reverse.

I recently say a movie where the heroin didn't like the dog (no reasons ever given). I immediately disliked her. But the writers had her slowly come to love and care for it as just a small part of the plot and I easily forgave her and loved her all the more!

Molly Noble Bull said...

I didn't write this article, Teresa Slack did. But I agree with all your said.

Aggie Villanueva said...

Oops. My mistake. It's great advice. Thankx for posting it.

Cecelia Dowdy said...

Great post! Timely advice about creating a likeable and realistic villian!

Jesse Clark said...

Great post, with the emphasis that there has to be a reason for every characters disposition.

I was thinking of it from another perspective because as a guy I liked Walt from scene one. I liked him because despite his crustiness and vulgarity, he was acting in a way that I though a man should. Taking action, not leaving a problem to others. Saying what he meant rather than the nice but often meaningless things we are taught to say.

But I guess its like you say, as we got to know Walt I found out the reasons that I already liked him, what made him who he was. Kind of like making us reconcile or identify why we like or dislike a character?

Teresa Slack said...

Jesse, I don't know if this is good to admit, but Walt reminded me of a lot of men in my family. Men I admire. Not because they're bigots, but because of the reasons you stated. They are strong, do not depend on the gov or handouts, stand behind their beliefs, even when they aren't popular and don't apologize for who they are.

Walt had a lot of ideas that weren't right, but there was a logical reason behind each one. That's why his character worked so well.