Ryan and I saw Dream House over the weekend, and it was interesting for reasons that ultimately didn’t have anything to do with its actual story. I’ll try to briefly describe what happens without spoiling it, just in case any of you are interested in watching a psychological thriller from last year starring James Bond and the Wife from the Brendan Frasier Mummy movies.
Daniel Craig is Will, an editor fresh from quitting his job and purchasing a fixer-upper of a house he hopes to raise his young family in. Pretty soon it’s clear that there are strange things happening in and around the house, and Will’s discovery of the house’s history causes him to question quite a bit through the rest of the movie. There are a couple of twists, and I have to give the movie credit in that it reveals the first one just when you’ve figured it out. I love when a film respects the intelligence of its audience and delves into the messy aftermath of what the twist means.
Only with Dream House, that’s not quite what happens. The plot pivots around a bit of the backstory that Will is involved in but ultimately not responsible for. I mentioned to Ryan that this was disappointing because the story of him coming to terms with his responsibility would have been more interesting than what we got, but he disagreed. He said that it wouldn’t work for a number of reasons that I won’t go into here because, spoilers. Instead, I’ll just go ahead and launch into my main point from here.
The protagonist is an easy character to screw up in a lot of genre stories. I think we have a tendency to construct our main characters out of a template because there are certain demands we place on them; they have to be active, heroic, but believable, relatable. They can’t be perfect or else they’re boring, and they can’t be too damaged because who would want to spend time with them, then? It’s really difficult to get the tone down because this is the person that will be pulling the audience through your story; you want them to like your main character, but you also want to make sure that he or she is textured enough that they’re not a Boy Scout. The flaws have to be legitimate but not alienating.
I’m becoming more interested in just how far you can go with making a flawed protagonist, though. The reason Dream House was ultimately disappointing is that it felt like a bait-and-switch to me; it teased with the possibility of this great, tragic protagonist struggling through this irreparable damage, then gave us something that was a bit more heroic and thus a bit more bland. It makes me wonder what you could have a protagonist ‘get away with’ and still have the audience on their side.
Can you have a murderer as the protagonist of your story? What about a mass murderer? In what context would those actions be acceptable or unacceptable? I know that there isn’t a pat answer for this; there are so many other factors that influence how an action like that looks. What about, say, a story of a thief who kills an entire family during a botched robbery? Would the story of him coming to grips with what he’s done sound believable, much less intriguing? To me, it would be. There’s something beautiful in someone finding grace and acceptance of the horrible things they’ve done. But perhaps I’m in the minority on that one.
I immediately think of the first book in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever — Lord Foul’s Bane, I believe it was called. Thomas Covenant is an intensely unlikable protagonist, and it’s actually kind of impressive to read for that. Stephen Donaldson spends quite a bit of time telling us about Thomas; he is a writer who had a runaway success with his first novel, then contracted leprosy and lost his wife, his confidence and his health. The description of his mental state and his disease is thoughtful enough that it generates enormous sympathy for Thomas, and even though he’s bitter and cynical you understand why he is. When he’s whisked away to a magical realm known as the Land and told he’s fated to be the savior of its inhabitants, you can forgive him for his skepticism. What you can’t forgive him for is the raping of a young girl, one of the first people he meets.
I had never had such a visceral reaction to a book before then. Once both the girl and her mother don’t immediately call out Thomas for fear of displeasing him, I put the book down. But that small bit of story stuck with me; Donaldson’s obviously an effective writer, and now that I’m thinking about it what he did was quite remarkable. Even though I can admire his technical proficiency, his creation is just something I can’t spend any more time with. Thomas crossed the line, and I…still don’t know if I want to stick around to see if he’s redeemed or not.
But can you have Thomas do something like that and still make him…somewhat heroic? Obviously, that act is going to stain his personality for the rest of his existence, and rightfully so. What could Donaldson have done differently to set up Thomas for future redemption without lessening the horrificness of the act? For me, the act exposed a depth of disregard and near-sociopathic tendencies that I had been willing to overlook before. The rape stripped away the goodwill I had built for Thomas, and it made the anger and disgust I felt for him that much worse. Would it have been different if there was any indication beforehand that he had the capacity to be selfless? Would I have felt sadness instead of anger if Thomas had been portrayed more as someone who suffered greatly?
Thinking about these questions makes me realize how much I rely on the intent or mental state behind an action to determine a judgement on it. There are an awful lot of things that I would forgive if someone was “properly repentant,” and took responsibility for their actions. It wouldn’t make the actions any less heinous, but it would prove these people were still capable of, or desired to do, good. And that matters. Watching someone find their way back from a terrible mistake that can’t be erased is compelling, and failure or success brings with it a very intense return on your emotional investment. For me, the desire to be good is enough to get me on the side of the protagonist, and while there are a lot of things they could do to exhaust that goodwill, good intentions will go a great deal farther than anything else.
Now I turn the floor over to you: what attribute is absolutely essential for a character to keep your sympathy? What one thing will cause a character to become irredeemable? And who was the most unlikable protagonist you followed through the end of a story? Looking forward to your comments.