Thursday, December 26, 2013

Things We Learn

I just honestly didn't think it was possible to learn to dislike someone so much so quickly. It's really interesting to pay attention to characters in books and stories, and even people in real life. The actions of the character reveal their true biases and priorities and often in subtler ways than you might imagine. For instance, frequently the actions done in many stories could have been performed by a great many characters, and the character chosen to actually do them is incredibly telling. For instance, the betrayal by the fiance in the movie Frozen. This character actually feels very wedged into the story but their function there is very deliberate and purposeful even if clumsy. It has to be that character that performs that betrayal, because it has to undercut the concept of traditional fairy tale romance to set up the real love story, the love shared by the two sisters. He's there because the writers felt he was necessary for contrast, and that they weren't confident that their story, by itself, would be contrasted against the other stories in their genre so they needed to internalize this conflict, despite having a wealth of other characters and circumstances they could have used to make their point.

So you look at what a character is doing. They may profess great love for someone else, but if every time that love requires any kind of difficulty or sacrifice they hide it or ignore it or let the other character down, then there's nothing there. I could easily depict a scenario like this in a matter of moments as it is so easily caricatured:

Jim and his wife have reached a difficult spot in their relationship, and they agree to separate. THis rough patch is caused by financial difficulty, they can't support each other and they can't achieve their goals realistically, and it begins to look impossible. During their separation both Jim and his wife have affairs with various lovers, but Jim becomes particularly fond of her, tell her he loves her and spends a great deal of time with her in secret. Jim is also unfortunately a borderline alcoholic, which has caused many social ills. Their affair goes on for some years and one day the unthinkable happens, through both great effort, and chance, and the support of both his wife and his mistress Jim gets a new job. Concerned for appearances in the grace period for the new job that leads to everything he wanted in life, Jim ceases all communication with his mistress on the chance that this would risk his job in the eyes of his new employer as he has no idea how the new employer would react to such a relationship, but Jim still sips whiskey under the desk at work. Three sips a day instead of a half a bottle a day, but he doesn't give it and everyone knows about it. It is quite probably more damaging of the two, but it would cause Jim personal pain and discomfort to give up the whiskey.

This is a simple and meaningless example of how you can identify a characters real motivations and genuine internal struggles. People are generally very transparent if you give them enough time and pay close enough attention. Sometimes when you get really involved with a character early on though it's easy to miss things that seems meaningless but unfold in a larger pattern.

Breaking Bad 's Walter White is a brilliant example of this, the portrait of his character over the course of the series draws upon a very beautifully complex series of motivations. Every scenario of conflict draws on the tension of what is more important to Walter, very rarely, if ever can we believe what he is saying. He is clearly portrayed immediately as a character incapable of admitting real truths about motivation or feeling to almost anyone, however his motivations and values are consistent throughout the entire series.

He is a damaged man cheated out of billions first, he is a family man second, he is a brilliant chemist third, he is an moral man fourth, and he is a honest man fifth, and a truthful man last. The conflicts as these are carefully pulled out and highlighted in each of his major decisions is like a character being beautifully painted, but in time and with something richer than colors can ever display.

THere is also a brilliant tension with the audience as we wrestle with our own values, and whether or not we want to see him succeed. We constantly ask ourselves just how much we like Walter White. At what point does he cross the line where we could no longer feel good about seeing him successfully resolve his issues into a happy ending through any amount of cleverness?

I find it amazing how often we ourselves have no idea what our actions communicate to the people around us and how important it is that they communicate what we really feel.

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