- Writing Compelling Characters Who Are Flawed (Part 1)
- Writing Compelling Characters Who Are Flawed (Part 2)
I was/am a big Sopranos fan. Also, Dexter, Breaking Bad, Ray Donovan, Billions, Suits, and others that featured characters who I wouldn’t associate with on a dare. Violent, narcissistic, even evil, men and women who did unthinkable things and yet who I follow eagerly from week to week, movie to movie.
To say I am always conflicted about my love of these shows would be understatement. What is it, what was it about the horrible characters that attracted me to them?
Well- Developed Backstories
Make no mistake, the characters featured in these series and movies were deeply flawed, but behind their behavior was the sense that something important drove them to it.
The always entertaining Benicio del Toro is a former prosecutor, now assassin, seeking revenge for the murder of his wife and daughter in Sicario.
In Banshee Anthony Starr’s character is an ex-con who becomes a sheriff in a small town and dispenses justice his way (based on his past) while he tries to locate the diamonds he heisted from a Ukrainian criminal.
And don’t cross Liam Neeson, a retired CIA agent (with a particular set of skills) and mess with his family in Taken.
In Death Wish, the original Charles Bronson film, you see the backstory as villains rape and murder his wife and daughter. He becomes a living target, drawing bad actors to him as some sort of masochistic Judas goat in order to shoot them. A vigilante. You’d have to be made of stone not to feel for this man whose family was so brutalized and maybe you’re uncomfortable about his actions, but you understood and accepted them.
Tony Soprano’s backstory involved his crime-based family. Tony was raised to be a villain. His role models were criminals. This wasn’t totally revealed initially, but you get a sense of it, not only from the world of organized crime which is familiar, and from a very conniving Uncle Junior and Mama Soprano who worked against Tony to take over the family businesses. How do you respond to life normally when your mother orders a hit on you?
Likewise, Ray Donovan’s father’s first introduction is his release from prison and subsequent brutal murder of a priest who Mickey Donovan (Jon Voight) thought had molested his son, Bunchy.
Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) hated his father so much that he had to be drugged and kidnapped to attend his funeral.
These family trees and backgrounds are corrupt and infected with bad, bad people. Violence, as the saying goes, begets violence. It’s not an excuse for behavior, but rather an explanation for it. Characters who are flawed requires some insight into their actions.
Tapping into that delicate balance of justice vs. outrage is one key to making an audience embrace your character and their world.
Speaking of the world, that’s another big check box.
Game Of Thrones features a plethora of bad people acting in horrible manners and although we might cringe many times (the Red Wedding) we get that that world was different than ours. Being in power meant you had a target on your back. Justice was rough at best, meted out at sword tip in many cases. There weren’t courts and advocates for your crimes, there was a cursory judgment usually handed down by a single person – perhaps the King – who wielded your fate on a chopping block.
Billions features basically two men at polar opposites of a world of corporate greed and treachery, and yet both used the same techniques to get ahead and strike at the other. Neither Paul Giamatti’s Chuck Rhoades nor Damian Lewis’ Bobby Axelrod had misgivings about their behavior. Both were corrupt because of their world and their place in that world. Even Maggie Siff’s Wendy Rhoades was terribly flawed because the world she worked and lived in was Axelrod’s company and she was Rhoades’ wife. We understand if not wholly accept their behavior because of it.
Ray Donovan’s (Liev Schreiber) terrible upbringing background made him the polar opposite as a family man who was engaged in his family’s daily lives. Like all parents, he faced challenges raising his kids but he and his wife made sure they were always involved in bringing strong family values to the situation despite the ofttimes violence of his world.
His work behavior may have been less than stellar, but he compartmentalized those two worlds and kept one from affecting the other. This made him master of two worlds – a quasi-criminal work place and a semi-normal family life. An entire subplot involved his wife’s strong desire to send her kids to a prestigious school. Ray had plenty to worry about in his business life, but struggled with the same issues all parents and husbands have.
Dexter’s father made sure he grew up with a moral compass, flawed though it was. Being a cop, Dexter’s dad was able to moderate his serial killer son’s worst behavior by channeling it to at least better purposes. Even after Dexter’s father died, his ‘ghost’ guided Dexter’s behavior. Whether or not you believed that a man with killer tendencies could sublimate those tendencies into ‘good’ is another story. I mean, he didn’t just shoot or stab people, he also tortured and mutilated them and revelled in it.
The writers worked hard each episode to convince you of Dexter’s ‘angel side’ because he was shown in an ongoing series of flashbacks being taught those values by a strong and engaged father figure.
Are there shades of bad behavior? Sure. Killing Eve’s Villanelle (Jodie Comer) is a villain but she seemingly only does what she does to ‘bad people.’ Yes, she’s a serial killer (by definition) but nowhere near as bad as Hannibal Lecter.
Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is capricious. The Joker is funny. Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) of Justified only ‘pulls’ on someone who draws on him – an old west type of justified.
Rules/ Moral Compass
Tied to the world your challenging characters come from is the rules of your script. Rules are defined as what actually makes your world the world. When we engage with Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) of Boardwalk Empire we follow a gentleman thief. He’s less likely to massacre an entire group of people than say someone from Vikings. The rules of their worlds are different.
Bosch (Titus Welliver) plays by his own rules and breaks the established ones within limits. He’s a detective and he may do some bad things but he stops at certain boundaries. In season four he finds out who murdered his mother and has the opportunity to kill him but he doesn’t. Characters like Tony Soprano or Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis, The Shield) would not have stopped at that line.
Slow Burn To Evil
As some series progress, a character who started out with some issues become increasingly more aberrant. Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) was certainly never an angel but when the series started he wasn’t like the rest of the Sons Of Anarchy MC. He did kill a man trying to rape Tara Knowles (Maggie Siff) but it was justified. By the time the eighth season rolled along, Jax was a bad, bad man forced into increasingly aberrant behavior.
Justified did a similar thing when Raylan Givens shot a drug dealer in Miami in the opening but the shooting was ‘justified.’ He drew first, is what Raylan tells his bosses. But Raylan stayed his course throughout the run of the series.
The opening episode of The Shield had Michael Chiklis’ Vic Mackey execute another cop. You’d think you couldn’t get more evil than that, but you’d be wrong. Mackey was bad to begin and got much, much worse as the seasons ran.
In Killing Eve the Villanelle character (Jodie Comer) is pure evil; a psychopathic, cruel woman who enjoys watching her victims die. But, she (basically) only kills people she’s assigned to kill and she’s creative and smart about it. There’s a fascination there that’s hard to resist, and because she’s not arbitrary, we’re okay with following her.
However, what really keeps us tied to that character is her connection to Sandra Oh’s character, Eve. There are hints in the first few eps that something about Eve shakes Villanelle when they meet in a hospital bathroom, and it goes to who Villanelle has become. There’re indications that some past event has scarred her deeply and it’s someone named Anna who looks like Eve.
That backstory and the current manifestation of that backstory keeps us engaged in Villanelle even though we’d never want her over for dinner.
In The Americans neither the Keri Russel nor Matthew Rhys characters are what we would consider good people. They’re spies. Agents sent over from the U.S.S.R. to help the communists destroy our country and our way of life.
But, ideology aside, they’re soldiers on a mission. Certainly, they have their hesitations about what they’re doing in later episodes but initially they’re there doing what they do for their country which they believe in. Wars demonize the enemy in order to make soldiers feel okay about what needs to be done. We know America is an ideal to emulate but coming from Russia, the citizens of the time were told what their country wanted them to hear. Hard to fault a soldier doing what he or she believes is righteous if they’ve never been given any other point of view.
Plus, in order to keep the illusion of a normal family, the spies have had children they care deeply about just like any other parents. Their children’s welfare is always foremost, something we can certainly relate to. A different ‘mission’ than the spying but a mission we can understand.
Some of the most emotionally painful episodes come when their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor) finds out her parents are Russian spies. How they traverse this seemingly intractable landscape is just amazingly well-done and creates a tight bond with the parents that we all can relate to – trying to get our children to understand the decisions we’ve made.