Character Study: Walter White

Walter White and Skyler

Following a television trend started by The Sopranos, Walter White of Breaking Bad is an engaging example of a modern antihero. Like Tony Soprano, Walter White indulges in amoral familism — both Tony and Walt wreak havoc on the general public while justifying their own terrible behaviour under the delusion that they are doing it all for their family. The main difference between Tony and Walt: Walt eventually realises this about himself. Tony does not.

“I want to take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface over the life of the series.”

Vince Gilligan

I have already taken a close look at how the pilot of Breaking Bad engenders empathy in the audience.

In my mind, the best television series to date is Breaking Bad. When I analysed Tony Soprano, I found him to be a 12-dimensional character. Walter White has almost 16 or 18 dimensions. He is maybe the most complex character ever written by anyone, for any medium. He generated five or six seasons.

A dimension is a consistent contradiction in the nature of the character. Walter was capable of being very gentle, and he was for five seasons with certain characters—and violent and brutal with others! The dimensionality fascinates the audience.

By the time that last episode was executed, we absolutely knew everything about Walter White and his Heisenberg doppelgänger. He was ready to die because he was completely expressed, up to the last scene.

Walter changed every week. We never knew where the hell Walter was. Every time he did things one way, and we would feel that that was who he was, he would just reverse himself and do things in an opposite way.

Robert McKee

Walter White is an interesting case study from this point of view alone: In reality, people are multifaceted. Sometimes we perform well; other times very badly. Walter White performed however the plot required him to perform — and by ‘perform’, I mean literally. Bryan Cranston is expert at playing a guy who can’t act very well. Most of the time, we can see Walter White is a terrible actor. His family see right through him, for instance. But when the plot required it, when making that video to bribe Hank in season five, suddenly Walt could pull an Academy Award winning performance.

Yet the audience fully accepted this ‘inconsistency’. In fact, I didn’t even notice this was happening until after I’d watched the series three times.

Here’s another reason why Walter White is so engaging:

A good check on the degree of individuality your character shows in your opening is the question, “Would nine out of ten people behave and think like this?” If the answer is “yes”, you may not have conveyed enough of who your character actually is. She shouldn’t be nine out of ten people; she should be herself.

Nancy Kress

The Morality Of Walter White

Values The main character starts with a set of beliefs and values. What are Walter’s?

As the story begins, Walter’s MO is to plod along, work hard, look after his family.

As the seasons progress we learn there’s always been more complexity to Walt. All his adult life, ever since he left Grey Matter, he has been checking the stock market to see how much money he could’ve had, had he not taken the $2000 payout. He has been dealing with massive regret. He has believed life has dealt him great injustice.

His shortcomings are less obvious at the beginning but reveal themselves later. He’s not the most effectual husband but he’s fine. He uses the wrong bank account to pay for some stationery supplies — not a big thing (especially compared to what’s coming) but something like this can lead to extra bank fees which make the weekly bills that much harder to pay. He’s boring to Skylar, his attractive younger wife. He doesn’t earn enough money, so she is trying to sell crap on eBay and self-publish a book of short stories to make ends meet. (Note the outdated sexism embedded in that. I maintain that this is a sexist show — not because of the one example of Skyler, but because of the treatment of female characters across the series — the women aren’t afforded a single funny line, propelling them into ‘annoying’ territory.)

In order to lead a better life within the patriarchal culture he understands best, Walt must be more of a man: a better provider, who no one will make fun of (including his brother-in-law Hank and his students, who see him under a car at the car wash).

The first time Walt acts immorally is when he sees a former student of his, Jesse Pinkman, escape out of a window during a heist, which he attends as an interested voyeur with Hank, but doesn’t tell Hank about it. This is the moment the audience sees Walt making his decision. By saying nothing to Hank, Walt sides with the baddies. Some story gurus would call this moment the Inciting Incident.

Walt wants to cook a batch of meth, enough to pay his medical bills and take care of his family (the mortgage, education, basic living expenses for Skyler).

Apart from the nuisance of his smart, vigilant wife, Jesse is Walt’s first opponent, sometimes his ally disguised as an opponent, sometimes his ally. This dynamic continues across all seasons. Jesse and Walt work together to buy the RV, assemble the equipment and drive out into the savannahs of Albuquerque to cook meth, then sell it on the streets.

Jesse keeps stuffing things up for Walt through sheer ineptitude. Walt makes the decision that they’ll have to go bigger, so he approaches Tuco, his much more dangerous opponent.

Criticism: Other characters criticize the hero for the means he is taking.

At one point Jesse asks Walt just how much money he needs to make, but by now Walt’s goal has expanded: he wants to be the king of an empire.

On the home front, Hank confronts Walt about his decision to let Junior get drunk next to the pool.

Skylar knows something is going down but she isn’t sure what, so she stonewalls him until he decides to come clean to her.

Walt is making the best meth in the land. If people are going to use this drug, he wants them to have access to the purest form possible. He is not a criminal but an artist and a chef.

Gus Fring is a much more powerful criminal to begin with, and the audience knows how dangerous he is, but in some ways he becomes Walt’s closest ally because of how much he has invested in Walt. Gus tells Walt that he is wrong to trust Jesse, who is nothing more than a street druggie, and is unreliable.

Walt’s obsessive tendencies are depicted especially strongly in “The Fly”, in which Walt drives himself (and Jesse) bonkers trying to get rid of a contaminant from the super lab.

Walt goes from cooking a few batches of meth to blowing up a building to causing a plane crash to killing the kingpins in the New Mexico drug empires and beyond. He amasses an amazing amount of ill-gotten cash, enough to make a double-sized-bed out of it.

The old man in the wheelchair with the bell becomes a formidable (and creepy) opponent.

As the story proceeds, the differing values and ways of living in the world represented by the hero and the opponent become clear through action and dialogue. There are four places at the end of a story where the theme explodes in the mid of the audience: the big struggle, anagnorisis, moral decision, and a structure step called the ‘thematic revelation’.

There is a shootout between Walt and Hank’s DEA team. Walt survives but Hank is killed. This showdown is preceded by a big struggle of words in Hank’s garage.

Walt knows that he’s going to have to kill himself, because he has tied up loose ends with his family and is living a life of lung cancer in hiding, with no true friends. But before he dies he makes sure to wipe out a whole gang of not only evil but also ineffectual bad guys who have been holding Jesse hostage, demonstrating their psychopathic tendencies.

But before he is gunned down he makes sure to visit Skyler and tell her that she was right: He hasn’t been doing all this for ‘family’, but for himself, because being a drug king made him feel alive.

Walt could have come clean to Hank and given himself in. But he chose to die before doing that. He has realised that he can never go back to the way of life he had before, and that death is a better option.

Breaking Bad makes such a good show to discuss because it has divided the audience in two: Those who continued to root for Walt without seeming to realise that he is a truly nasty individual, and those who hated Walt, and perhaps wanted Hank (or less commonly, Skylar), to win out. At some point mid-series the audience was supposed to realise that Walt no longer cared about his family, only about power. Men use family as an excuse for doing all sorts of heinous things when really their own ego is the driver. Live like there’s no tomorrow if you like, but be prepared to pay the greatest price. 

Metaphorical Dialogue

In the pilot episode Walter White explains chemistry to his class. But he might just as well be talking about the character arc he is about to undergo:

“You see, technically, chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change: Electrons change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements combine and change into compounds. But that’s all of life, right? It’s the constant, it’s the cycle. It’s solution, dissolution. Just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation. It is fascinating, really.”

Walter White, Season 1, Ep. 1, “Pilot”

The Modern Superhero

This is from an Australian non-fiction book about the meth industry:

When looking at the strength and purity of methamphetamine, it can be difficult to judge from one batch to the next the relative strength or purity of that batch. We know that, roughly speaking, powder is approximately six to twelve per cent pure, base is thirty to forty per cent pure and crystal meth is seventy-five to eighty per cent pure. Each of the different types follows the next stage in the ‘cooking’ or manufacturing process. At each stage, the drug becomes more pure or stronger.

Breaking The Ice

As you can see, the writers of Breaking Bad took a lot of liberties with the drug. They did have a drug chemist advising them. The point is, they took as much of reality as they needed in order to create ‘realism‘ (essentially different from realness), and then added their own twist, borrowed from the world of our favourite super heroes. This blue meth is part methamphetamine, part Kryptonite.

Likewise, Walter White is part Everyman, part Superhero.

On Dark Inversions

From Line of Duty to Moby Dick, Dr Faustus to Lolita (‘good’ is a relative concept), there’s a clearly chartable pathway the characters follow as, in pursuit of their goal, their moral centre collapses.

It’s a trajectory that’s largely been avoided by television, certainly in drama series; nevertheless it’s rich and fertile ground.

‘The goal was to turn him from Mr Chips into Scarface,’ said creator Vince Gilligan of Walter White, the hero of AMC’s Breaking Bad. ‘It’s a Wolfman story; it’s a Jekyll and Hyde story, it’s a story about a guy who is a caterpillar and we’re turning him into a butterfly – a meth-cooking butterfly.’ It took five seasons to turn a mild-mannered chemistry teacher into a drug-dealing psychopath – a radical departure in TV series terms, yet in its rich journey of greed and moral consequence it is one with its roots firmly embedded in the bloody Scottish soil of Macbeth.

Breaking Bad illustrates just how the archetype works – a flaw at the beginning of a story produces its opposite at the end: bad will become good; good will become bad. Most commonly, dark inversions are used to tell the tale of good turned to evil, but as the film Like Crazy illustrates, with its story of how a young girl’s idealistic love grows stale, the shape has a wider application.

Into The Woods by John Yorke

See also: Protagonist Journey To Villain at TV Tropes. Heroes who go from good to bad are less common than you might think, but another example is Wicked by Gregory Maguire.

Walt’s Mirror Character

Jesse’s character function is to be the moral compass. Jesse Pinkman is no saint, but he is remarkably benign and moral compared to how Walt turns out. Jesse exists to emphasise to the audience just how immoral Walter White has become.

Must Fictional Heroes Be Likeable?

Short answer: Main characters don’t have to be likeable. But they do need to be interesting.

I enjoy certain friends who aren’t necessarily “nice” people, because they’re like characters in a book who reliably make any scene they’re in more interesting.

Tim Kreider, Your Life Is Not A Story

First, some ideas from storytelling gurus who are not writing specifically about children’s stories but about stories in general. Lena Dunham has noted that female characters, like female people, are held to a higher standard when it comes to niceness:

“I sort of object to the notion that characters have to be likeable. I don’t like most of my friends, I love them. And that’s the same way I feel about most of the characters I write. So often, women are sort of relegated to sassy best friend or ingenue or evil job-stealing biatch, and it’s really nice to work somewhere in the middle.

from Lena Dunham talking about Girls, quoted here.

People are used to seeing females portrayed as one of two mutually exclusive stereotypes.   They want a sweet, down-to-earth protagonist pitted against a conveniently evil, bitchy foil. That way they know which one they’re supposed to “identify with.”

Suzanne Riveca at The Short Form

I have nothing against lovable characters; there are a great many wonderful ones out there, and no one ought to go out of his or her way to deny a character’s best qualities for the sake of being called “uncompromising, hard-edged.” But our first obligation is to create interesting, suggestive, realistic, possibly even challenging situations, set our characters down in them and see where they go. Which may not be the way you wish they could; rather it is the way, given who they are, they must go.

Rosellen Brown

Here’s John Yorke, from his book Into The Woods:

If it’s difficult to identify a protagonist then maybe the story is about more than one person (say East Enders of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts) but it will always be (at least when it’s working) the person the audience care about most.

But already we encounter difficulties. ‘Care’ is often translated as ‘like’, which is why so many writers are given the note (often by non-writing executives) ‘Can you make them nice?’ Frank Cottrell Boyce, a graduate of Brookside and one of Britain’s most successful screenwriters, puts it more forcibly than most: ‘Sympathy is like crack cocaine to industry execs. I’ve had at least one wonderful screenplay of mine maimed by a sympathy-skank. Yes, of course the audience has to relate to your characters, but they don’t need to approve of them. If characters are going to do something bad, Hollywood wants you to build in an excuse note.’

Next, Yorke talks about what we might call the character’s shortcoming or moral flaw:

We don’t like Satan in Paradise Lost — we love him. And we love him because he’s the perfect gleeful embodiment of evil. Niceness tends to kill characters — if there is nothing wrong with them, nothing to offend us, then there’s almost certainly nothing to attract our attention either. Much more interesting are the rough edges, the darkness — and we love these things because though we may not consciously want to admit it, they touch something deep inside us. If you play video games like Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (and millions do), then you occupy literal avatars that do little but kill, maim, destroy, or sleep with the obstacles in your path. We are capable of entering any kind of head. David Edgar justified his play about the Nazi architect Albert Speer by saying: ‘The awful truth — and it is awful, in both senses of the word — is that the response most great drama asks of us is neither “yes please” nor “no thanks” but “you too”? Or, in the cold light of dawn, “there but for the grace of God go I”.

The key to empathy, then, does not lie in manners or good behaviour. Nor does it lie, as is often claimed, in the understanding of motive. It’s certainly true that if we know why characters do what they do, we will love them more. However, that’s a symptom of empathy, not its root cause. It lies in its ability to access and bond with our unconscious. 

Robert McKee makes a distinction between empathy and sympathy, though I don’t personally find this distinction useful when it comes to creating a fictional character. However, he reassuringly agrees with John Yorke’s idea that the audience must bond with the audience on a deeper level:

The protagonist must be empathetic; he may or may not be sympathetic.

Sympathetic means likeable. … We’d want them as friends, family members, or lovers. They have an innate likeability and evoke sympathy. Empathy, however, is a more profound response.

Empathetic means “like me’. Deep within the protagonist the audience recognises a certain shared humanity. Character and audience are not alike in every fashion, of course; they may share only a single quality. But there’s something about the character that strikes a chord. In that moment of recognition, the audience suddenly and instinctively wants the protagonist to achieve whatever it is that he desires.

The unconscious logic of the audience runs like this: This character is like me. Therefore, I want him to have whatever it is he wants, because if I were he in those circumstances, I’d want the same thing for myself.” Hollywood has many synonymic expressions for this connection: “somebody to get behind,” “someone to root for,” All describe the empathetic connection that the audience strikes between itself and the protagonist. And audience may, if so moved, empathise with every character in your film, but it must empathise with your protagonist. If not, the audience/story bond is broken.

Story

And this from an expert in the children’s literature world. On likeability in children’s literature, Maria Nikolajeva writes:

Some contemporary characters in children’s fiction efficiently alienate the reader by being unpleasant and thus offering no clear-cut subject position. While Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, repeatedly described by the author as “disagreeable” in the beginning, quickly gains the reader’s sympathy, being an orphan and exposed to the adults’ indifference; a character staying unpleasant throughout the story may leave the reader concerned and even frustrated.

Nikolajeva also writes, “…children’s writers most often wish, probably for didactic purposes, to offer their readers a psychologically acceptable identification object.”

Children’s literature is different from adult literature in one main way: It has many gate keepers who are not the target audience. While publishers of children’s literature most often very open to characters with strong psychological flaws (understanding the way story works), books then have to make it past parents, librarians and teachers, who may hold the view that young readers blindly follow in the footsteps of naughty fictional children. Unfortunately, these (often conservative) gatekeepers have a very real effect on what actually sells, which no doubt influences what is published to some extent.

Another difference between stories for children and stories for adults: There are perhaps more Great Gatsby books in the children’s literature arena. By that I mean, they ‘star’ a main character who is actually the least interesting person in the story. They walk around as avatars for the reader, and because readers are all different, this avatar is as featureless as possible.

The brother and sister who star in A Series Of Unfortunate Events are almost completely featureless. Daniel Handler even avoided telling us anything much about how these children looked. They are instead surrounded by very quirky characters.

Bella Swan of Twilight is The Every Girl — white girl kind of pretty, who likes nothing out of the ordinary, and who mooches along causing no real trouble for anyone. Along with the Unfortunate Events children, Bella Swan is surrounded by a supernatural, unfamiliar world full of evil and suppressed desires.

Greg Heffley is arguably one of the least interesting characters in Diary of a Wimpy Kid. His diary is a commentary on what everyone else is like rather than a psychoanalysis of himself. Greg is The Every Child. (The every American mid-Western heterosexual able-bodied white boy.)

Anyone can see from reading reviews at Amazon and Goodreads that there is a swathe of the reading and book-buying public who do not like to read books with unlikeable characters. If they’re going to spend 300-600 pages with someone they want that someone to be the kind of character they’d happily invite over for a cup of tea. Their reasons for reading: To enjoy the experience. Unlikeable characters are more safely contained to shorter forms. We can better accept the company of a truly horrible character across 20 pages of short story. Would we stick with Mary Gaitskill’s “The Girl On The Plane” if it were a novel rather than a short story?

Another type of reader doesn’t have this requirement. This kind of reader can sound a bit more hi-falutin because, after all, you can’t read a lot of the classics if you start with the requirements that your characters have to be likeable.

Here’s a brainstorm of what I personally ‘like’ in a character. It isn’t kindness, shared values and being a good listener:

what-i-like-in-characters

James Wood makes clear his own position, criticising the type of reviewer who seems to think that:

Artists should not ask us to try to understand characters we cannot approve of — or not until after they have firmly and unequivocally condemned them.

How Fiction Works

This definitely has me thinking about picture books, and how certain readers require that any wrongdoing in a picture book must be punished, lest children think that it’s okay to steal hats, or whatever.

A MASSIVE PROBLEM WITH ACTIVELY WRITING LIKEABLE CHARACTERS

I believe one of the keys to writing fully realised characters is to refrain from judging them as an author. I don’t want the reader to feel as if I’m telling them which characters are good or evil, which ones they should like or hate. I want to get out of the way. I think my job is to tell the story almost like a good documentary filmmaker—with structure and style and good editing—but to let the characters and their actions speak for themselves. Every one of them has reasons for who they are and what they do.

Sometimes when a writer sets up big flashing arrows that say THIS IS THE BAD GUY or THIS IS THE HERO, I can sense that the author is trying really hard to make the reader like or dislike a character because of how THEY feel about that character. A character can be a coward, a killer, a tyrant, or have any number of unsavoury characteristics, but it’s not your job as the author to judge them. It’s only your job to tell the story. Are you using words like “evil smile” or “brave composure” that show your author’s hand?

This is why I disagree with the idea of characters having to be “likeable” because “likeable” is judgmental on the author’s part. A character is inherently more interesting and relatable to readers if they are not easily so pinned down and judged.

I consider it a big success when readers argue about my characters. When a character I’ve created has both fierce admirers and fierce detractors, it means they’re a lot more like real people. Try to write real people and not judge them. That’s all you need to do.

@FondaJLee

That said, if you’re writing a truly despicable character, or a character who does despicable things occasionally, you will need to go out of your way to use likeability tricks.

IN WHICH LIKEABILITY ABUTS FEMINISM

A few years after James Wood published How Fiction Works, novelist Claire Messud was asked by a journalist to comment on why the main (female) character in her novel The Woman Upstairs isn’t very likeable. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that her response to Publishers Weekly sounded so well-thought through it was almost prepared; after all, James Wood and Claire Messud are married. I think they may have discussed this issue together, with Messud adding to the conversation that female characters are judged more harshly for being unlikeable, as are women in real life.

Unlikeable The Problem With Hillary

Lena Dunham spoke on the issue of likeability after criticisms that her characters in Girls are unlikeable:

I sort of object to the notion that characters have to be likeable. I don’t like most of my friends, I love them. And that’s the same way I feel about most of the characters I write. So often, women are sort of relegated to sassy best friend or ingenue or evil job-stealing biatch, and it’s really nice to work somewhere in the middle.

from Lena Dunham, quoted here.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has since shown her in-depth understanding (garnered from her own real life, I bet) of how tropes work in tandem, and against women. In reference to a misogynistic article from the NY Post, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted:

This reinforces lazy tropes about women leaders in media:
– Older + seasoned, but unlikeable
– Passionate, but angry
– Smart, but crazy
– Well-intentioned, but naive
– Attractive, but uninformed or gaffe-prone

It’s unoriginal, lazy, and men don’t get the same either/or coverage.

These same paradoxes exist when crafting female characters for fiction.

If we take the enduring success of books such as Lolita, it’s clear that in literary works — the kind that take years or decades to write — the kind that will get reviewed in major publications, writers don’t need to create likeable main characters in order to make a mark.

If you are a self-published author on Amazon, however, the nature of user reviews suggest that likeable main characters sell more copies.

And if you aspire to be a popular author for children, that likeable hero rule is even tighter… for better or for worse. In fact, even in popular Hollywood films heroes have to have a ‘moral shortcoming’. In other words, they have to be treating other people badly in some way (too tied to their job to spend time with family etc). But this does not seem to be a rule in children’s books, especially in stories for very young readers. Heroes for children only need a ‘psychological shortcoming’ (shyness, anxiety, hyperactivity, a tendency to blurt out uncomfortable truths, trouble handing in homework, etc.)

I think it’s important to tell your story truthfully. And I think that’s a difficult thing to do, to be truly truthful, because it’s only natural to be concerned about offending people, or possible consequences. . . . Forget about likeability. I think that what our society teaches young girls, and I think it’s also something that’s quite difficult for even older women, self-confessed feminists, to shrug off, is this idea that likability is an essential part of the space you occupy in the world. That you’re supposed to twist yourself into shapes to make yourself likeable, that you’re supposed to kind of hold back sometimes, pull back, don’t quite say, don’t be too pushy because you have to be likeable. And I say that is bullshit. . . . If you start off thinking about being likeable you’re not going to tell your story honestly. Because you’re going to be so concerned with not offending. And that’s going to ruin your story.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from a speech at a Girls Write Now banquet

Rashida Jones was fired from the Toy Story 4 development team. She had this to say:

Women are taught to be nice. Men are taught to be powerful.

“When I was writing ten years ago, I took what is typically considered a male character and would give it to the woman,” Jones said. “I’d get feedback saying, ‘She’s not likeable.’ I would think, ‘So fucking what. Every guy isn’t likeable, until he is.’ Women are taught to be nice. Men are taught to be powerful. I want to find a way to tell stories from a woman’s perspective that doesn’t feel like it’s been put in the mouth of a woman by a guy.”

Indiewire

The story becomes even worse for female characters (and actual women) whose femaleness intersects with other things:

“i’m just so tired of watching how people talk about morally gray boy characters vs morally gray girl characters.

the boys get praised & coddled. the girls get torn down & judged. if your dark prince can be a secret cinnamon roll, why not the bloody princess?

i could write an entire academic paper, by the way, on how this is just symptomatic of how men—especially allocishet white men—are coddled/forgiven in real life, and women are punished.

i will not tone myself or my female characters down to fit some arbitrary, impossible “likeability” mould.

also, everything that diverts a female character from the white, skinny, traditionally attractive, abled, allocishet mould just makes them even MORE harshly evaluated. stacks the stakes even higher against them.

and hey, hmm, while you’re here, maybe think about how you’re judging the in real life women in your communities based on these standards. who do we come down hardest on? who do we watch most, waiting for a “mistake”?

Christine Lynn Herman on Twitter

The sit-com Fleabag is a concerning window into how likeable female characters need to be self-hating before we like them:

The Young Millennial Woman – pretty, white, cisgender, and tortured enough to be interesting but not enough to be repulsive.

One of the few things associated with millennials to have received a positive public reception is a particular form of millennial art. This art revolves around an archetypical Young Millennial Woman – pretty, white, cisgender, and tortured enough to be interesting but not enough to be repulsive. Often described as ‘relatable,’ she is, in actuality, not. The term masks the uncomfortable truth that she is more beautiful, more intelligent, and more infuriatingly precocious than we are in real life. But her charm lies in how she is still self-hating enough to be attainable: she’s an aspirational identifier. She’s often wealthy, but doesn’t think too much about it. Her life is fraught with so much drama, self-loathing and downwardly mobile financial precarity that she forgets about it, just as we are meant to. Her friends, if she has any, are incorrigible narcissists, and the men in her life are disappointing and terrible. Try as she might, her protest against the world always re-routes into a melancholic self-destruction.

Another Gaze

A Brief History Of Likeability

Likeable vs unlikeable characters are subject to fashion. In the 1990s there were a lot more unlikeable main characters, particularly in comedy.

An audience’s perceived wish to be around a likeable main character also varies according to region. It’s pretty clear that a British audience has a higher tolerance for unlikeable characters than an American audience. An interesting case study there is the character of David Brent, who is a thorough turd in the British version of The Office, but played in a more doofus, loveable fashion by Steve Carrell in the American series. The unlikeable British comedic character goes back further than Ricky Gervais’ creation — take Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers, or Penelope Keith’s character in To The Manor Born, who treats everyone around her with disdain and was even quite pleased when her first husband died.

Morally corrupt is on an entirely different spectrum from ‘likeable’

In the 2000s, Tony Soprano is the archetypal antihero, neither likeable nor unlikeable in my view but interesting nonetheless — and definitely morally corrupt. Morally corrupt is on an entirely different spectrum from ‘likeable’.

Don Draper is not a guy I’d like to know, and I believe he was written to be unlikeable, but on the screen handsomeness counts for a lot and I got the impression many heterosexual female fans of Mad Men didn’t mind Don Draper as much as they were perhaps meant to.

Breaking Bad ushered in a new wave of stories about ordinary, decent men who get sick of the system and decide to go full crim. More recently we’ve had Ozark, which is similar to Breaking Bad in many ways.

Bad Santa is an example of an unlikeable, disgusting person, but even he has his posse — people who will follow him around. This makes him a little more likeable.

Will Ferrell in Anchorman, and quite a few Will Ferrell characters are also unlikeable.

AS FOR CHILDREN’S LITERATURE SPECIFICALLY

There are few genuine distinctions between what sells in children’s literature and what sells to adults, not least because adults buy all the children’s books.

Children’s literature expert Maria Nikolajeva writes:

Some contemporary characters in children’s fiction efficiently alienate the reader by being unpleasant and thus offering no clear-cut subject position. While Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, repeatedly described by the author as “disagreeable” in the beginning, quickly gains the reader’s sympathy, being an orphan and exposed to the adults’ indifference; a character staying unpleasant throughout the story may leave the reader concerned and even frustrated.

Nikolajeva is perhaps offering a rather cynical view when she also says, “…children’s writers most often wish, probably for didactic purposes, to offer their readers a psychologically acceptable identification object.

THE REQUIREMENTS OF SHITTY TV SHOWS

This is where there’s a place for unlikeable characters.

  • Mindless
  • Irredeemable, flawed characters
  • You feel like you’re in a position to judge the people you’re watching. “Whatever I’ve got going on, it’s not that.”
  • Soapiness, melodrama
  • If they’re better than you, the characters have to be better in really sexy ways
  • Ridiculous salaciousness

as explained by Roxane Gay in the Nerdette podcast

FURTHER READING

Storytelling Tips From The Homesman (2014)

The Homesman movie poster

With similarities to Million Dollar Baby, The Homesman is a film about an old man who has regrets but no character arc after meeting a young woman in desperate circumstances. The 2014 Homesman film is closely based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout, first published 1988. Glendon Swarthout died just four years after this novel was published.

Hilary Swank has a tendency to wind up ‘starring’ in films which are ostensibly about her — the film might even be named after her character — but in which she exists to assist the character arc of the old man who she chooses (sort of) to come into her life due to desperate circumstances. In Million Dollar Baby it was Clint Eastwood (director); in this film it’s Tommy Lee Jones (also director). So if you’re wondering why Tommy Lee Jones stands front and centre in the movie poster looking contrite while Hilary Swank is literally on her knees looking desperate, we can at least say that it’s an honest representation of the character arc within, even though what we see at the beginning indicates these two should switch positions.

I do wonder if these old men of Hollywood even realise that they haven’t made a film about a woman — that it’s still all about them.

PREMISE OF THE HOMESMAN



The premise of a story is a combination of character and plot. (It has to have a double track line in order to work.)

The premise as written on IMDb doesn’t seem self-aware that the film is really about Tommy Lee Jones; it is written as if Mary Bee Cuddy is the main character:

Three women who have been driven mad by pioneer life are to be transported across the country by covered wagon by the pious, independent-minded Mary Bee Cuddy, who in turn employs low-life drifter George Briggs to assist her.

The Homesman movie poster

It would be more accurate to rewrite the premise with George Briggs as the main character:

Wild West Wanderer George Briggs is saved from hanging by independent-minded Mary Bee Cuddy, who then employs him to assist in the cross-country transportation of three women who have been driven mad by pioneer life.

I’m thinking the writers didn’t use that particular premise to create the story — what we see on IMDb is often more of a synopsis than a premise. The premise not only needs the double track line of character and plot — it also needs to show some sense of an outcome. How do the characters change?

Wild West Wanderer George Briggs is saved from hanging, and also from his meaningless, bludging existence, by independent-minded Mary Bee Cuddy, who employs him to assist in the cross-country transportation of three women who have been driven made by pioneer life.

Mary Bee Cuddy is a prime example of The Female Maturity Principle in storytelling. Mary Bee starts out strong and determined. She leaves us strong and determined. The other women in the story — the minister’s wife, the daughter who runs the inn, are Mary Bee Cuddy types. Women are divided cleanly in two: mentally ill and totally incapable, or godly and good.

GENRE BLEND OF THE HOMESMAN

(Period) drama, Western

When the camera lingers on a landscape or on a character’s face we know the film is asking the setting and the actors to pull the heavy weight of what would have been, in the novel, interior monologue with a bit of backstory. Sure enough, the novel offers a bit more insight into what the characters are thinking, though it’s written fairly cinematically as far as novels go. I can see how it was ripe for film adaptation.

Although the word ‘Western’ is still used, the nature of Westerns has changed so much that any ‘Western’ story since the 1960s is technically an ‘anti-Western’. The anti-Western trend started before World War II, in fact.

The Homesman gun duel
Even an anti-Western retains some of the tropes from a straight Western. Here we have a comical gun duel.

What’s the difference between a Western and an Anti-Western? Essentially, true Westerns were about world building — destroy and conquer, open up, tame the landscape, shoot the baddies. Anti-Westerns have a more cynical but realistic ideology. Anti-Westerns are about highly-flawed individuals trying to eke out an existence in the face of a powerful and unrelenting landscape. No one emerges unscathed. The Homesman is an anti-Western.

Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove was published a few years before The Homesman. Interestingly, Larry McMurtry had every intention of writing an anti-Western and if you’ve read the full series you’ll know there’s nothing romantic about it whatsoever. But he was surprised to see it embraced by readers and critics alike as a great love letter to the West.

The Homesman has much less humour in it — despite some light moments from Tommy Lee Jones — and is such a harsh story it would be hard for audiences to mistake this anti-Western for a love-letter to the Old West.

In both The Homesman and in Lonesome Dove, we have two characters who set off on a journey together who are such different characters they are each other’s greatest human opponent. (Let’s not count the landscape, or the out-and-out villains.) You could say these are de facto marriages, but there are also similarities to the Buddy genre.

I think of The Homesman as a Road Movie with a Western setting. The Homesman has more in common with Little Miss Sunshine (2006) than with The Great Train Robbery (1903). That said, the themes of this story are definitely Western — the contrast between freedom vs civilisation, the individual against society.

STORYWORLD OF THE HOMESMAN

The Homesman opening vista sunrise
Establishing shot/Title of The Homesman

Following in the footsteps of classics such as East of Eden, the camera opens by lingering on a landscape upon which nothing is happening. This is to give the audience some sense of what it’s like to live here. Days are slow and long. Few things of consequence happen — though when they do, these things are life-changing for the characters. It’s exactly how my father-in-law describes his time in the Vietnam War — 90% boredom, 10% terror.

Glendon Swarthout was born 1918, so as a kid — if he had elderly people in his life — he would’ve been in contact with people who remembered the 1850s. My favourite Western writer, Larry McMurtry, has the same advantage.

Swarthout lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s, and this no doubt influenced his characterisation — he would’ve known women like Hilary Swank — pious and good, knowing how to make the best of tough situations. It’s interesting that Mary Bee doesn’t have to worry about money — it’s only everything else she has to worry about.

The setting of the West inevitably links to the character shortcoming, which is how the best stories work. Set in the 1850s, farm life was nigh on impossible without a family to help run a plot. We are shown Mary Bee struggling to til a field with two mules. She has just enough strength as a young woman to about manage farm life because she’s at the peak of her strength, but as she gets older she’ll lose a lot of that strength. In this era and in this setting, finding a husband is a matter of life and death.

Though she loves music and used to play the piano for several hours daily, Mary Bee has no piano in the Wild West, so practises on an embroidered mat of black and white keys. This mat symbolises the sacrifice of pioneers in general.

The Homesman after dinner piano cloth

Mary Bee inspects the ‘jail’ wagon which is to transport the three mentally ill women East. In fact, each of these characters is living in a world of slavery and each craves freedom. In the novel, much is made of the fact that this is not a typical looking wagon. To everyone they encounter along their journey, it looks like a jail on wheels.

The Homesman empty wagon

Because this is a story about white characters in the 1850s, the small, local church plays a large role in their lives. The camera angle here shows us how the preacher occupies an elevated position, as leader of the community and decider of what’s right.

The Homesman church meeting

You may have noticed in children’s picture books that when the characters turn backwards, facing towards the beginning of the story, something has happened to prevent them achieving their goal. This creates a subconscious mind block for the reader. A Western in which characters travel from West to East feels backwards. It is the opposite of progress, same as a picture book with a backwards looking character.

By the time the journey East begins autumn has become winter. This makes the journey even more perilous. (I’m guessing they travel in winter in order to cross frozen rivers, as was the case in Little House On The Prairie.) Near the end, on his own, George Briggs must ford a dangerous river. See also: The Symbolism of Rivers.

The Homesman winter journey

Another thing to know about the milieu — cattle hustlers and cowboys like George looked down on farmers back then. (I saw this spelled out in the Lonesome Dove series.) When Mary Bee offers George marriage, trying to persuade him by telling her all about the spoils of her farm, George isn’t going to be impressed with her plans to plant pumpkins.

In this world (as in ours) there is a stark divide between the haves and the have-nots. The have-nots really do have nothing. The rich are super wealthy, having found opportunities in road-building, shipping and so on. So the sky-blue hotel for rich people which George stumbles upon seems to tower up into the sky, becoming part of it, much like a symbol of heaven.

The Homesman blue hotel

Trees are symbolic of life. Mary Bee tells one of the women at some point that she really misses trees — there are none on the plains but out East, towns are full of them. When the audience sees a beautiful wooded landscape we know George has arrived at his destination. This is the 1850 equivalent of a suburban utopia.

Trees equal life.

The symbolism of the river is significant in any Western, too.

The Homesman river

The Homesman picturesque village

For white folks, at least. Notice the director decided to include a cart full of black slaves during a pan of the suburban, riverside market.

The Homesman market riverside

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE HOMESMAN

In order to understand the story structure and fill out the ‘anagnorisis’ part, we have to treat this story as if George Briggs is the main character, not Mary Bee Cuddy.

The UK poster is the most accurate in this regard:

The Homesman movie poster landscape

SHORTCOMING IN THE HOMESMAN

The Homesman George Briggs

‘George Briggs’ (we know this isn’t his real name) has no home and family so in order to survive he has taken residence in someone else’s cob cottage while the original owner travels East to find himself a bride. He is forced to leave by Bob Giffen’s friends and neighbours, who leave him strung up, ready to be hanged by his horse.

“I deserted from the Dragoons! I ain’t attached to nothing! Just me!”

His ghost is revealed eventually as he opens up, in a rare moment, to Mary Bee. He is a deserter. He cannot stick around in any one place because if they find him they’ll surely kill him. He has also been settled down with a woman before. We don’t know the details of this failed relationship but we learn he simply up and left her when he got sick of that life. We are therefore shown that he is fully capable of doing that same thing again. He is a deserter, or a rolling stone to be generous.

DESIRE IN THE HOMESMAN

This is a man who wants to be left alone to eat other people’s sheep and drink gin. He doesn’t want to do the work of survival.

In a story where the main character wants nothing more than to be left alone, other characters around him will be given the strong desires. Mary Bee’s strong desire is to do good by delivering mentally ill women back to their homes back East. Briggs gets caught up in it.

OPPONENT IN THE HOMESMAN

George’s first opponents smoke him out of Bob Giffen’s house, but that’s an ‘oppositional McGuffin’. After a comical second meeting he won’t have to worry about those guys again. It does also tell us about George’s modus operandi.

His enduring opponent is Mary Bee Cuddy, who requires him to undertake an unpleasant journey he’d rather not.

There are of course times when George and Mary Bee are companions. Here in the cave, George manologues about his time on the plains, then follows with a drunken dance, which all the women are obliged to sit and watch. Caves are of course womblike, and a good setting for sharing personal information.

The Homesman drunken dance

PLAN IN THE HOMESMAN

George won’t be bossed around by a woman even if she did save his life, so he’ll help her just enough to assuage his own conscience. He’ll bolt at the first opportunity. He even tells her as much. The audience doesn’t have to guess at his plan.

Later in the film Mary Bee even says to George, “You’re not much of a one for making plans.” It is Mary Bee driving the larger plan, but if you look closely at the scene level you’ll see that in fact George does make plans. He makes them on the spur of the moment rather than planning ahead. He is a world-weary cowboy hustler, and he has learnt that there’s no point in planning ahead. Far more successful to live on your wits.

So when the Indians turn up he has a plan ready. He knows there’s a chance they’ll kill him, so he’ll offer them one of the horses and hope that does them. His plan works.

The Homesman main characters

BIG STRUGGLE IN THE HOMESMAN

This story follows mythic structure. A character leaves home (however temporary in George’s case), embarks upon a lengthy journey, fights various characters and in the end returns ‘home’ (which may or may not be his actual home). (Mythic journeys almost always feature male characters.) He’s a changed man, but has he had a character arc that’ll help him lead a better life? Well, no. In this regard, The Homesman is very much like The Wrestler, Hud and Lonesome Dove. These men fail to learn from their lived experiences and that is their tragedy.

In a mythic journey the main character will face a number of big struggles. In this story we have:

  1. The argument in Mary Bee’s house after she puts him to work and then makes him sleep in the stable for cursing god at her dinner table and refusing to hold up his end of the bargain. (We don’t know where he actually sleeps but Mary Bee gets the last word.)
  2. The gun big struggle in which he accidentally comes face to face with one of the men who meant to hang him. (With Mary Bee’s help he gets away.)
  3. The argument about whether he’s allowed a bottle of gin or not. (He wins that one.)
  4. The weather — it is very cold and snows.
  5. The women themselves, who fight among themselves if not tied up.
  6. The Pawnee Indians who might kill them.
  7. The actual fisticuffs with the horrible man who has claimed the woman who ran off.
  8. The argument that ensues after Mary Bee accuses George of not lighting a fire when she fails to catch them up after stopping to repair a child’s grave
  9. At the fancy hotel George is given opportunity to utilise his trickster side as he sets fire to the joint and takes the feast set up for posh people. This big struggle is a good example of putting the rich and the poor directly up against each other, which always leads to good drama in fiction. We root for the poor man. He is punishing one of the 7 Deadly Sins, greed.

The Homesman winter scene

The Homesman line of horses

While George almost loses his life being strangled by the kidnapper, Mary Bee takes a moment to contemplate death, and how close they all are to it, when she picks up the bone of the 11-year-old girl whose grave his first been robbed, her body mauled by wolves.

The Homesman physical big struggle

The Homesman near death struggle

The Homesman tenacity

This foreshadows Mary Bee’s literal brush with death when out of sheer stubbornness (and sense of right) she separates herself from the wagon.

The Homesman hotel fire

ANAGNORISIS IN THE HOMESMAN

George starts out not only lonely, but alone by choice. He doesn’t need people. He accompanies these women reluctantly.

We see the first inkling of another side of his established character when he hands Mary Bee the gun and instructs her to save herself if the negotiations with the Indians go wrong. We see it again when he saves the woman from the man who wants to keep her as his mute sex slave.

When the camera lingers on George looking on as Mary Bee sets about her tasks, or when she plays the piano mat by the river, we see him having a bit of a anagnorisis. But he has no such thing. He is learning a little about Mary Bee in this moment, and nothing about himself.

The Homesman having a anagnorisis

The Homesman interiority

So, Mary Bee hangs herself. When even George won’t have her she feels she might as well be dead and done with it. The novel tells us that the guilt at having sex outside marriage, and the feeling that the women and God is watching, is what drive her to it.

This is looking more and more like the Million Dollar Baby arc, right? A woman must die in order to give opportunity to a male character to undergo a character arc. There is a long, problematic history with this trope, precisely because it is used so often. So frequently in story, a woman has sex and then has to die for it. This is a criticism of Thelma & Louise, which I also love as a stand-alone story.

Now we know that George has a moral decision to make, and because we’ve seen what he is capable of, we wait and watch as he deserts these helpless women once again.

First he directs his anger at the women, lecturing them on how crazy they are as he digs Mary Bee’s grave. This indicates that he will be going through the seven stages of grief.

The Homesman three mentally ill women

“I’m going home by myself. You’re on your own. Somebody’ll come along and tend to you. Not a damn one of you can understand a word I’m saying.”

He trots off on his horse leaving the mentally ill passengers to fend for themselves. He crosses a river and realises he’s being followed by puppies who have bonded with him. He is forced to save them as they almost drown. Now that he’s saved them he realises he does care for them a bit after all. The Ben Franklin Effect is quite often used in stories to precipitate a character arc. Now he must tend to them himself rather than just looking on as Mary Bee did it.

George’s character arc is underscored when he pulls up at the fancy hotel and deals with a snobby, uncaring man who refuses service because he doesn’t like the cut of his gib. Now George Briggs starts to look like a decent character.

When George feeds the women he is shown to have taken over the nurturing role.

The reverend’s wife: “She must have been a truly fine human being.”

George: “She truly was.”

NEW SITUATION IN THE HOMESMAN

The women are in the safe hands of the reverend’s wife.

George to the maid at the hotel: “Mary Bee Cuddy was as fine a woman as there ever was.”

George’s regret is apparent to the audience when he asks the 16 year old who looks like Mary Bee to marry him. She looks like Mary Bee.

We’ve had this foreshadowed before, when she was framed by the bathroom mirror. (This is also the reason he notices she’s not wearing shoes — she creeps in on him in the bathroom and he felt exposed.)

But he is still alone in the world. The scene with him at the gamblers’ table, in which it is revealed that the Bank of Loup has gone bust and he has not a penny to his name, shows him ostracised, as only players are allowed to play at the table.

This isn’t just the table rejecting him. This is civilised society rejecting him.

The next morning we see him sitting alone outside the hotel.

He buys a gravestone for Mary Bee and holds an impromptu, drunken wake for him on the barge. Along with the shoes for the girl, this is a Save the Cat moment which helps the audience to feel more kindly towards him. Save the Cat moments are generally utilised at the beginning of a story because the writer needs the audience to empathise with the character and care what becomes of them, but here it is used at the bum end of the story, with the message that George’s gestures are too little, too late.

George says he’s going to return West. We know this anyway — there’s no way a ruffian like George would be accepted in Fairfield. There is some suggestion, however, that he will at least try to fit in here.

Also, he needs to go somewhere with no trees. Trees equal death if they also equal life. He’s going back West to die.

We extrapolate that George will continue as before, getting drunk and essentially alone. The camera zooms out and we are left with a tiny image of George dancing in front of the flame.

But we also know that George has one more person’s memory to bury in his memory — that of Mary Bee Cuddy, who had to kill herself before he took her seriously.

Like Randy the Ram in The Wrestler, George goes to a dangerous place after losing the women in his life and everything important to him.  The great tragedy of this film is that George comes so close to turning himself into what passes for a good person. If only, we think. If only the Bank of Loup hadn’t gone bust.

When a heavily flawed main character comes very close to leading a good life the audience really feels the tragedy.

How Well Do You Know Genre?

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For More On Genre

Gothic Horror and Children’s Books 

What is the horror genre for?

Notes On Tall Tales

How To Write Mystery

Tips For Writing Melodrama

Masks In Storytelling (about transgression comedies and transgression thrillers)

I think it’s a lack of exposure to contemporary YA lit that makes adults refer to it as a “genre.” Much of the time when people say “the YA lit genre,” what they really mean iscategory rather than genre, and that’s fine. However,  I recently attended a talk by an author who had been writing adult genre fiction and was working on her first YA novel, and she kept referring to the characteristics of the YA genre, as if all YA books were somehow fundamentally the same.

– In the library with the leadpipe

The same would apply to short stories. Short story is not a genre; it’s a length.

Likewise, women’s fiction is not a genre; it’s a marketing term.

And if YA is a category rather than a genre, then it follows that there’s no such thing as ‘the genre of children’s literature’. That, too, would be a ‘category’.

Right now I can picture my dad watching the Emmys & muttering “reality shouldn’t even be a category” & my mom telling him to shut up.

– @sarahlapolla

Related Link: Genre Theory — continued, from Michael Rosen.

The Labryrinth of Genre is a web app which helps you to find subgenres of a genre.

Children’s books are also sometimes referred to as a ‘genre’: “The genre has come a long way over four centuries. “Early children’s books tended to be solemn and purposeful,” Marcus says. “They were created to teach a moral lesson of some kind and they spoke to the child from on high.”

— The Atlantic.

Why writers should leave book-genre debates to the marketing department

genre
Some combinations of genre are more successful than others. Comic by Poorly Drawn Lines