Character Study: Tony Soprano

Tony Soprano

Much has been said about the character of Tony Soprano. I’ve explored some of it on this blog;

What more could I possibly learn about character development from the example of Tony Soprano? For storytellers the lessons are as follows:



EVIL PEOPLE DO EXIST

Out-and-out evil does exist in the world. There are people out there who’d like nothing better than to strangle a man with their bare hands.

To pretend otherwise—to symbolically annihilate evil people in fiction—borders on gaslighting. We need confirmation they exist, because now and again we encounter them in our real lives. Dotted throughout history, sometimes they even rule us.

Actually, I find ‘evil’ a word too freighted with religiosity, but I’ve yet to stumble upon a better descriptor for a character like Tony, without resorting to armchair psychoanalasis. (We might also call him a psychopath.)

WE DO CRAVE ANTI-REDEMPTION NARRATIVES

The redemption story has been popular for a long time, especially in America. But the success of The Sopranos showed there was always room in popular fiction for the anti-redemption arc, running alongside. The story of Tony Soprano is the ultimate anti-redemption narrative and, as such, shucks off a lot of the redemption story’s problems. At first Tony looks like this family guy who’s going to turn his life around by going to see a therapist, but eventually the audience learns — as does his fictional therapist — that for Tony, therapy exists only to allow him to continue in his evil ways.

[I]f you were accustomed to traditional TV narratives, there were signs that this might be a straightforward one about a man reforming himself through therapy and the love of his family. After all, the first episode began with what could have been a saint’s conversionary vision of the beauty and vulnerability of the world., contained in a flock of baby ducks. It was plausible, too, given the slightly exaggerated cinematography and design of the first few episodes, not to mention the repartee between Paulie Walnuts, Silvio, and the other gangsters, that the show would ultimately turn out to be a comedy more than anything else. Chase often said, quite seriously, that he was never 100 percent sure that wasn’t true.

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution by Brett Martin

AUDIENCES DON’T NEED AN ‘OUT’

I’m using Brett Martin’s term. By ‘out’, he means ‘a legitimate reason for a character to behave badly’. It was always accepted wisdom that if you wanted your character to behave badly, you’d have to set up the backstory first. As Martin explains:

And then, in week five, Tony strangled a man to death. Right in front of us. In real time. While taking his daughter on a college tour. […] Within a few years of [this episode airing], the idea that a TV protagonist couldn’t kill somebody would seem as fusty and dated a convention as earlier generations not being able to share a bed or say the word ‘pregnant’. What remains shocking in “College” isn’t the death itself; it’s Tony’s unmitigated relish in doing the deed. There is no tortured internal debate—even after his snooping reveals that Petrulio, now masquerading as “Fred Peters,” has a new family and small daughter of his own—no qualms even about Meadow’s presence, other than the inconvenience it poses. Nor is there any suggestion that Tony stands to earn much in the way of credit or prestige by doing away with a rat; indeed, Christopher (whom we’ve already seen dismember a body for disposal in the back of Satriale’s) begs Tony to allow him to fly up and take care of the hit. It is simply a given in Tony’s world: a rat needs to be killed. At least in Chase’s original story, there are none of the “outs'” designed to allow viewers to rationalize and justify what they’re about to see—which is Tony grunting, spitting, exultant, crushing Petrulio’s windpipe with an improvised garrote of electrical wire, the wire cutting deep into his palms from the effort, Petrulio begging for his life between gasps. The scene lasts an unwavering minute and sixteen seconds.

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution by Brett Martin

Martin goes on to describe how the showrunners did not like this storyline one little bit. Executive Chris Albrecht argued that the audience was going to hate Tony Soprano at episode five, after all the good work was done setting him up as a sympathetic bad guy.

David Chase won the argument, as we now know — and the scene is gruelling. But here’s the concession he made: The executives insisted he insert a scene in which the audience gets to see why Petrulio deserves to be killed.

Chase inserted a scene in which it is revealed that Petrulio not only is dealing drugs in town, but is seen trying to hire a couple of junkies to kill Tony and Meadow. Predictably, the scene feels false and conventionally “TV”. It was the last such concession that Chase would make.

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution by Brett Martin

The Sopranos can legitimately be criticised as a violent show which almost encourages its audience to revel in gore. And for an unthinking audience, sure, that’s all it is.

But the example of Petrulio’s murder in season one, episode five demonstrates the complexity of such criticism. In contrast, isn’t it a cheaper trick, and completely disingenuous, for to writer to backstories designed solely to persuade the audience that certain characters are legitimately murdered?

Is there any such thing as legitimate murder? Do writers really want audiences to empathise with gangsters? If so, at what point does the story subvert these allegiances? Ever?

WISH FULFILMENT CAN HAVE AN UNCOMFORTABLE FLIP SIDE

If there are differences between stories for adults and stories for children, it runs along the lines of wish fulfilment. Wish fulfilment in stories for children is wholesome. It looks like this.

But adults are attracted to fantasies which confirm the duality in all of us. By adulthood, we’ve come head-to-head with our baser instincts.

Wish fulfilment has always been at the queasy heart of of the mobster genre, the longing for a life outside the bounds of convention, mingled with the conflicted desire to see the perpetrator punished for the same transgression. So it was for the fictional men of the straight world on The Sopranos, who were drawn to Tony’s flame with consistently disastrous results. […] Likewise for viewers, for whom a life of taking, killing, and sleeping with whomever and whatever one wants had an undesirable, if conflict-laden appeal.

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution by Brett Martin

When creating our own stories, it’s worth asking the question early on: What particular wish-fulfilment does my story scratch in the audience?

RELATED

A Quick Evolution of the Gangster Genre from Script

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 likable. 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

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 another storywriting guru, John Truby, calls ‘psychological shortcoming’. This means: How is your character treating others badly? Apart from that, I don’t recall John Truby mentioning anywhere in Anatomy of Story the requirement that a main character be ‘nice’. That’s because it’s a non-requirement. John Yorke continues:

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

The Antihero In Storytelling

Howard Suber in his book The Power Of Film argues that there is no such thing as an antihero, only those who act heroically and those who do not. Another problem is with the misleading name. Suber has noticed the word ‘antihero’ suggests a character who is ‘anti’ (against) the hero, but this is not what it means at all. Characters called ‘antiheroes’ are ‘not yet heroes’.

Christopher Vogler has said the same thing:

 Definition of Antihero

Anti-hero is a slippery term that can cause a lot of confusion. Simply stated, an anti-hero is not the opposite of a hero, but a specialized kind of hero, one who may be an outlaw or a villain from the point of view of society, but with whom the audience is basically in sympathy. We identify with these outsiders because we have all felt like outsiders at one time or another.

The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler

Perhaps Suber and Vogler would prefer the term ‘unhero’, though the unhero is a comic character and doesn’t tend to rise above his ordinariness:

The un-hero is most similar among the types of heroes to the everyman, with a key exception: he rarely ends up being a proper hero. Generally, the un-hero is in all the wrong places at all the wrong times and does more to hinder the cause of good/justice/world-saving than to help it. Somehow though, through cosmic confluence or the intervention of a more traditional hero, everything works out in the end and the un-hero is heaped with the credit.

This is generally a less serious heroic form and should be reserved for a less serious work.

J.S. Morin

The Function Of The Antihero

Antiheroes are fun to watch. We get to see characters breaking boundaries we’ve fantasised about breaking in our own lives. A lot of the time, antiheroes have the witty comebacks. They are ace with a handgun, always prepared and very organised. These people would actually make great workmates if they were working on the side of good.

In thematic terms, antiheroes play another role. By transgressing social norms and legal boundaries they ask the audience to reflect upon what is okay and what isn’t okay. Breaking Bad did this very well, though I believe the writers overestimated the reflective powers of a vast majority of their viewing audience. If you’ve seen Vince Gilligan interviewed, you’ll know that he expected his audience to stop siding with Walt and take the side of characters such as Skyler after a while. This didn’t happen for much of the audience, who are like ducklings, falling in love with the first character they are encouraged to bond with. Breaking Bad and the discussion that happened online around that time, with much hatred directed towards the character of Skyler, and to the actress who played her, offers insight into the Duckling Phenomenon.

A Brief History Of Storytelling That Lead Us Here: To The Age Of The TV Antihero

Poster boy antihero Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini
Poster boy antihero Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini

In the 19th century, you maybe spent an hour a day reading a novel, two hours a month watching a play. That was all the storytelling done by professionals for you. People now see that much storytelling every day. Theater became Broadway, then radio, movies, and TV. It all happened in the 20th century.

All the arts in the 20th century exhausted themselves technically. By the time Ad Reinhardt painted a canvas black from edge to edge and said it’s a painting, the form was over. Music had been explored down to noise. Every technical possibility had been explored. All possible techniques.

So I was thinking, Since all the arts have reached the black canvas, what was going to become of story? Where would writers go in the 21st century?

I realized there is one aspect of human nature that really hasn’t been exploited and explored: evil. You have dark characters like Iago, great villains who are diabolical and evil, but it’s a pure evil. Human beings are very rarely pure evil, and storytelling hadn’t truly explored the complexity of realistic evil.

And then, a few years later, came all these great long-form series, which opened an exploration of evil. There was The Wire and The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, even Mad Men. With all these great series, you get complex, good/evil characters.

Robert McKee in a Vice interview

Rise of the Female Antihero

When storytelling gurus talk about antiheroes, you’ll notice they offer male characters as examples. But before we had Tony Soprano, we had Carrie Bradshaw. It can be argued that the main female characters of Sex And The City were antiheroes in their own way — Carrie would alternately seem sympathetic but next minute she’d do something most of the audience wouldn’t identify with at all. This is an essential element of the fictional antihero.

More recently we have a complex, fascinating female antihero in Animal Kingdom’s Janine Cody (aka Smurf). The discussion around this character is often about what makes a ‘good mother’, a discussion I don’t remember James Gandolfini being asked to comment on. Society has higher expectations for mothers than for fathers, and this is reflected in stories.

I expect we will see more female antiheroes on screen. Because of that gendered expectation differential, it’s actually better sometimes to have a female antihero, if you really want the audience to pass judgement. Imagine how different the discussion would have been if Skyler White had been the main protagonist of Breaking Bad.

I see this double standard pop up all the time in novels […] We forgive our heroes even when they’re drunken, aimless brutes or flawed noir figures who smoke too much and can’t hold down a steady relationship. In truth, we both sympathise with and celebrate these heroes; Conan is loved for his raw emotions, his gut instincts, his tendency to solve problems through sheer force of will. But the traits we love in many male heroes—their complexity, their confidence, their occasional bouts of selfish whim—become, in female heroes, marks of the dreaded “unlikable character.”

In Defence Of Unlikeable Women

More recently, in her book The Logic of Misogyny, philosopher Kate Manne has coined the word ‘himpathy’ to explain the extra empathy we afford men as a patriarchal default. It is therefore more difficult to write empathetic male anti-heroes than empathetic female antiheroes. Anyone who successfully manages it should be applauded. Then again, if we as readers don’t ‘like’ or ’empathise’ with a female antihero, perhaps it’s not actually the fault of the writer? Perhaps we are himpaths.

So, what exactly makes someone an anti-heroine on film? A ‘catch-all’ definition is this: someone who does bad shit for good reasons. A woman who’s flawed, but in the most relatable and almost inspiring of ways (because aren’t we all?), and whose decisions and development unfold on screen independently of their male counterparts.

They’re the Thelmas and the Lousies, the Beatrix Kiddos. We’re now saying buh-bye to the Disney princesses from our youth, who were (and remain; sorry Emma Watson/Belle) almost impossibly virtuous, beautiful and small-waisted. The anti-heroine of today is messy, gritty and imperfect in a more ways than one, often navigating her life with a moral compass that could probably use a service.

We don’t love that Veronica from Heathers literally kills a whole bunch of people, but her reasons for doing so resonate with us (in any case, who DOESN’T love our girl Wynona, even when she’s a murderous high-schooler?). Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne is arguably batshit, but is there anyone who hasn’t thought of a real-life application for her ‘cool girl’ monologue at least once since hearing it for the first time?

‘Three Billboards’ Shows The Anti-Heroine Is Finally On The Rise, Junkee

Further Reading On The Antihero

  1. Are You Sick Of TV Antiheroes from LA Times
  2. The Top 10 Fictional Antiheroes from Litreactor. It would seem most antiheroes are male, but this list includes some women.
  3. A great definition of antihero, and a list of examples, can be found at TV Tropes.
  4. The Likability Trap: We like to root for the antihero, but not for the antiheroine, from Bitch Media
  5. A Day In the Life of a Troubled Male Antihero from Toast
  6. Writing The Antihero (And Why So Many Authors Get It Wrong) from The Passive Voice

Television Endings

It’s impossible to say anything about television endings without first drawing a sharp line down the middle of two very different narratives:

  1. The continuing series, of which successful stories can run perhaps 10 series.
  2. The novelistic, limited series which runs for perhaps 5 or 6 seasons at most.

The storytelling in each looks quite different.

THE STRUCTURE OF CONTINUING TV SERIES

A complete story is made up of 7 stages:

  1. SHORTCOMING
  2. DESIRE
  3. OPPONENT
  4. PLAN
  5. BIG STRUGGLE
  6. ANAGNORISIS
  7. NEW EQUILIBRIUM

These are the terms used by John Truby, who is a Hollywood movie guru. TV writers use a different terminology.

TV writers in the United States call the BIG STRUGGLE the ‘worst case’.

BBC writers call it ‘worst point’.

The essential difference between a complete TV drama and an ongoing series: In an ongoing series such as Coronation Street, Eastenders, Batman, Superman, Flash Gordon and everything else like it, each episode ends at the BIG STRUGGLE.

COMPLETE STORIES

Be it TV or film, a complete story is a complete story. The main difference may simply be budget allocated, but even that difference is disappearing as high budget TV gains in popularity and in quality.

If it’s a commercial station you’re watching, writers know where the breaks must go. The BIG STRUGGLE scene will occur right before the final ad break. The final segment will of course give us the ANAGNORISIS and the NEW EQUILIBRIUM.

CASE STUDIES

The Sopranos

the-sopranos

So was I frustrated by the ending? You bet. But I was supposed to be. I realized that was the only way the show could have ended, by not ending. Some have argued that Tony really was whacked. The last scene was told largely from his perspective. If someone shot him in the head from behind, everything would simply go black.

But I think the open ending was all about the fundamental technique of the show. Every character and action in that diner was both everyday normal and full of dread. Tony had become a king trapped in a state of nature, death on all sides, and it could come from the littlest nobody. At any time. That’s the life he has sown.

Farewell Sopranos, the king of drama. You were big drama and small drama; big story and small story. Most of all, you were professional writers at the top of their craft. Thank you.

John Truby

 

When I was talking to HBO recently, I told them about a big learning experience I had thanks to the finale of The Sopranos. A lot of people didn’t like the ending, but I thought it worked. It’s not just that it was anti-climactic. It was anti-conventional. It played against expectations, but it worked in a sense that was satisfying.

There are four classic endings to a story:

  1. purely positive
  2. purely tragic [Breaking Bad]
  3. positive with irony where the character gets what s/he wants but pays a big price [a.k.a. pyrrhic victories]
  4. tragic with irony where s/he loses everything but s/he learns something [Big Love]

Those are the classic tonalities of endings.

Q: But The Sopranos ending isn’t really any of those, and it’s still satisfying.
Right. I thought about the ending with them sitting in this restaurant, and I realized there was a fifth possible ending, which is what I came to call “exhaustion.” That means that the characters have been emptied out completely, and the writer has exhausted their humanity. There’s nothing you don’t know about them. Everything is known, including their dreams. That was it.

All those characters in The Sopranos were exhausted, and it was satisfying. You realize you know everything. You got to know these characters like you never have with somebody in your own life. That’s exhaustion in the strict sense of the word.

The Sopranos taught me the fifth ending, which is only possible in the long form—long novels or a hundred-episode series. Exhausting characters takes a lot of storytelling. If a film exhausts somebody, then the character wasn’t that complex to begin with.

Vice interview with Robert McKee

Mad Men

mad-men-ending

I would say Mad Men ended with the fifth kind of ending, too, not because there was nothing more to know about Don, necessarily — a secretive character by nature — but because there was nothing more to learn about that whole world.

The Wire

Robert McKee on ‘exhausted characters’:

What about The Wire, which didn’t try to do that so much with characters, but with Baltimore?
That would be another way of looking at exhaustion, which is that you emptied out the potential of the setting. I think those characters from The Wire still have lives to live after that and have potential for change, but you’ve come to know that world so much that Baltimore is exhausted.

the-wire

Dexter

A classic example of writers not knowing that they reached the level of exhaustion is Dexter, because he was emptied out and wasn’t going to change by the end of season four or so. But it was making money, so they made new serial killers and put the emphasis on the antagonists, but Dexter was an exhausted character, and it got stupid.

Vice interview with Robert McKee

dexter

The Walking Dead

For months AMC has been beating the drums for the so-called “last” Rick Grimes/Andrew Lincoln episode. And as it came time to hunker down for Sunday’s “What Comes After,” speculation ran rampant on how our leading man would exit the zombie apocalypse.

Would he remain impaled on that rebar spike and simply bleed out? (Too easy).

Would he become zombie-chow for the two hordes of walkers coming his way? (Too lame).

Would Negan somehow escape and kill him? (Too convenient).

Would he realize his dream of an ideal society was crumbling and simply ride off into the sunset? (Too undramatic).

Or would he, as gamesradar.com had listed among its scenarios, be accidentally killed by little Judith after she somehow got ahold of a gun? (Too horrifying).

Mercury News

RELATED LINKS

  1. Discovering the Art of Television’s Endings from FlowTV
  2. 10 Movies And TV Shows Where The Characters Probably Died 5 Minutes After The End, from io9
  3. And Then What? 5 Maddeningly Unresolved Plots from LitReactor
  4. Film Endings and TV Endings are similar in many ways.