First, some quotes from storytelling gurus who are not writing specifically about children’s stories but about stories in general. Here we have Lena Dunham, who has no doubt noticed 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.
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.’
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
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. He says that the word ‘antihero’ makes it sound like a character who is ‘anti’ (against) the hero, but this is not the case. Characters called ‘antiheroes’ are generally characters who are ‘not yet heroes’. Perhaps Suber would prefer the term ‘unhero’:
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.
Antiheroes are fun to watch. We get to see characters breaking boundaries we’ve fantasised about breaking in our real 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. 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
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.
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 In 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 sympathize 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.”
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?
It’s impossible to say anything about television endings without first drawing a sharp line down the middle of two very different narratives:
The continuing series, of which successful stories can run perhaps 10 series.
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:
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 BATTLE 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 BATTLE.
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 BATTLE scene will occur right before the final ad break. The final segment will of course give us the SELF-REVELATION and the NEW EQUILIBRIUM.
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.
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:
purely tragic [Breaking Bad]
positive with irony where the character gets what s/he wants but pays a big price [a.k.a. pyrrhic victories]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).