It needs to be stated: Thank you for being so wonderful. It is a pleasure to be read by such pleasant people. Yes, I mean YOU. Being read by wonderful people is delightful. However, reading about wonderful people is a chore. It is dull, like watching paint dry, in a one horse town, after they roll the sidewalks up at six pm. Lord, deliver me from books about saintly heroes who always know the right thing to do and then does it, in a timely fashion.
Stories are, always have been and always will be, the province of the bad boy. Augustine has been read for millennia because he had the good sense to be a wastrel before he wised up and became a saint. We read his stories and think: if this guy became a saint, maybe there’s still some hope for me. We love stories about bad people doing bad things who then change their ways.
Stories feature flawed, self-indulgent, just plain bad people. Yet we respond to them because we recognize in them a glimmer of our own humanity. There is a freedom that bad guys have, to act in ways we wish we could. When Melvin Udall dumps his neighbor’s annoying dog in the garbage chute, we laugh because we could never do anything so outlandish. Bad guys act on their impulses in ways we cannot.
Have you ever wondered why movie stars are beautiful and magnetic? It’s because we need them to be so we can identify with them for 2/3 of the film while they are being busy miserable, awful, and petty. Think about Lion. Imagine if it starred your tiresome Uncle Earl instead of dreamy Dev Patel. Just how long would you put up with Uncle Earl being a selfish jerk to Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara? You’re sick of Uncle Earl before he even passes the potatoes on Thanksgiving and now you have to put up with him onscreen for two hours? (Not happening).
Never worry your character is irredeemably bad. That’s just how we like them: it is the catharsis of seeing someone makes the necessary changes to self-actualize and achieve a hard-won dream. If Melvin Udall can get the girl or Saroo can find his mother, then we can grow and change too.
Do not cheat your audience out of their catharsis. Remember the cautionary tale of George Lucas, whose desire to rescue his character from being bad made things worse: it turned them boring. Let’s set the scene: Greedo, a bounty hunter in a green rubber mask, corners Han Solo in a bar.
He wants to take Solo to Jabba, a sea slug made good. Solo owes the slug money, money which he can finally repay when he finishes a job he has lined up delivering a whiny kid, old man and two droids to a doomed planet. But Greedo ain’t having it. Having failed to reason with the mercenary, Solo blasts him, tossing a coin to the bar keep and apologizing for “the mess”. The Sarlacc Pit will not go hungry tonight!
I would say that it is easy to see why this scene is so important, except that the person who wrote it did not see it that way. Lucas was worried we would not like Han if he were a person who did not have any nobility. George, baby, seriously: that’s exactly why we like him!
Of course you cannot have your characters running around willy nilly stealing candy from babies and kicking puppies. Every action a character takes needs to be on theme. Your main character does NOT just have a “friend”. The friend has a role to play in your story that deepens the theme or stands in contrast to it. What is Han Solo’s purpose in the Star Wars story? He demonstrates what happens if one only serves oneself and does not act for the larger good. That is why he is there. How did the Empire take over the galaxy? Self-interested men like Solo turned a blind eye. Does Greedo serve a purpose? Greedo is what will happen to Han if he does not make a change. We like Han because he is our id. We love Han because he does change and becomes a hero.
Lucas has said that he wanted Solo to be a John Wayne type and John Wayne never shot first. Fortunately for us, John Wayne was not a paragon of virtue onscreen. In Red River he hunted down his adopted son with intent to murder him; in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, Wayne not only shot first, he shot Valence in the back. And in The Searchers, Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a racist, Confederate deserter corpse-defiler. Edwards doesn’t just shoot Apaches first, he shoots them early and often (It is one of the themes of the film that this is not necessarily viewed as a bad thing). From the moment Wayne walks onscreen, there is no doubt he is a bad guy, for everyone gives him a wide berth. When his brother’s family is wiped out by Apaches, Edwards goes in search of his niece, who was kidnapped by them. Edwards knows that if she is not recovered soon, she will be married to an Apache; if she is married to an Apache then she will need killing, just as much as any natural Apache would.
For this reason, Edwards is a fascinating character, the most layered and detailed in either the novel or the film. He speaks Apache and he knows the folkways and mores of the culture because that’s how you efficiently commit genocide. Symbolically, Wayne’s magnetism and decades as a simplistic white hat brings nuance to the role; while we are appalled at the actions of Ethan Edwards, on a certain level we think they might be justified, because it is John Wayne doing them and Wayne is the epitome of American exceptionalism. This tension is very much one of the themes of the film. Not to spoil a 60 year old movie, but Edwards finally decides at the end that family is more important than hatred. This fits with the theme, which is about how the American West was “pacified” by hard men doing horrible deeds but their time has come and gone. The film ends with Edwards on the outside, looking at a peaceful, domestic world he has made possible but in which he no longer has a place.
Casablanca is the quintessential story of the bad guy gone good. Rick has fled Paris and now operates in Casablanca, where he tolerates the Nazis and sticks his neck out for no one. But when the love of his life shows up with her Nazi-fighting husband, Rick’s life gets complicated. And what happens? Rick ends up sticking his neck out for someone. The theme that sometimes one has to fight for the greater good even at great personal sacrifice has resonated for millennia, all the way back to The Iliad. Rick, like Apollo, is a reluctant bad guy who finally changes and joins the side of the good guys. Is this inevitable? There are only two possible endings for Casablanca: Rick aids Ilsa and fights the Nazis or Rick turns Victor in and dies a lonely, bitter man. Again, we like Rick because he represents our id. We love Rick because he changes and becomes the hero.
I want to interject some thoughts specifically for novelists. Onscreen it is easier, as the bad guy is being portrayed by magnetic people: Humphrey Bogart, Harrison Ford, Clint Howard. As an audience, we are ready to forgive Solo shooting Greedo because Harrison Ford has us from jump. In a novel, obviously, this is more difficult to achieve; one cannot simply write ‘Harrison Ford’ on the page. And yet, strictly looking at the world of paper, I see bad guys everywhere and they are riveting: They range from the animalistic, naïve evilness of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, to the arrogant, prideful Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. They range from the irksome Mr. Norrell in Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell, to the precocious Briony in Atonement.
The key is showing, not telling. The only way to show your bad guy is bad is through their actions. We see Han Solo first as an arrogant jerk; soon enough he blasts a bounty hunter who was getting a little too close for comfort. Who is this guy? Moments after learning of his partner’s death in The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade is comforting his partner’s widow – with whom we learn he is having an affair. Some friend!
Compelling characters with serious flaws acting in unexpected ways, that’s all it is. How hard is that? Of course it is always difficult, much like panning for gold: washing dozens of pans of silt for a few tiny flakes of gold. Nothing worth having is easy to achieve; that is what the bad guy teaches us; every time they stop acting on impulse, make the necessary changes and become the hero.
Usvaldo de Leon, Jr., is a screenwriter who lives in Tucson, Arizona.
He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for his screenplay Let Us Hold Hands and Sing Folk Songs.
Most of these statements are true (Usvaldo is so obviously a fake name).