Friday, July 3, 2020

Sympathy for the Devil

Do characters need to be sympathetic? Why? Why not? Does it make a difference in different genres?

by Paul D. Marks

...get rid of my flaws and there would be no one left.
                                                           ―Sarah Vowell, Take the Cannoli

No. Definitely not. But if you want readers to go along with you they should probably have at least some redeeming qualities. The anti-heroes in many film noirs aren’t good guys, but they have something that puts us on their side anyway. Nor do I think genre makes a difference.

I haven’t read any of the Save the Cat books about storytelling and writing, but I gather that the point of “saving the cat” is to show the reader or viewer a good quality in the character so they’ll root for that character on some level.

Curley and Moe, a couple of cats we actually did save
So let me talk about the people (characters) I know best, the ones I’ve created. Many of my characters are flawed one way or another. Some of them with major flaws like racism, others with everyday flaws like vanity or envy. I think we’re long past the days where the good guys wear white hats, don’t cuss, don’t smoke and don’t throw people off the tops of buildings. And if you look at the examples below I think you’ll see that I’m not “uncomfortable” with much in terms of flaws. Not because I like these traits, but because I think they’re real. And if I want my characters to ring true they have to have real flaws because no one is perfect.

Philip Marlowe, the quintessential knight errant private eye, was misogynistic, racist and more, just as a matter of course. But he was also a product of his times. We notice it today when we read Chandler, but I’m sure many people reading those stories when they first came out wouldn’t have thought anything of it. Nor do I think Chandler would have given it a second thought or consciously put it in his stories. It was just the zeitgeist of the times (if I’m not being redundant). But today, when most of us write characters with these traits we are doing it on purpose to make a point of one kind or another and to round out the character.

In my just-released book The Blues Don’t Care, most of the characters are flawed or less than sympathetic to one degree or another. The main character, Bobby Saxon, is flawed. His goal in life is to play piano with the Booker Taylor band at the famous Club Alabam on Central Avenue in L.A. during World War II. He’s got one obvious major problem to achieving that goal: if he gets the gig he’d be the only white player in the otherwise all-black band. But he’s on a mission. So when Booker offers him a shot with the band…if Bobby will help find the real murderer that James, a band member, is accused of, does Bobby go for it? For selfish reasons? To help the band? To clear an innocent man? Or just to get the gig he’s pining for? All of the above?

Bobby also has other issues to deal with and is a pretty complex character, but I don’t want to give away spoilers. Is he sympathetic? In some ways, he is. He’s also a little selfish. But mostly he’s a young, wet behind the ears guy trying to figure out how to be a man in the world of the World War II home front.

Sam Wilde is someone Bobby comes across in his quest to find the murderer. Wilde is a tough, rough around the edges man who, especially at first, is antagonistic towards Bobby both verbally and physically. But as they get to know each other they both see each other beyond initial impressions.
Bobby also crosses paths with Sgt. Nicolai, of the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department. Nicolai is also rough around the edges. And he’s corrupt, on the take. He’s given up on the system. He doesn’t believe James is guilty, but the word’s come down from the brass: James is going down for it. So Nicolai’s faith in the system is gone. He’s tired and cynical. He drinks. But he still has a little of the idealism left that brought him to join the force and when Bobby taps into that Nicolai helps Bobby with the case.

Both Wilde and Nicolai have the prejudices of their era, sexist, racist and homophobic, but in the end Bobby appeals to their better angels. The question is who wins, the better angels or the darker ones?

The two main characters in my novels White Heat and Broken Windows are both seriously flawed. Duke, the P.I. main character, is a screw-up in more ways than one, only that’s not the word he uses to describe himself. His partner, Jack, is majorly flawed. He’s a racist—at least on the surface. He says things that maybe other people only think. But a lot of them do think those things. If you only listened to Jack talk you’d think he was a really bad guy, but if you watch his actions, you see that it’s not that simple. Jack is also a good guy. He may say the wrong thing, but he pretty much does the right thing. In Jack’s case actions definitely speak louder than words.

White Heat takes place in and around the 1992 “Rodney King” riots in Los Angeles. And, though it’s a mystery, it deals with many racial issues and concerns—which are still relevant today. So the book is sort of a prism on today, though set in the not-too-distant past. I was so concerned by the raw nature of some of it that I put an author’s note in the beginning of the book. I put the disclaimer in, but I also left in the raw language and actions of the characters. But I was still nervous about how people would react. Luckily the reaction was pretty positive on all fronts and the book ended up winning a Shamus award.

I also see Jack as the little devil on Duke’s shoulder, like you would see in the old cartoons. Jack is sort of Duke’s alter ego, the bad side of Duke, the nature he must fight. And he does. But why, one might wonder, would Duke even be friends with Jack? Because, besides their personal history, Duke sees beyond Jack’s posturing to the real Jack underneath and maybe that person isn’t quite what the surface person comes off as. We all say things we regret, and sometimes do things we regret. Jack pretty much does the right thing, even if he spouts off the wrong thing. And ultimately we are all flawed and can relate to the flaws in others. It makes the characters more human, more accessible. And more real.

In Vortex, Zach Tanner is on the run—mostly from himself, from his past. In that past he might not have been the most upstanding citizen or the most squared away soldier. He did some bad stuff. But recuperating from wounds received in Afghanistan he has an epiphany about his life and realizes the error of his ways. So when he returns home he wants to go straight. The problem is some of his cohorts in crime don’t want to let him, especially because they think he has something they’re entitled to. So, in a sense it’s a story of Zach’s redemption, but the road to redemption is paved with figurative IEDs and landmines (and real guns) that Zach must circumvent if he wants to come out on the other side.
The main character—a cop—in 51-50, a story first published in Dave Zeltserman’s Hard Luck Stories—Psycho Noir edition (so the edition title alone might tell you something about the character), and now in my LA Late @ Night story collection, shoots a gang banger out of sheer frustration, not because of a life-threatening situation. The cop is unraveling throughout the story, the pressures of life on the street are too much for him to deal with anymore. The story was written and published some years ago, but again is relevant in light of what’s been happening in the country today. The cop is not a bad guy. He wants to do the right thing. But dealing with the stress of the streets and the thugs he has to deal with just wears him down.

Ray Hood in Dead Man’s Curve (Last Exit to Murder anthology) is an aging rocker, his glory days as a road guitarist for Jan and Dean are long behind him. He’s selfish, he does bath salts (not the kind you put in the tub), he doesn’t appreciate what his sister is trying to do for him. Definitely not a model of perfection. And he wants to get back in the game. To that end he will do just about anything.

In Poison Heart (Deadly Ink 2010 anthology), Winger is a crime beat photographer, who can’t adjust to the modern world and has become jaded by all the violence he sees in the real world. So he decides to take things a step further and goes way beyond the bounds of the law to get a good pic, selling his soul (so to speak) in the process. Another desperate character who will do desperate things to stay on top and be a modern-day Weegee. Again, his flaws are the petty flaws we all have, but he takes them to another level. A more personal level of envy and the desire to be on top and what he’s willing to do to be there.

Howling at the Moon (November 2014, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine): This one’s a little different in that the character is not a bad person. Not selfish or suffering from envy or any of the other seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride  But he is disaffected and has separated himself from his American Indian roots, especially after coming home from the war in Iraq. He ultimately does something we might think is immoral, but we empathize with him and understand why he does it. Nonetheless, he becomes a flawed person by the actions that he takes.

Most of my characters are flawed because people are flawed. I don’t necessarily set out to write a character with this or that flaw, but the character comes to life in the writing and develops those flaws, just as people do as they go through life. Ultimately, I think the reason most of us like flawed protagonists is that we can relate to them more.  They are more like us. Not perfect, not saints, more like real people, just trying to get by in a flawed world.


And now for the usual BSP:

The Blues Don't Care is getting some great reviews:

"It’s the first entry in what promises to be an entertaining and thoughtful series --- mysteries that not only have the requisite twists, turns, surprises and reveals, but also offer a penetrating look into our ubiquitous all-too-human flaws: greed, corruption, fear of the “other” and, especially, racism."
—Jack Kramer,

"This is a beautifully noirish book, set firmly in the dark days of wartime and offering a sharp insight into the life and times of Los Angeles, 1940s style. Yes, it’s a mystery thriller, but The Blues Don’t Care is so much more than that, with historic detail, chutzpah, a cast of hugely entertaining characters, a really unusual protagonist and, best of all, a cracking soundtrack too."

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Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi Paul,

I agree that a flawed hero/heroine/protagonist is more interesting because the character is more realistic. Perfection is dull. Real people are a complex mix of good and bad traits. So are characters readers will care about.

Susan C Shea said...

You mention Chandler's misogyny and say it wouldn't have raised eyebrows when it was originally published but would today. I agree generally. But what about authors today who mimic those old noir tropes, supposedly only to create verisimilitude? I'm uneasy about how easy it is to shrug off genuine biases by putting them in the mouths of vintage characters. Is that something you have dealt with? Good post and I definitely agree that nuanced characters be they heroes or villains are what keeps us engaged.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

I'm with you, Paul. Characters don't need to be sympathetic. The main thing for me is that they're believable.

Paul D. Marks said...

Hi Jacqueline. Thanks for your comment. Definitely, real people are complex and, therefore our characters should be too.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Susan. I think we have to agree to disagree here. Speaking personally, I have my characters say and do things that I think real people would say and do, regardless of the era. And some aren’t pretty. I don’t do it because of noir tropes, but because it’s how people are and were and I deal with a lot of reality-based situations in my writing. And it is uncomfortable. It's even something I'm uncomfortable reading when I read it back (check out this piece I did recently at Elizabeth White's blog: ). But I don’t think everything should be whitewashed (so to speak). So it is something I’ve dealt with a lot.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Dietrich. I agree with you, they should be believable.

Madeline Gornell said...

Excellent post, Paul! Got me thinking. I have to "like" protagonists, or I won't read or watch. But, even after thinking about it, not sure what comprises my "liking" feeling. And yes, so agree, that flaws and goodness's come out as your character is developed...

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Madeline. I agree with you in the sense that the protagonist, even if not totally sympathetic or a good guy, should have some kind of redeeming qualities. It's like my character Jack in White Heat and Broken Windows. As I say, he says the wrong things but pretty much does the right things and people seem to like him.