Saturday, July 18, 2009

Letting the Monster Out

Recently, Charles expressed his disappointment in a story he read. The lead character (name of Edge), a cold-eyed killer (and borderline psychopath) now retired, spends most of the book trying to stay out of trouble. Until, of course, it's time to strap on his guns again.

The formula is tried and true. Shane. Pale Rider. Unforgiven. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. The Big Boss. Hell, the true story of Cincinnatus. One of drama's favorite 'guns on the mantelpiece' is the bad-ass who's trying to hold back.

The book Charles read didn't work, and I thought I knew why. The hero's arc failed in two places: the start and the end.

Drama is about contrast. No matter what genre, the hero or heroine ends the story in a very different place from where they started. Bridget Jones starts her story miserable, alone and embarrassed at the turkey curry buffet, and she ends the next Christmas happy, in love and immune to anything her mother might say. We meet Harry Potter unloved, disregarded and the absolute bottom of the heap, positively hated by his adoptive parents and living in a cupboard under the stairs. By the end of that first story, he is the hero of his school, loved by all. Othello, on the other hand, starts his story a celebrated hero, saviour of the city with the most beautiful woman he's ever seen for his bride. By the end, both he and Desdemona are dead by his own hand.

Rule of thumb: the lower the hero starts, the higher he'll end up. Or vice versa. Sometimes, it can be both. The detective may end the story with all the answers and his life in ruins. All I'm saying, there's a reason you see a lot more rags-to-riches stories than rags-to-lower middle class.

Back to the Retired Gunslinger. This character always starts as a bad-ass held in check. Always.

Shane and the Preacher (the Mysterious Stranger in Pale Rider) are both introduced fronting off groups of thugs with little more than an icy glare and a palpable sense of menace. How do we know they're bad-asses? Groups of asshole bullies take one look at them and run away.

Chen (Bruce Lee's character in The Big Boss) and Dwight from A Dame to Kill For show the natures they're hiding in action. When Chen's cousins end up in a fight, Bruce Lee uses grace, skill and a deft comic touch to show us that he really could've whupped those bullies butts the whole time, only he promised his momma he wouldn't fight. Dwight stops an attempted murder with a single knockout blow, and his voiceover tells us directly how much he enjoys it, how tempting it is to 'let the monster out'. We soon learn he no longer drinks, smokes, won't even let himself exceed the speed limit for fear he'll turn that monster inside him loose.

Remember: the Retired Gunfighter is *not* a changed man. He may think he is. He may argue that he is, act like he is, do everything he believes a changed man would do. But *we* need to see that old Monster still lurking under his skin, sniffing the air and waiting for a chance to slip its chain.

We need to see that no matter how much the Retired Gunfighter might lie to himself, whatever it might cost him, part of him wants that monster loose.

And when our hero does finally let that monster out, WATCH OUT! We've watched our hero suffer through three-quarters of the story resisting his natural urges. His half-measure compromises have failed: the monster inside gloated and the villains still won. In the end, there's nothing left for it but to cut loose.

And here's the thing about cutting loose: you've gotta go big. BIG!

Shane guns down the hired killer, the ranch boss and everyone else in the saloon that night. Preacher blows up a strip-mine and wipes out the villain's whole gang. Dwight comes back with a brand new face, a duffel bag full of explosives, a ninja accomplice and a .25 automatic tucked up his sleeve. And in The Big Boss, Bruce Lee stabs the local drug lord to death with his own fingers.


I'm thinking this is why the book Charles read failed. The killer, Edge, starts out pretty whimpy (okay, cool), but he goes wrong in one important way. Maybe more: I don't know if we get to see what total bad-assery he's holding back, or if we get a sense for how very badly he wants to let that beast free. But I do know this: he carries his gun with him in a carpet bag.

To me, that's a fatal flaw.

And when the rough stuff does start again, he emerges quite a bit less violent than he used to be, with a greater regard for law and order. Wtf?

I call it 'muted arc', or rags-to-lower middle class: the character's changes simply aren't big enough. By keeping his pistol nearby (though not on his hip), Edge is making a definite statement. Contrast it with Preacher in the Pale Rider, who needs days of hard riding to reach the steel box where he's locked away his guns.

And Shane, Preacher, Chen, Dwight, any Retired Gunslinger you can think of, all give us a sense that their violence at the end is worse than they ever were back in their bad old days. They may suffer for unleashing their violence (Shane is badly wounded, maybe fatally. Chen goes to prison.), or they may simply have to live with this poisonous knowledge about themselves.

No way should it actually be better. Shane can't strap on his guns, give the hired killer a flesh wound and have the ranch owner surrender without further bloodshed. And then go off with the lesson that the answer is moderate amounts of violence...


Charles Gramlich said...

You're right. There's definitely an element of Go big or stay home that needs to be there. Pale Rider may be the best example, although there are several interesting things working in that movie.

Good points here.

writtenwyrdd said...

Oh wow! Excellent diagnosis there, Steve! I'll bookmark this post for sure.

cs harris said...

Excellent analysis, as always, Steve. Definitely many points to remember.

Barbara Martin said...

I ditto on the excellent analysis, and important story arcs. Well done.

SQT said...

I love the catharsis of revenge fiction, so there needs to be a big finish imho. Great analysis.

Stewart Sternberg (half of L.P. Styles) said...

It's interesting how these characters are haunted by their violence. They seek to change, and yet the specter of how they have lived their lives will not free them.

Shauna Roberts said...

Loved your "rags to lower middle class" line. And gads have I missed your blog!