Friday, February 7, 2014

VILLAINS ARE IN; REDEMPTION IS OUT

Redeemable?  Or not.


Enough, already, with the moral ambiguity.  I love a good antihero as much as the next gal, but storytelling, particularly on television, has carried this trope much too far.

Laurie asked in her last post whether we can accept infidelity in our heroes and heroines once they meet in our romances.  Is it still a romance when one or the other of the pair we’re writing to a happy-ever-after ending is unable to avoid the temptation of sex with another?  (I’d answer no, but I’m old school.)

A broader question arises when the lead character in a drama engages not only in extra-relational sex that may be hurtful to his regular partner, but also murder, mayhem, theft, extortion, lying, cheating, torture, kidnapping, drug-running, gun-running, prostitution, black magic, soul-selling, espionage for a foreign power or ripping the throats out of people to get at their blood.  Granted, all this bad behavior can be fascinating, but are we supposed to like these people?

Lest you think I’m basing my argument on one or two shows, here is a short list of the shows I watch that lead me to comment this week:  DRACULA, THE VIKINGS, THE AMERICANS, THE BLACKLIST, AMERICAN HORROR STORY (third season), SONS OF ANARCHY, BATES MOTEL, HELL ON WHEELS (though it remains to be seen which way  its hero might ultimately go).  Even HAWAII FIVE-O, whose Steve McGarrett is generally brave and true, has its moments.  Steve is the worst partner ever, never letting Danny drive his own car or offer a real opinion. And don’t get me started about his relationship with his girlfriend. 

It’s tempting to blame all this moral shift on cable television and the wild success of shows like HBO’s THE SOPRANOS and AMC’s BREAKING BAD.  Watching those episodes every week was like watching a train wreck—horrible, terrifying, and strangely addictive.  You couldn’t look away, even though you knew it was going to be bad, very bad.  Tony Soprano was not a nice guy.  He was not a good man, underneath it all.  And in the end, there was no redemption for him.

Therein lies the real problem.  You could say I am the one to blame since I choose to watch these shows, and, clearly, the “hero” of DRACULA or BATES MOTEL is not going to be a good guy.  But I might be forgiven for thinking the premise of the vampire show—the original blood fiend is in London to wreak revenge on an ancient vamp-hunting cult for the death of his beloved wife and his own creation—and its cool, steampunk vibe might offer a different take on Vlad the Impaler.  Not so.  He started out complex, but he’s devolved into a raving bloodsucker with few redeeming qualities. And, of course, we all know how Norman Bates turned out.

What has happened to the concept of redemption?  It seems the writers and creators of television drama have forgotten that we watch people struggle with decisions of good and evil hoping they’ll choose the right path.  We watch the main characters of series like SONS OF ANARCHY not just because Charlie Hunnam is hot, but because we hope he’ll find a way to steer his family and his motorcycle gang out of its violent past into a more sustainable future.  Instead, we see him slip ever deeper into despair and moral indefensibility.  Whatever we liked about him becomes less and less apparent as redemption slips from his grasp.  It’s as if series creator Kurt Sutter doesn’t believe in redemption.  Or he doesn’t care about it.

The same is true of the gruesome AMERICAN HORROR STORY.  In the first two seasons, series creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Fulchuk provided some kind of path to redemption for characters played by the great Jessica Lange.  In the third season, AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN, Lange’s character, the “Supreme” witch of a New Orleans school for young witches, dies and goes to a custom-made Hell without any hope of redeeming a lifetime of evil.

I suppose we should take heart that some of these characters get what they deserve.  But I have only so much interest in a series built around a complete villain.  If a character is truly irredeemable, she loses much of her complexity and fascination.  That villain may be useful as a foil for a hero, but as an antihero, he leaves much to be desired.  Even worse, if we continue to choose these purely evil characters as the focal points of our storytelling, what does that say about our values?  If we do not care to redeem them, what does that say about our society?

Cheers, Donna

12 comments:

  1. I think women like the idea of possibly redeeming a 'bad guy' or that they can be good for The One. But I think a lot of it is the fantasy.

    Through high school, I loved Phantom of the Opera. While the idea of Eric and Christine together is the fantasy, in real life you'd tell her to run, run as fast as she could away...the guy is psycho and kills people. And Susan Kay's Phantom was awesome for getting to know the history of Eric and feel sorry for how he had to live...can you still overlook, he killed lots of people and be a lover?

    I love Tom Hiddleston's Loki but it is a fantasy. I can love him being a bad boy but no way would I want that in real life.

    And maybe I'm too safe in real life but safe is a good thing and I can dream of the bad boys but I have enough stress...I don't need the bad boy at home.

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  2. I don't mind my heroes flawed, but I like them to be heroes. And yes, redeemable. But then I'm also old fashioned. :-)

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  3. Beth, I do think the impulse behind a lot of what we see is the appeal of the "bad boy". But lately I think that trope has just been taken too far. No one is interested in saving the bad boy or turning him around, even in fiction. We're supposed to watch him destroy himself and everyone around him. (Loki is a good example. They ripped that redemption right out of our hands.) Like Pauline says, I like my heroes to be heroes, even if they have their flaws.

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  4. The reason I'm not on the vampire bandwagon is this entire post. The occasional antihero is nice, but I don't want a steady diet of him. There's no redemption.

    I've written one antihero character, but I redeemed him. He'll never quite come to terms with what he's had to do, but he wants to be more. He's fun.

    I think part of this trend has to do with getting rid of moral absolutes. Moral absolutes are required for redemption, and our culture seems to want nothing to do with the concept.

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  5. Fascinating topic, Donna.

    As one who has been criticized for writing heroes who aren't bad enough (i.e. more Beta heroes), I don't really seem to have an affinity for "bad boys." Instead, I'm more a fan of the tragic hero overcoming his past to eventually triumph and/or find true love (i.e. Sair, Mitch and Alii'us for those who are familiar with my work.)

    But when one of my works contained a dark, deadly assassin and very gray area personna in terms of the whole force of Good or Evil debate, my beta readers loved him. They wanted me to rewrite the story to make him the hero.

    Obviously that didn't happen. The story isn't about him. His character and the morale dilemma he presents is just an important part of the story arc.

    I'm not sure what the fascination is with bad boys (maybe because I don't share it) but I totally agree that "redemption" is the key to telling a good story with a solid, satisfying ending.

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  6. This is another tightrope to walk! I'm one of the few (I suspect) readers who doesn't like the very powerful, muscular bad ass alpha male who talks to his woman as if she's a piece of meat, who treats sex as his right and thinks he's an okay guy because deep down he 'loves' the heroine. (for loves read controls) Not my sort of guy. Nor is one who kills without good reason, or sleeps with another woman - without good reason and it had better be good! I haven't watched any of those TV shows but I have seen in fiction a rise in the anti-hero - kicking off from Christian Gray in 50 Shades.

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  7. I, too, have become disillusioned with villains as heroes. I used to write stories of redemption and was criticized for writing characters who were "too pure." But as a Christian, I was also criticized for writing characters who weren't pure enough! I decided I couldn't win and gave up.

    It has been a peeve of mine for years that we, as readers and consumers of stories, are increasingly expected to accept evil people as "heroes" without any clear redemptive path. It seems to be suggested that those anti-heroes are somehow more "real" or that they should be heroes because they're just a smidge better than the other guy.

    But I don't like that. I like heroes--real heroes. I like human heroes who are messy and flawed and imperfect, but who are ultimately heroes at heart.

    The truth is that people are flawed and messy. Redemption is a flawed, messy process. And it is a process--not always a single act or choice. Few of us can say we "go and sin no more" perfectly.

    While my own writing career is most likely over, I am thrilled to see that the tide may be shifting back toward heroes I can really love. As a reader, may I respectfully request that you wonderful authors please write some heroes I can cheer for?? :)

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  8. I don't watch a lot of the shows you mentioned for that reason. I want my heroes to have flaws but be redeemable. I want to cheer for him when he finally takes the right path.

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  9. Love this topic because I'm a huge fan of the redemption story-one of the reasons The Equalizer television show was a favorite. I have written a very damaged hero who was an assassin and, I admit, he was kinda fun in that he was very single-minded. "I love her, she needs protection, so I'll kill whoever needs killing to make sure she gets it."

    But there has to be redemption for me in a story. I love Loki but I can't crush on him like a lot of people because I remember how man died in the invasion of New York City.

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  10. Barbara, I think the rise of the anti-hero has less to do with Christian Gray from 50 Shades and more to do with the insane number of vampire books in paranormal romance. The vampire PNR trend pre-dates 50 Shades by a good ten years.

    PNR is on the downslide, but I'm afraid the anti-hero influence doesn't seem to be going away.

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  11. Part 1

    I don't watch too much television, but I did watch Dracula. I don't think he's unreedemable, he's just on a sort of Count of Monte Cristo path of vengeance. He killed his friend, but his friend probably *was* unredeemable. He was slaughtering people all over the place with no remorse. Even Dracula has standards.

    About the larger questions: If we continue to choose these purely evil characters as the focal points of our storytelling, what does that say about our values? If we do not care to redeem them, what does that say about our society? - No one has really tackled them so I'll give it a go.

    I remember people used to talk about the evening news being a bunch of negative stories to make people fearful of going outdoors and think the worst of their neighbors. But those tactics only partly worked while people still had a friends and a feeling of community. The more that people have gone online, become attached to their phones, and distanced from other people in society, the easier it is to disillusion them that the world is a scary place filled with people who are out to shoot you, steal your stuff, assault you, or get you in any way they can.

    I think that what you are seeing, especially from young indie authors and script writers in the way of unredeemable characters, has less to do with *wanting* to redeem the characters, and more to do with whether or not society believes they can be redeemed.

    People look at the homeless and say it's their fault, the unemployed and say they are lazy, and the successful and say they deserved it. None of these things are true - I should know - I'm studying SocioPolitical Economy. These things happen because of the way our economy works, not because of individual faults or failings, or even successes (unless you actually invent something amazing like Bill Gates) - the rest of the time, it's simply that the rich understand how to leverage their assets and the poor only understand how to sell their labor, and not very well, at that.

    In addition, our ways of redemption typically don't work, recidivism rates for formerly incarcerated individuals are extremely high. People in prison actually learn how to commit more types of crimes better with other criminals. People usually get away with multiple crimes before anything happens to them, and many times they get punishments far below the crime, especially with things like white collar crime. Stalkers don't even get punishment until they actually hurt you, and the police say bringing them in will be more likely to anger them, so you pray that if they hurt you it won't be permanent but it will still be bad enough to get a restraining order.

    But I digress. If we believe that people are responsible for economic failure, and that criminals aren't punished justly, what is the purpose of looking for punishment and redemption? As a society, even though the U.S. is one of the most religious nations in the world, it is not politically correct to want people to find god. I am not religious, and I let go of the idea a long time ago that people will be punished for their sins after death. If that's the case, then everything goes, right? It is not even politically correct to talk about karma or spirituality unless you're with the New Age crowd - so there is absolutely NO reason to want to redeem yourself.

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  12. Part 2

    So, what would be the purpose of redemption? It's all about the here and now - take what you can get and if you can get away with it, more power to you.

    This is a very cynical and terrible way of looking at the world. But I think we need to take a serious look at what is happening to the younger generations - and why. Even if I didn't believe in religion, my parents did, and that gave me a kind of moral compass and certain standards and values, which is why I believe people should seek redemption for their flaws. But what if I didn't have this?

    I think you would be surprised by the liberal attitude that most college students have about these types of things. If you can get away with it - more power to you. I've taught ESL conversation in a number of countries, and there's always the question about the wallet. If you found a wallet, would you return it? With or without the money? What if it was $100? How about $1000? No matter what country I was in, most students said they wouldn't return it, even if it only had ten bucks. If I find it, I keep it. It's my good fortune!

    They are not being taught to have empathy for others, or to consider alternative points of view. This emphasis on social media makes it all about me, Me, ME! What I'M doing, what I'M eating, where I'M going. You only have to read the posts - people have no compassion. The funny thing is, no one cares until something bad happens to them, and then they realize that no one gives a crap and people are just waiting to 'hate on' them. Then they become one of the 'complainers' that everyone else ignores. I'm not even sure that kids today care about redemption in the eyes of society. They only care about their peers, and only select peers. The rest don't matter.

    This is getting too long so I'll leave it there. Feel free to argue with me!

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