Sunday, May 29, 2011

Ruin Your Characters' Lives

I have a weakness for TV shows about police and detectives more generally. Some are genuinely excellent -- The Wire, for instance -- and some are merely entertaining (that would be most of the rest). I used to watch Law and Order with some regularity, even Special Victims Unit, in spite of the fact that I find that particular iteration of the franchise not only tedious but morally deficient (the pleasure it takes in its own ugliness is second only to the smug pride the characters take in their own perfection). So my standards for the genre aren't exactly high, I'll admit.

I took an interest in Luther, a BBC detective series starring Idris Elba, first because I was curious what sort of British detective show would need an American actor, and because I love Idris Elba (again, The Wire). Well, turns out Idris Elba is British! So, that's one mystery solved. And for the first three episodes, I was mostly watching for him: the writing was okay, but -- much like SVU -- it seemed a little smug in places, a little too proud of its grasp of The Criminal Mind, a grasp that was (as it will be in any hour-long show) basically nonsense, the sort of excessively confident simplification that so often haunts the genre. And it felt, to be honest, a little exploitative at times.

There were a couple of continuing threads in the series: Luther's estrangement from his wife Zoe, who had found another man, and his relationship with Alice, a sociopath who murdered her own parents and got away with it. Alice immediately recognizes Luther's genius and becomes obsessed. This stuff was fine, but when an unexpected third element emerged in the fifth and penultimate episode -- a betrayal that made it impossible for things to continue as they had been -- the show seemed to find its legs. There were echoes of Othello here and there in the show, but of course a proper Othello requires an Iago, which is what the show found. And, here's the thing: suddenly it was fearless about ruining its characters' lives.

There had been a number of signs that the show would basically operate as a tragedy. Luther is an intellectual, but he's also a very large man with an uncontrollable temper, one who allowed at least one suspect to die (or nearly die) under his watch. In the first episode, we see him tear a door apart with his bare hands. Where his wife is involved, he tends to lose control. In a later episode, he throws something through his office window in full view of the entire unit, in spite of the fact he's currently under investigation for ethics violations and instability. He risks his career seemingly once daily, and his life nearly as often. However, unlike some shows featuring occasionally reckless cops, I always felt the odds were he would eventually ruin himself, that the status quo could not last.

In the fifth episode, this seems to happen. Central characters are killed in unexpected ways, Luther is sent on the run, his few real friendships are destroyed, and his career seems very likely to be over. So to do those of the people he's worked with, the young policeman he's taken under his wing, the officer who put her career on the line to keep him in work. By the sixth episode, some of these people are trying to kill him.

Luther is basically heroic, and so by the end of the series he comes around to make the right decision. Even still, he's screwed; his remaining allies make, in the last moment, an error that should put them all in prison. The cops are on their way. It seems impossible that they can talk themselves out of it, or flee, or otherwise repair what they have broken. There will apparently be another series, two episodes of two hours each, very soon. I don't know what on Earth they'll be about. As far as I can tell, all these lives are ruined.

This takes me back to when I was teaching introduction to creative writing, and I had one of those insights that you realize immediately should have been at the center of a whole day's lesson, or a week, or a semester's. We read a story by Daniel Wallace, from his novel in stories Ray in Reverse. The story was about a moment in Ray's life where he could have found love with a man. It seems clear, from the rest of the book, that Ray wasn't gay, but this story suggested that he was very probably bisexual, and that he could have been happy with this man, this artist. We talked as a class about how the reasonable thing to do in this moment would have been to explore the possibility of a relationship with this man. To take his time. To talk with friends about what he had come to know about himself. To find a way to accept himself, and to be happy. 

Instead, he flees the man he could have loved, finds the woman he already failed to love, and asks her to marry him. In subtle ways and ways less subtle, it probably ruins his life.

We talked about how this was probably the right way to make a story, or at least a certain kind of story. You find a character with the capacity to ruin himself or herself. You figure out what would make that happen. And then you push them until they snap. They don't have to go all the way, of course -- the ruin can be very small, in a sense, so long as it seems the worst thing this character could do, the worst thing he or she could see or know or feel. You want characters who make big mistakes. Who live to regret.

We so often encourage and reward carefulness in writers. But I think that a lot of us could stand to be more careless. It hurts to break someone you made. But that's what fiction is for. To imagine that level of pain without having to live it.


  1. I've not seen this show, this Luther, but I will seek it out.

    I know a thing or two about destroying characters. So I will speak at length about that.

    My immediate reaction to your call for what seems to be a genocide of all things (people, particularly) that we we create: (in the words of that sage Robbie Wndeborn) ChillTFO.

    Fiction (all writing, really) is supposed to be fun. That should be the first thing, the funness of it. And I'm not just talking about the pleasure of the communication between reader/writer, I'm talking about fun, like, this is an experience that is enjoyable because it is specifically FUN (like not just cerebral or physical or vaguely interesting or shocking (this is a shitty list) but total fun, like the slip and slide. The slip and slide is my best analogy. Any good writing should have the potential to be laid out - rolled out - on the little hill in the back yard and soaked with the hose and slipped and slided upon by people (readers and slippers and sliders) who trust the stuff enough to run and jump and slide and enjoy the experience (yes there will sometimes be some roughing up (i've seen some bitches get tore up on the slip and slide - blood and a tooth fell out once) but that roughing up does not become the thing to define the experience it (the blood and the tooth) is still primarily in service of the FUN).

    So yea, we can fuck up our characters. We have that power. But who wants to be like that kid Ricky at the end of the block that goes to great lengths to rescue stray kittens (with bowls of warm milk and tender words and hours, sometimes, of just sitting near the kitten and letting it know that things will be alright in the end) only to, in the end, really sadistically mutilate the kittens in all kinds of games that involved throwing them off the roof and strapping them to car engines and the general introduction of the worst kind of pain into their poor abandoned kitten lives.

    Let's face it - we do what we do (this writing) because it gives us a small semblance of power in a world that is otherwise pretty much FUCK 'EM AS FAR AS I'M CONCERNED. People have pain in their lives. Real pain. And people have joy in their lives. Real joy. And real FUN. And if we're going to do any service for this world (if we can) we've at least got to take all of that into consideration and maybe even privilege the fun. Wouldn't that be a lovely service for this FUCK 'EM AS FAR AS I'M CONCERNED world.

    So, yea. Tear your characters apart. Strike up a tag team with Satan and go at all your characters like they're that sunnuvabitch Job and he's had the audacity to be a mostly decent man. But try not to make it too miserable to read or too just plain miserable. Fly the fun flag too.

  2. I'm not sure what about this post suggests I am against fun. I like fun! I also have a taste for some pretty grim entertainment, but that's just me. And I wouldn't say that all fiction should be like a Slip 'n' Slide either. What I'm suggesting is basically this: if you're doing the sort of story where it's appropriate, push your characters too far and see what happens. It can be a big thing like a mutilation or a small thing like an embarrassment. And if it's not appropriate, don't do it. But it probably is more often than we think: drama requires, most of the time, that the worst thing happens.

  3. I'm gonna check out this show. Also, I enjoyed this post. I think I've written here before about how I noticed an improvement in my own fiction when I stopped acting like a guardian angel to my characters, shielding them from possible and even likely danger. One of my favorites has had an eye torn out and an arm hideously broken (I did change that from an arm amputation, so I guess there's that.) I probably forced myself in this direction after getting tired of being able to predict safe passage for everyone through a certain style of story, where you know going into basically any danger situation that no, it's okay, the tension will be on how things are resolved rather than if there's any real danger.

  4. Here we's how the line is straddled...