Questionable Character


The movie Unforgiven is, in my estimation, one of the best movies in my memory, and while I’m not a connoisseur of the genre, it is hands-down the best western I’ve ever seen.

The characters in the movie are vibrant, alive and teeming with quirky, lovable qualities which make them stand aside from the archetypal cardboard figures typified by some of the cheap, Saturday afternoon television westerns of yesteryear.  Certainly, they aren’t much like the “characters” in the spaghetti westerns of their heyday.  These characters are rich with history and memory and weakness and frailty.  The protagonist, William Munny, played by Clint Eastwood, is a man on a mission to change who he is, trying to run a failing pig farm and put his questionable past behind him.  The opening title card for the movie reads:

She was a comely young woman and not without prospects. Therefore it was heartbreaking to her mother that she would enter into marriage with William Munny, a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition. When she died, it was not at his hands as her mother might have suspected, but of smallpox. That was 1878.

That’s a brilliant opening, and the rest of the movie doesn’t disappoint.  While I’ve never been a fan of westerns, this one captured my imagination, and I even wrote a short story based on it, having been touched somewhere in the deepest little-boy part of my psyche by the idea of a good ol’ fashioned cowboy story.

When I considered what made the movie so enjoyable for me, I realized (last night) it was the characters.  The story was all right.  It wasn’t typical of westerns, really, but the characters were the riches of the movie.  They were extraordinary in their ordinariness, and they came to life through talented and well-directed acting and vibrant, fun dialog.

My post yesterday about super-villainous antagonists with unlimited resources at their disposal, including mental capacities and wealth, drew a lot of insightful comments.  Folks know a lot about why TV bad guys are such cardboard cut-outs, that’s for sure.  But what about heroes in TV and movies?  Are they any more dimensional, less flat and predictable, than the bad guys?

I don’t think so.  All of them have their superiority.  All of them have their one flaw, the Achilles heel, which, of course, the bad guys can exploit.  But are the heroes any better than the bad guys?

I don’t think so, in all honesty.  I think TV protagonists are pretty thin.  They seem altruistic in their goals, working good purely for the working of good; they are always strong and fast and good-looking (who wants to watch an ugly hero or heroine?); they are always the smartest and best at whatever it is they do.  If they aren’t, then they have the sidekick who’s the best at everything they lack.  If they’re supergeniuses who can’t shoot to save themselves, then their sidekick will be the most deadly marksman law enforcement has ever seen, and the most skilled hand-to-hand combat specialist, and the most sophisticated weapons specialist.  So, while the heroes aren’t always fabulously rich (though you’d never know by looking at their clothes, cars and homes), they are the top-tier of all humanity in something.

Shows like House have gone out of their way to inject quirky, off-beat behavior into the central character.  Gregory House is the world’s greatest diagnostician, but he’s a drug-addict and sarcastic, cynical and distrusting.  At first these things were charming offsets to the typical hero, who is not only fabulously attractive, incomparably brilliant, and so unbelievably sensitive and aware of others he’d make Mother Theresa Green with envy, but also always has the most clever lines and the last word.  House was different … initially.  Now he’s a caricature of himself, too far to the extreme and getting farther out with every season.  (Too bad.)

Yesterday I mentioned “Red John” from The Mentalist, but the protagonist is almost as bad; he can out-police the entire California Bureau of Investigation (which appears to be four people, from what I can gather), is better at picking up evidence than all of California’s crime scene technicians, and can hypnotize, manipulate or trick any and all people who cross his path.  Oh, except for Red John, of course.

But some of the most beloved characters are quirky in some way too.  Columbo, with his forgetful act, his absentminded methodology.  Kojak, lacking any hair, less than a physical prototype for males, and sucking on a lollipop.  Monk, with his OCD and hand-washing habit.  None of those characters fit the prototypical protagonist mold, yet they were popular and long-lived in TV.

William Munny was a murderous outlaw who was tamed because he loved someone.  Those things still exist in him, though; they’re part of his character, and we see some of them peek out from behind the frayed edges of his time-softened personality.  But they’re fused forever with his conscience now, and he’s not able to do and be what he once was, except for the vengeance of his dearest friend.  But through most of the movie he’s trying to convince his fellow assassins he’s not the same man he once was, that a new leaf has been turned, and the tragedy of that desperation is the comedy of the character, even to the very end of the movie.

Characters of questionable character, not fitting the golden-haired, chiseled-featured cookie-cutter of TV and movie heroes make for more interesting and watchable people, people it’s easy to root for and to want to see succeed.  But we so seldom get that on television anymore, and not often enough in the movies.

What do you think?  Do we need more out-of-the-ordinary, quirky or flat weird heroes?  Do you have a favorite one?

Sound off y’all.


All original content © 2009 DarcKnyt
ALL rights reserved.


9 thoughts on “Questionable Character

  1. Call me crazy, but my favorite TV hero is Captain Jack Harkness of Torchwood. He’s good, loyal, brave and all those heroic things (handsome too!) and yet he’s tormented, dark, promiscuous, stubborn, and willing to kill. His conscience is dubious.

    I’ve never heard of that one; off to Wikipedia for me!

    But I’m not watching TV these days, so I can’t speak for any current heroes. Hmm, I like the cops in Law and Order–well, I haven’t watched the last couple of seasons, so I’m speaking of the cops of the first few years. They beat the CSI cops by miles. The thing about Law and Order cops, you really don’t get much of their non-work lives and yet they seem real to me.

    The CSI “cops” aren’t even supposed to be COPS. It’s one of the most irritating things about the show week-in, week-out for me. (My wife loves the show, but I can’t figure out why; she’s WAY too smart for it.)

    Too many heroes are flat. I struggle with this in my own writing. You’ve got to make the character interesting, sympathetic, flawed, smart enough to win but blind enough to be fooled… Damn hard.

    Indeed, and it’s one thing I’m worried about with my own writing too.

  2. Now, finally, you’re talking about stuff I actually know something about. First off, Unforgiven, pretty darn good film. It can’t hold a candle to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but really, what film can?

    Oh, I disagree. I haven’t seen TGB&U for a LONG time, but as I recall, it wasn’t very good. I’ll have to check it out next chance I get and compare. I also heard The Outlaw Josey Wales was a great movie, but can’t recall. Now, High Plains Drifter? Awesome … at least it seemed to be last time I watched it.

    Characters on TV are flawed, not just in a personality as a whole because they are inconsistent. TV programs are not written like films or books. Films and books are written as one-offs. TV shows are written in groups of 4, 7, 13, 22 episodes. In almost every single case, a group of writers combines to write a season’s worth of programs.

    This harkens back to what we said yesterday about villains. Are they more or less flawed as a group effort? I guess I never figured on writers not reading the work of the writers which came before them to direct their characters. Even in comic books they do that; why wouldn’t you on TV or in the movies? Makes no sense to me.

    Over time and seasons, characters will change and create contradictions in themselves because the writers have changed and written new and different backstory and behaviour for characters without paying attention to what previous writers had written.

    Something which should NEVER happen, IMO. It doesn’t make sense that writers who write for a show don’t know the history or story behind those characters. How can you do your job if you don’t??

    Therefore, I refuse to give any TV characters any sort of depth after about 5 or 6 episodes. The little things that make the character deep often change by that point.

    Probably a good philosophy to adopt. Thanks for sounding off!

    • “… as I recall, it wasn’t very good.” in regards to the finest piece of film ever shown in public…

      Okay, stop whatever you’re doing, flip on the TV and go to AMC and wait. Eventually it will be on again. Watch it. WATCH IT!

      Okay, okay! I’ll watch it!

  3. I realized that comment I just left was a bit out of left field and didn’t really discuss what I had intended to discuss or what you were expecting me to discuss. Okay, here’s my second go at it.

    Take all the time you need. For the record, I thought your input was DIRECTLY on-target.

    I’m bored with heroes as a whole. The less I know about the character the better. Just give me what I need. The only not-humourous fiction series I still watch on TV is Law & Order (and SVU). The characters have as little personal life as possible. Each episode is just another crime that needs to be solved. And half the time, the guy is found not guilty and gets off scot-free. The hero doesn’t always come out on top.

    That makes for a more interesting show to me. And I’d like to see them devote more effort to making the audience despise the criminals, since the heroes are established already.

    Sure, I think compared to the comical characters on other programs, the Law & Order characters can seem rather robotic at times. But I think that’s sloppy opinions by people who lack the attention to get the subtleties of the characters. The characters in L&O reveal their depth in such tiny doses, inconsistencies are less inevitable and it puts the focus on what the show is really about: the law and the order. (Or in the case of SVU, whatever issue they’ve been paid to endorse this week. Kinda why I’m not watching new episodes of that show anymore. Again, another tangent for another day.)

    Yeah, I get sick of having political views and opinions forced on me as “entertainment” — movies or TV. “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, anyone?

    My favourite hero-type characters on TV are probably Benson & Stabler from SVU. Benson, the softy, sometimes too-soft with the ability to take the life of man because deep down, she wants to kill her father. Stabler, the guy who acts tough and tougher when he’s accused of acting tough, but deep down, can’t bring himself to kill those who Benson will kill. They make a great team. Stabler gets the perp riled up and then Benson executes the perp.

    I liked the Jerry Orbach cop on L&O, and when Ben Bratt was on it. Haven’t followed since then, though.

  4. If you get around to checking out Torchwood, I’d love to hear your take on it.

    Would I find that on Hulu, or is that not likely? If not, where can I catch it?

  5. I doubt it is on Hulu, but you can give it a try. I downloaded a few episodes on iTunes, but, of course, they weren’t free. You can see clips at BBC America.

    Oh, is that a British show? I’ll check and see what they have. Thanks!

  6. I love the movies that Clint Eastwood writes because there is frailty and angst as well as quirkiness to his characters which make them more real and less cardboard cutout. His Munny is so flawed as well as a bad horse rider. Now how many movies or stories do you see someone in the Old West that couldn’t ride a horse worth a damn? Not only is this a bit of comic relief but a flaw. The kid that is with him and Morgan Freeman on the hunt. A wanna be gunslinger that can’t see? How much more flawed could you be and not border on the ridiculous?

    The characters really sparkled in that, didn’t they? Even Morgan Freeman’s character, so steadfast and loyal, cheats on his wife to get a couple of “free ones” in, deducting from the total amount of the reward. Great humanity in tiny snippets. It was a brilliantly executed film. Another like it was “Gone, Baby, Gone”, which is a modern Boston setting, and fantastic writing and acting too. Good stuff, for the quirky characters.

    I love westerns since I grew up with John Wayne and all the other great actors that did westerns. Were the movies great? No but I have some favorites, most JW movies. I loved McClintock. Yes a total fluff piece but funny. Who would have thunk that JW was a comic actor? Movies like this , Hatari!, and North to Alaska, were just fun to watch and I still love them to this day.

    I saw one of JW’s movies — “The Shootist”, I believe — and had a grand time for the same reason. A weak, aging gunfighter with cancer and the young boy who idolizes him, and a woman who shows him kindness. It was really fine. (JW’s last movie, if I’m not mistaken.) Some of them are good. It really does depend on the acting and the writing in tandem.

    Silvarado is among my favorite westerns and it has a lot of flawed characters in it and it doesn’t take itself too seriously the whole time so you get some comic relief as well. I think the moments of comedy help make stories and movies, TV more realistic because how many of us don’t have these totally silly things happen to us or are a true part of our personalities?

    I haven’t seen that one; I’ll have to throw it on the pile with WIGSF’s “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” as to-sees.

    There are a lot of bad movies, TV and novels out there but sometimes you catch a pearl amongst the swine. I agree, Torchwood is one of my favorite shows and I eagerly await it’s return. I find myself watching quite a bit of British TV on BBC America. Great writing and acting. Loved the Jeckle and Hyde show they had on. It was just a one season wonder and was written that way. That would never fly in American TV, but since it was only for a short time, more like a longer mini-series, it stayed true to the story.

    Yes, there are always pearls. My wife adored the short-lived “American Gothic”, and fans are still clamoring for its return. There are good ones out there. I’ve heard great things about “Deadwood” too, but have never seen it.

    Sorry, didn’t mean to write a small blog post on this myself, just got wrapped up in the subject matter 🙂

    Not at all! I’m glad you’re enjoying the topics and invite you comment as much as you’d like! Thanks for taking the time!

    • I’m back! 🙂

      And I’m glad to see you! Thanks for stopping in again!

      Deadwood is great you just have to ignore the constant swearing, but as a western it is very gritty and character driven. HBO did lots of research on this before filming and I think if you check out they still have info on it.

      I wanted to see Deadwood. I’d heard really great things about it. Now it’s over. *Sigh* I’m always too late on these things.

      I also enjoyed their Carnival series which takes place during the dust bowl in the 1930’s and has a “good vs evil” supernatural basis as well. Both Deadwood and Carnival got pulled before they could actually finish the series in a proper manner but they are still worth a look even if the last season of each leaves you hanging.

      ARRRGHH!! Left hanging on a series finale! I hate that! But I’ll see if I can find it anywhere.

      I think that Showtime and HBO have some of the best series of all time since they have fewer restrictions. Though for SciFi I loved Farscape and own the complete series which I have watched often. Does that make me a bad person? I’m a total movie/tv fanatic. Have been since childhood.

      Have a great weekend and be safe!

      No, not a bad person at all! And I’m right there with you. Love decent TV/movies. They’re just hard to find. Have a great weekend yourself, and be safe!

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