Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Close-up on Character Technique - the Sympathetic Jerk

This post will examine a couple of scene fragments taken intentionally out of context. Therefore if you've read the book or seen the TV show, do not be alarmed to see that the characters and storyline are interpreted wrong. This is not about the story, but about the technique and its effect on the audience. Therefore I'm taking isolated scenes I found on YouTube, and analyzing them without benefit of having seen the whole thing or reading the book.

(See yesterday's post to understand why I think this is a good idea.)

The clip is from the BBC adaptation of The Ice House by Minette Warner. Daniel Craig plays the sidekick detective, and it appears this was put together by one of his fans, so it's chopped up and disjointed. It consists of approximately three scenes, and it's the first two I'm mainly going to talk about - first four minutes.

Skip watching it if you are offended by frank insults and sexual references. (It is a gritty police procedural.) I'll explain enough so you can follow anyway.

In Scene One, we meet Detective Sergeant McLoughlan, obnoxious sidekick. A common type in a police procedural, there to provide opposition, represent social attitudes like bigotry and power, and maybe to play "bad cop" to make another cop look better. Without our knowing anything except what is said in the first scene, he seems to represent the attitude of the whole town toward the women.

The first technique in making him more sympathetic than most is right there in that first scene: He didn't actually start the fight. He just didn't sufficiently cover his discomfort in shaking hands with the first two women, so that the third called him on it. At which point he revealed he wasn't ashamed of his arrogance or bigotry.

Scene Two, though, is more interesting, as the Detective Sergeant happens upon an open door and overhears two of the women talking... and he realizes they are talking about him.

They're not saying nice things. They are things he could handle if said to his face, but they're not saying it to his face. They don't know he's there, which should make them vulnerable, but in this case it makes him vulnerable. He's eavesdropping, and can't make an obnoxious reply. Not without making an awkward entrance that puts him at a disadvantage.

Which is The Key Technique in gaining empathy. We all cringe at being in an awkward spot. Alfred Hitchcock used this to great effect: he would force the viewer to empathize with the most evil villains by putting his villains in a spot. Even though you have no sympathy for the killer, even though you'd be cheering for him to be caught, you'd still tense up for him when the key he absolutely needs to escape would fall down behind the dresser just as the cops were coming down the hall. You can't help but think "Oh no! What's he gonna do?"

This is called empathy - you feel for the character's situation even if you don't care about the character. If you have that, you don't actually need sympathy.

But you can also take the empathy deeper by showing how the character deals with the awkward spot. We all want to be able to deal with awkwardness well ourselves. We pull away from people who don't deal with it well, we stay with people who do.

In the old silent and post-silent comedies, the moustache-twirling villain would get a pie in the face and either he would stand there gawping like a fish, or he would not recognize that he had lost his dignity, and he would declaim about what an outrage it was. We do not feel sympathy, and we stop empathizing with him fast. We are happy to see him get hit by more pies.

That is an alternative to sympathy. You can make him less sympathetic and then give him everything he deserves. But once we stop empathizing or sympathizing, the only think interesting about him is his comeuppance. So those kinds of characters need to stay in the background, or they need to become comic relief and get what's coming to them regularly.

While there is certainly a pie-in-the-face pleasure to dealing with Detective Sergeant MacCloughlan - at least if you are sympathizing with the women who want to wipe that smirk off his face - he does prove himself to less of a twit than he seems. You can see he would like to storm in and declaim like Sig Ruman (the heavy in many great Marx Brother's flicks), but instead he decides not to make a pie-target of himself, and he goes back out so he can make a proper entrance and have an official leg to stand on.

Which is partly effective, except when his suspect tells him a bald-faced lie, and he can't admit that he knows it's a lie. He's stuck. But he's got just enough Sig Ruman in him that he can't slink away defeated. So he barges in to catch her in the lie, except it's too late....

Every mistake me makes, he recovers and moves on (to the next mistake, unfortunately). By the end of the second scene it's pretty clear he's outclassed, and the thing that makes it work is because he knows it - but he's still on his feet.

And that's really the third technique: You can't help but like a fighter. Fighters are vulnerable. They take punches. They stagger. Sometimes they go down for the count, but until that happens, they keep going. (Although if you watch the final scene, he's definitely staggering and possibly down for the count by the end of that one.)

So in recap: Step One is to be fair to the jerk - let others take some blame too. Step two is to put him in a situation we can empathize with, and Step Three is to give him some gumption.

I'm not real fond of Minette Warner's other stories. They are much much too gruesome for me. (I don't mind dark, I do mind creepy.) However, on the basis of seeing this out-of-context clip I looked up some reviews. The Ice House does not appear to be gruesome as the other stories, and that it appears Detective Sergeant McLoughlin is not a secondary character in a minor subplot, but rather has a nice long learning curve ahead of him. So I went to the trouble of getting my hands on the video on eBay. I'll let you know if it turns out to interesting or gruesome or what....

(In the meantime, my alpha reader had some reactions to the clip. Read a follow up post on context and speculation.)

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