Thursday, July 1, 2010

More on The Saint - Psychological Warfare and Con Jobs

I do like the old "confidence game" story. Both the positives of things like "Widow's Peak" and the TV show "Leverage" or the scarier ones like "Gaslight."

Deception and twists are the key parts of such con jobs, but there is another element that often plays a part - and that is psychological warfare. A con man, of course, likes to manipulate the emotions of the mark - scare him, excite his greed, motivate him in an irrational way.

Sometimes the psychological warfare is critical to the plot - the core thing. In Gaslight, for instance, Ingrid Bergman battles for her sanity with Charles Boyer and a wonderfully evil young Angela Lansbury. (It was Lansbury's first film, and she got an Oscar nomination for it. Ingrid Bergman deservedly WON the Oscar that year, though.) Unless you have something against classic movies, rent it, buy it, watch it. Especially if you want to learn a little about adding suspense to your stories.

Back to The Saint: Simon Templar really hates crooks. He hates them so much that he doesn't just want to defeat them. He wants to punish them, not just at the end, but all the way along. He spends a lot of time teasing and annoying them, and leaving his famous calling card - that little stick figure with a halo that appears on nearly any book, tv show or movie related to Mr. Templar.

The problem with this is that there is only so much purpose to it. Yes, it's satisfying up to a point. Yes, it's often a part of a greater plan. But there comes a point when it puts the whole situation at needless risk. And that's a tricky point.

I'm not yet sure whether I think the way Charteris handled this element in "The Man Who Was Clever" was good or bad. On the one hand, he did use it to create great tension, and a little negativity, for a character who was just too perfect. It's one thing for The Saint to take risks with himself and even his willing followers, but then an innocent is put at risk. And when his back up plan to protect her fails, his sidekicks understand that they are STILL not to sacrifice their shakedown of the crooks in order to save the girl. The prime goal never shifts.

Now, they do pull it off. (I think that does not constitute a spoiler - The Saint always wins, one way or another.) But they do it with a tarnished reputation, at least in my eyes. To the modern reader, that may be a good thing - given that too much gleaming perfection hurts the eyes - but I don't think that's what Charteris intended. I think he wanted us to be fearful of The Saint's possible failure, not angry about it.

There are a couple of points in a story when you see something of what a character is made of - and I think the "all is lost!" point (which tends to occur sometime after the middle, but before the final confrontation) is one of the key ones. When all is lost, when the plan is shattered because more is at risk than the hero thought, then we see what is really important to the hero. And yes, there may be a real conflict within him or her. And sometimes the best characters are those who do not easily make the right choice, and who refuse to accept they must make a choice at all.

But if you don't want to lose sympathy for the character, you have to think hard about those choices and how they make them. Does your character hesitate at all? Does your character change direction?

One thing I like in Leverage - which is a TV show about a gang of thieves and con men who even the score for victims of powerful people - is that when the "all is lost" point comes, they change direction. They may scramble to try to pull off the original goal too, but when something more important is at risk, that becomes the prime goal.

I'm not sure I don't like The Saint better when he isn't really a saint, but I think that giving your character such arrogance is a risk, and should be handled carefully and consciously.

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