Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Alpha Dogs - The Paladins: Dicks, Saints and Saddle Bums

Continuing the series on the currently popular character attributes - Wealth, Dominance and Jackassery. First Post Index of the Whole Series.  This week we're talking about Dominance, or Alpha Dog characters.

Yesterday I talked about the ending of Pulp Fiction as an example of a professional character taking control.  Jules is pretty extreme, and though he concludes by deciding to use his powers for good, he's no good guy.  As he terms himself, he has been "The Tyranny of Evil Men."  I won't be talking about evil men in this series. It's about good guys, or at least mostly good guys.

I mean THIS Paladin. He has a gun, he will travel.
And today I'm going to talk about a class of character I call "Paladins."  This may not be the best term for these guys, but I have such a strong instinct to call them that, that I went with it.

This Gun For Hire

Real paladins are actually officials -- they're honor-bound sidekicks of the king.  In gaming they are "Lawful Good" characters who are loyal to right, and follow their code of honor.

The guys I have in mind.... maybe not so much.

There's another connotation of the word paladin, though, and that is the roving hero, the free lance.  They're nobody's sidekick.  They're the professionals -- the answer to the question in the theme song of Ghost Busters: "Who you gonna call?"

And their loyalty, along with their skill and dominance, is for hire.

But that leads to a built-in conflict for these characters:

If you're for hire, you're not in charge: the client is.  But if you're a gun for hire, odds are the job itself is something the client can't handle, and requires someone who is more dominant than the client. Perhaps someone intensely dominant -- a true Alpha Alpha Dog who can handle anybody.

But a person who can handle anyone is going to be a loose cannon.  In those cases, it's only his code of honor that keeps him in line with his client.

Sam Spade - Alpha Alpha Dog

For someone like Sam Spade of The Maltese Falcon, this works because it's game he likes to play.  He is so alpha, that he doesn't mind doing the client's bidding.  It's like indulging a child.  But it's clear from the start that his will, and his code rules.  If it suits him, he'll destroy you.  Neither feelings nor right and wrong hold him back. Only his code.

But that's what makes him a powerful ally.  Furthermore, part of the reason he cultivates that attitude is that it's good for business.  A loose cannon -- someone who might do anything -- is scary and dangerous.  Even the most powerful of men have to watch out for loose cannons.

And that's one of Spade's biggest tools in taking charge of a situation.  His power doesn't come from money or authority -- or even from the calm calculated masterfulness of someone like Jules in Pulp Fiction.  It comes from the fact that he's fearless and unpredictable ... and uncontrollable.

My favorite bit from The Maltese Falcon movie is when Spade first meets The Fat Man, Caspar Guttman (Sidney Greenstreet).

They engage in genial negotiation, two Alpha Dogs feeling each other out.  But then, as Guttman continues with the pretense of rational persuasion, Spade simply explodes.  He throws a wild, irrational hissy fit.

If this were actually a rational negotiation, this would be a terrible move.  But Spade isn't negotiating, and the hissy fit is coldly calculated to let Guttman know that.

But the most interesting part of this scene is after the explosion, Spade storms out, and then, as we see him leave the hotel room, he transforms, like a werewolf becoming human again.  He didn't actually lose his temper.  The whole thing was a cool and calculated strategy.

Here's a clip.  If you want to just see the relevant parts, you can skip to about halfway through -- maybe two and a half minutes.  Spade explodes at 3:17.

My favorite bit here is at the end; after Spade pushes the button of the elevator, he pauses to admire the way his hand is shaking.  He enjoyed that wild bit of adrenaline.  He's not doing this for the sake of the client.  He's not even really doing it for money.  He's doing it because he likes it.  He's an alpha dog. He does what he likes.

In the very next scene he gets to revel in different kind of loose cannon moment: the district attorney calls him in to be questioned, and again he starts at ease, but then stands up and is a smart ass -- even going so far as to make a joke with the man's subordinates -- as he tells the guy that his authority means nothing.

I suppose Spade is as good at disrupting the control of others as Jules is at taking control.

Probably the most interesting thing about Spade, though, is how he reacts when someone gets the better of him: When Joel Cairo -- the effete character played by Peter Lorre -- pulls a gun on Spade, Spade takes the gun, knocks him out.  On waking up, Cairo is utterly subservient.  He's polite and pleasant and cooperative.  He totally accepts that Spade's in control of the situation.  He makes a deal with Spade, and then meekly asks for his gun back... and then turns it on Spade and goes right back to what he came for -- he wants to search Spade's office.  Spade is amused and even delighted to be beaten this way, and cooperates fully.  He could take the gun away again, but he respects someone who is a stubborn as he is -- who plays the game like a game. (The whole five minute sequence is here.)

Of the characters I talked about last week only three of them fall into this "gun for hire" category. That's Mick and  Casey McKee - my crime-solving young gunslingers from Have Gun, Will Play and other stories -- and George Starling, who straddles a couple of categories.

And all three of them -- even Casey -- are actually what I call Alpha Beta Dogs.

Casey McKee - Alpha Beta-ish Dog

Casey is by nature very alpha.  She is just a teenager, but she grew up in outlaw territory and she learned young, as a matter of survival, to be a cross between a wildcat and a rattlesnake.  And it's not a game either.  She's too small and too female to laugh off any violations of her personal space.

And yet....

Casey is very much aware that Mick has much better social skills than she does. As a matter of fact, she's just a little bit in awe of his ability to come right out and talk and joke around with people. Although she will never openly admit it, she recognizes that her doofus husband is actually smart.  She admires his brain.  And he can do things and take her places she never would otherwise go.

And she's not the only one.  In the back story of the series: when Casey met Mick, he was riding with a legendary -- and ornery -- lawman named Harry Lowe.  Harry and Casey are extremely alike.  (Except Harry is a man and gets more respect.)  He had very poor social skills, and though he didn't need Mick to solve puzzles for him, he did come to depend on this goofy kid's social ability.

So even though both Casey and Harry are ornery people who call the shots, they both recognize that there are times they would rather defer to Mick.

Mick McKee - Beta Dog with a Gun and a Wife

Mick's chosen profession is freelance law man.  So he has to have the skills to take control of a situation, to dominate when dominance is necessary.  And he learned from the best, so he has all of those skills that Jules exhibited in that scene I talked about yesterday.  Or at least all the social skills: Mick knows about looking the right person in the eye at the right time, about calming people down, but putting an edge in his voice when he needs to.  He knows how and when to be fearless when necessary.

He's at ease with all of those things, but dominance not really his nature. He'd rather joke you into something than use force.  And being scary?  He'd just as soon let Casey do that part.  And it works particularly well because, while people tend to underestimate her, his smiling narration (and obvious respect) tends to draw attention to her more dangerous attributes.

As I mentioned up top: being a gun for hire is the source of a built in conflict, and Mick and Casey probably feel it more than anyone.  They are there to do dirty work.  Other people's dirty work.  And they're young, and they haven't quite got all the ethical ins and outs of their world or profession worked out.  Spade may have his internal code figured out, Mick and Casey don't quite.

And that causes a little angst in them.  Are they doing the right thing?  They live in a world that isn't black and white, where breaking a law might be the right thing. Where doing a good job may mean killing somebody.  This doesn't sit easy, but Mick figures that's how it's supposed to be.

George Starling - The Cat Among The Pigeons

Is George an Alpha Beta Dog?  Um... sort of.  But really, George isn't much of a dog at all.  He does compare himself to a retriever at one point, but others have a different animal in mind.  About halfway through The Man Who Did Too Much, George tells a co-worker; "I did not set the cat among the pigeons."

The other guy gives a long significant pause and says: "George, you ARE the cat among the pigeons."

George is very goal-oriented. He has no interest in social structures, and no interest in dominating others.  He has kind of a thing about busting things up when he sees people being dominated.  But he isn't interested in taking over.  It's just in breaking up the situation.  And he tends to shake things up because he doesn't respect or recognize things like pecking orders.

He was once a Mountie.  He is not a Mountie any more because... well, you know that motto about how Mounties always get their man? Well, apparently you're only supposed to do that when it's your assignment.

And yeah, he probably would have been happy as a Mountie if he'd been allowed to chase down Gros Pierre in the Yukon and drag him back trussed like a Christmas goose -- but that's not a matter of domination. It's not a dog correcting a rogue dog in his pack.  It's a cat catching a mouse.

As for dominating him...  George will do anything you want, as long as you are A) female, or B) a father figure or C) a kitten up a tree.  (Otherwise, he's really hard to nail down.)

And that's probably the only reason George is in this category of Paladin, because he really isn't a gun for hire. He doesn't need or want the money.  He has a job becuase then someone will give him assignments, and he has found the job where gets to help people and the boss doesn't try to stop him.  (That was the rest of the statment by his co-worker "You are the cat among the pigeons, and that's why Eva calls you.")

But George also fits in another category, which I'll talk about next Tuesday: the Rogue Hero.  But before I get to that, I want to talk about the one category that George clearly doesn't fit in at all: The Public Servant.

Next week on Monday we'll be talking about cops and soldiers and bureaucrats.  I'll be talking about Columbo and Marshal Sam Gerard of The Fugitive, and of my own characters; Captain Rozinshura and some supporting characters like Sergeant MacGreevey and Uncle Rosie.

See you in the funny papers.

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Kyra Halland said...

This is great - I love your take on the whole subject. And I enjoyed the peek into Casey's mindset.

My character Silas is definitely an Alpha Dog (you have to be when you're a bounty hunter who's also on the wrong side of the law). I'll have to watch both movie clips to get some pointers for him, especially the Samuel L. Jackson one. I was going to say, Silas doesn't throw hissy fits, but actually he does at least once. Someone tries to drown him by pushing him into a flash-flooding creek, then says it was a misunderstanding. Silas doesn't take kindly to that at all.

Looking forward to more!

The Daring Novelist said...

Glad you're looking forward to it!

One note about Alpha Dogs and hissy fits -- they only seem to throw them when they don't respect the other side. (And Silas sounds like he nailed that one.)