Monday, October 7, 2013

Alpha Dog Week - Characters Exerting Control

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.

This series started with some musings by another blogger on the fad for dominators (as in BDSM bondage "doms") in romantic heroes these days.  But I'm taking this subject to a broader level. It's something all writers have to consider and deal with; that protagonists have to take control of something -- themselves, the situation, the bad guy, something.

But I'm talking, in particular, about characters for whom taking control is an actual skill set.

For some it's also a personality trait, but not for all.  And because I write mostly in the genres surrounding mystery and adventure, my characters are sometimes called upon to be downright dominant, whether that's in their nature or not.

And in these genres, this kind of dominance is aslo more than just a character trait or a skill set.  It's a part of the plot.  It's an important theme that runs through such stories: the ethics of dominance, resisting dominance, the social uses of it, etc. (Even in a cozy mystery -- the killer is someone who used unacceptable force, and the point of the detective work is ultimately to take the killer into custody.)

So instead of starting with my own characters, I'm going to kick this off with a movie that really illuminates those things -- the skills, the themes, the ethics.
Pulp Fiction - The Epilogue

This is a movie many of you may never want to see, and I am not recommending that you do.  (Though it is brilliant if you like the kind of movie it is.  I can't really watch any other Tarantino movie, though I admire his work.)  I just think that everybody -- every writer, certainly -- can benefit from the lessons of one scene, the epilogue ending.  And so I'm going to talk about that and offer a clip for those who haven't seen it.

Pulp Fiction is a violent crime movie about dominance and bullying, but also about chivalry, and honor and characters with a personal code.  It's full of extreme contrasts.  For instance the opening scene is a pair of sweet young lovers -- Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey-Bunny (Amanda Plummer) having coffee in a diner.  They're sweet, they love each other, they call each other cute names ... and they are also professional armed robbers.  They are discussing a change in their career -- from robbing liquor stores to robbing banks -- but decide, in the end, to rob the diner they're in instead.

Then the movie cuts away and tells the story of other characters -- criminals and gangsters all -- until the very end, when it cuts back to that scene in the diner, where we see that among the customers in the diner are a pair of hit men.  We've seen them throughout the movie, and they're really dangerous guys.  Mean, uncompromising, highly competent, and they've had a really bad day.

However, the meanest, baddest one of all, Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) has just revealed that he's rethinking what he wants out of life.  And just then the young robbers leap to their feet and start waving around guns and screaming.  They're terrifying, abusive -- screaming, waving guns, shoving people, threatening them personally -- until they have complete control of the diner.

And then they face Jules.  Jules would just let them take his wallet and leave, but they want the briefcase he has with him, which belongs to his boss and he is honor-bound to deliver it safely.

So Jules has to take control back.  And it's not something he can do by just pulling out his gun.  There are two of them, armed and on edge, and determined to keep control -- and when they realize he's a threat, they are even more determined to keep control.  Jules is alone, since his partner had gone off to the men's room.  And worse yet, the partner comes back, gun out and ready to shoot, just as Jules is getting things calmed down.

So at any moment, everybody's going to start shooting.  Jules must dominate all of them. And he does so mainly with his voice. (Yes he has a gun, but they all have guns.)

I want you to see this for two reasons -- one is because I want you to see how he does it.  The other is because I want you to hear what he says as he explains why he doesn't kill them.  This speech is about dominance, and defining the weak and the strong and the protector and the tyrant.

It's all about what we have to think about when we have characters take control.

There is only half the scene here (the clip's about four minutes) and it starts after he's got everybody calm.  But he uses the same techniques in the clip as he used before it.  (Especially when his partner returns just a moment into this, and things get a little crazy again.)  Jules shouts and uses expletives and points his gun like everybody, but notice what his real main tools are:

He focuses -- he looks only where he needs to look (mainly keeping control of Pumpkin, whom he calls "Ringo" because of the English accent), he gives simple and reasonable orders.  He talks like a parent, "point the gun at me, honey, you're doing great."  He frequently uses names -- and one of the first things he did to take control was to get Pumpkin to give him Honey-Bunny's real name, Yolanda, because he does not have physical control of her, and she's getting hysterical.  And that's exactly what anybody would do if you have to get control of a frightened child: ask the name, use it to establish familiarity.  It is a professional technique.

But most of his energy if focused on Pumpkin/Ringo.  It's Control 101.  He keeps eye contact, he frequently demands responses -- though he is not bullying (not saying "I can't hear you!").  He keeps it on a practical level.  Pumpkin must calm Yolanda down, he must indicate that he understands. Jules doesn't have to rush him -- he's rushing himself.  And that's a part of control too, to be doing the opposite of what the victim expects.

And watch what Jules does with the gun and his face as he comes to the conclusion of his speech about the Bible verse and righteous and evil men.  As he reaches his final point, his manner is more intimate.  He moves the gun closer, which is scarier, even as his face becomes more expressive and his point more benign, and it seems like this whole thing is to be sure Pumpkin doesn't miss the point.  He relents only when he's done.  And everybody is so dominated, they are afraid to move.  Jules has to say "go" very softly and gently.

Here's the scene.  It's full of bad language.  Cover the cat's ears....

For this series, I'm not going to talk about villains -- even reforming villains like Jules -- I'm going to talk about heroes (and impact characters) and how they take control.  I'll break them down in to three types which my characters fall into.  I call them Paladins, Public Servants and Rogues.

I'll start tomorrow with the Paladins (who I am defining slightly differently than they do in gaming and history; I'm making a specific reference to Wire Palladin, the hired gun from Have Gun, Will Travel).  Paladins, in this case, are champions: hired guns and private eyes who are hired to be Alpha Dogs for people who are too weak to protect themselves.

I'll talk mainly about Sam Spade, of The Maltese Falcon (and maybe a little about Wire Paladin) and then my own characters George Starling and Mick and Casey McKee.  (Link to Paladins - Dicks, Saints and Saddlebums)

See you in the funny papers.

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Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

This is the complete opposite of the type of movie I usually watch (which is ordinarily costume dramas), but I did watch this when it came out in the early 90s. And (although I covered my eyes through parts of it), I enjoyed it. You're's the contrasts there. The range of emotions. Great movie.

I also tried to watch Tarantino's Django Unchained, which was very difficult for me to watch, (and disturbing) although I thought it was well-done, too. Wish he'd tame his violent material a bit, but I guess that would mess up his vision. I guess.

The Daring Novelist said...

Yeah, I've got Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds on my watch list, but I just haven't been able to get around to it.