Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Alpha Dogs: Public Servants - Mommy Dog, Officials and Overseers

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.

Oh, boy, today's post split in two on me.  This particular trope is rich and varied, I guess....

In the comments on yesterday's post, Angie pointed out that Marshal Sam Gerard has a fatherly side.  Sure he tells Dr. Kimbal that he doesn't care (about justice), but he actually does care.  That's the flip side of being the gruff and demanding team leader and coach: he cares deeply about his "kids" - his team.  And about his duty as well.  Part of the reason he picks on people, especially other authority figures is because they are not doing their jobs well.

It is this devotion to duty -- this caretaker role -- that makes these types of characters so attractive.  They are just about my favorite type of character.

And yet I almost never write this type of character as a protagonist.

Furthermore, when I think about the many examples of famous characters I came up with for this post, I discover that there really aren't any protagonists in the bunch.  Oh, a few of them are co-protagonists (as is one of my own) but for the most part, they don't completely carry the story themselves.

Why is that?

Two related reasons.  One is that impact characters and co-protagonists have a freedom that main protagonists don't.  They don't, in particular, have to have fatal flaws or weaknesses to overcome.  They can be more mysterious, less forthcoming, funnier and more surprising.  So... you can write them as perfect, or powerful as you want to.  You can have more fun with them.

And that leads us to the other reason: They are powerful, whether you like it or not.  As I mentioned in yesterday's post, they have the authority vested in them by the government or organization for which they work.  They either have minions, or they can draw on minions.  They are naturals as The Cavalry.  They also make great fairygodmothers - pulling some strings in the background.  They make good mentors and great pseudo-antagonists -- that is, the person who provides opposition to the hero when the real villain is hidden.  And when you're telling a story in which the protagonist is a bad guy (such as with Columbo) they are the antagonist.

Mommy in Chief

But for now I want to get back to the concept of team leaders; the concept of a public servant who takes care of not just the team but the community. And also, provide you with an extreme contrast to Sam Gerard:

I give you the very pregnant Chief of Police of Brainerd Minnesota, Marge Gunderson, from the movie Fargo.

Margie has a very different leadership style from Sam Gerard.  She is a gentle and soft-spoken leader of a gentle and soft-spoken people.  In some ways this scene reflects some of the same types of things as the one from yesterday, with very different cultural connotations.  (Another similarity: like Tommy Lee Jones, Frances MacDormand won an oscar for this performance.)

Here is a four minute clip of Margie investigating a triple homicide in the tiny town of Brainerd Minnesota.  (The movie Fargo is quite violent and gruelling. This scene, though epitomizes how it is also wry and funny.  And even a little sweet.)

Most of Margie's minions don't show up for the triple homicide because ... it's cold out.  Geeze, it's Minnesota in the winter. We don't know how she is going to handle this, because she keeps her reaction to herself (but we get a hint later on).   The only thing we see of her leadership style is when her sidekick gets an obvious fact wrong at the end of the clip, she gives him a surprised look and says, "I don't know if I agree a hundred percent with your detective work there."

For the most part, Margie interacts with her minions the same way she interacts with her husband.  They kind of mill around, doing their routine and get the job done.  A little reminder here and there should be all that's necessary.  They are hardy northern folk, after all.

You wouldn't think these small town folks would be up to handling a triple homicide by vicious gangsters.  But you know what?  Margie is on it.  She and her sidekick, Lou, persue the information gently and politely but doggedly until she catches a brutal killer, single handed.  And then as she drives him to jail, she gives him a gentle commentary -- hardly even a lecture -- on how much destruction he's done for so little purpose. "There's more to life than a little money.  Don't you know that?  And here you are, and it's a beautiful day." 

You get the feeling this is how she'll handle her cops who didn't show up at the crime scene earlier.  It's the disappointed mom talk.  And maybe for her team, a lecture like this will work.  They are dutiful people, who are grateful for a "beautiful day" when it's cold and overcast and perhaps even blizzarding.

My Own Characters

I have two very different characters who fit into this model, both from serials I have posted here:  Captain Rozinshura from The Case of the Misplaced Hero, and Rocken from Test of Freedom.

Rozinshura - Your Friendly Neighborhood Official

Rozinshura is an official in a revolutionary government.  His nature fits somewhere on the spectrum between Margie and Gerard. He's a lot more friendly and cuddly than Gerard, and also willing to be as indirect as Marge, but he has no cultural issues with exerting his authority.

And like Gerard, he tends to operate with a flock of minions.  He wades into the scene and directs people, often without looking at them or where he is pointing, just as Gerard did in the clip yesterday.  But while Gerard takes over with the full and correct authority of the United States Federal Government, Rozinsura does it whether he has authority or not.  He bluffs his way through everything. If you call his bluff, he'll keep a straight face and give you another line.

And that's part of what makes him a good facilitator -- by taking responsibility onto himself, he not only gets the job done, but he also gives his superiors plausible deniability.  (In some ways, it's a part of his job to be like he is.)  But he also does it because he's a true believer.  The party functionaries over his head?  They're not The State he serves.  They're just the temporary form it has at the moment.

He even does it to ME.  I write a story where he's a secondary character, he declares he's a co-protagonist.  I come up with a story where he is the protagonist, he declares that's totally wrong. He should be the one who makes the protagonist's life interesting.

Given what he is like, I wish very much I could show you a clip of another movie.  Unfortunately, that move is currently available only in French, without subtitles.  (I have it somewhere myself with subtitles, but I can't give it to you.)

Les Ripoux is a movie about an old crooked cop (played by Phillip Noiret) who gets a new straight-laced young partner.  When I look at it, I really think that Noiret's performance had a great influence on me when I created Rozinshura. He's French, he's laid-back, he displays bald-faced chutzpah. Sometimes it's like Claude Rains in Casablanca ("I'm SHOCKED!  Shocked to find there's gambling going on here!" "Your winnings, sir." "Oh, thank you very much!")

There is one scene in Les Ripoux which displays how this unauthorized use of authority can make this kind of character like The Cavalry.  After the new cop arrives, he tries to get a room in a cheap hotel recommended by Noiret, but the hotel is full up, so the kid calls him to report that he can't get a room.  Noiret shows up with a squad of gendarmes, and raids the place.  "There," he says as he strolls back out. "Two prostitutes and an illegal immigrant.  Now you've got three vacancies."

(If you want to see it, here is a link to Les Ripoux in French.  The scene starts at 12 minutes in. It's pretty clear what's going on in that scene without understanding French.)

The Overseer

I'll end today's post on a character who is trapped in a very different version of this model: Rocken, the overseer on the prison farm in the serial I did last winter, Test of Freedom.  When Rocken introduces himself to the new prisoners, he says,  "If you make trouble, I'm the one who'll beat the hell out of you.  I'm the one who decides what work you do, and how much to feed you.  You'll make me happy, won't you?"

Rocken would seem to be just an arm of the oppressive institution above the prisoners, but he's got a big twist: he's a prisoner himself -- a murderer with a  life sentence. And for all that he hangs on to the hope that if he pleases his evil overlord he might some day be free again, he hasn't actually lost his humanity and good sense.  He's buried it as deeply as he can.

The fact is, he identifies with the prisoners.  He doesn't see himself as an instrument of justice, just a herdsman who manages resources and does his best to take care of them.  Even though he knows he's hated by the men, he takes on a protective role toward them.  Cursing them when he has to punish them, relenting when he can get away with it.

I have drafted the continuation of this story, and I'd like to find a way to finish the series -- because Rocken has a whole lot more to happen in his story.  Jackie, the main character (and another anarchist, but of a very different kind), has a really strong effect on Rocken.  There is a major battle of good and evil going on inside the guy, and that will explode.

And this may be a good place to split this post off in prep for the next post.  Because, though Rocken fits with these team leader characters, he is also a minion, who does his duty alone, though he wields it with the power of the state.  This makes him a little like some characters I'll talk about next week.

Because some public servants are not team leaders, they are investigators who go out and deal with the job alone.  And as with Rocken, that's only one step away from the last group, which I'll talk about after that - the Rogues.  So next up, Agents and Rogues.

See you in the funny papers.

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Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I enjoyed Fargo too...another film that wouldn't usually be my cup of tea.

I think of Kurt Wallander is sort of a caretaker of a public servant....at least in the Swedish version of the TV show (not the Branagh version. Sadly, I haven't had a chance to read the Mankell books yet.) And his job is his entire life.

The Daring Novelist said...

That's why this part of the series is hard to contain: mystery and crime fiction is full of a huge variety of examples.

And so many great ones in police procedurals, especailly. A few of my favorites include Archer Mayor's book about the lead cop of a team of investigators in Vermont. Stuart Kaminsky had two procedurals with interesting leads -- Russian Inspector Rostnikov, and Chicago detective Lt. Lieberman.

Then there's Joe Leaphorn. Well, it's hard to stop. Maybe I should do a series (but only once a week!) on those guys.