Friday, June 5, 2009

Opposites Attract?

With all the talk about character, I have been wondering why some of the characters I have loved have appealed to me so much. I’m a sucker for the underdog, it hooks me in every time and often drives my own fiction, but lets put that aside for the moment.

It's no secret I’m a die-hard David Gemmell fan. I think the man was a genius. OK, so he wrote pretty much the same thing every time, but he did it extremely well. His action was great, and good action is always driven by character. He was a writer who knew how to draw a character and how to get out of the reader’s way. His prose is deceptively simple and immediate.

The classic David Gemmell hero is tough and uncompromising. He would think nothing of stepping into the fray and knocking heads if it was the right thing to do and would not give a moment’s thought to the consequences or the bruises and blood – or deaths – that might result. An almost total lack of introspection, except of course for being tortured by guilt over something in their past, which drives them to merciless self-sacrifice.

Reflecting about that sort of character, I would have to admit he (or she – Sigorni in the Hawk Queen books – Gemmell didn’t discriminate) are pretty much poles apart from me. Perhaps we might share a similar sense of right and wrong, but where I would sit wondering whether I should say something (perhaps fearing the offender would say something that hurt my feelings, me being such a tender soul) the Gemmell hero has already batted someone around the head and moved on. Would I love to be able to act like that and not be tortured by hours of introspective replay? I sure would.

One other character that fascinates me is Dexter from the TV series. Again, here is someone who has a total lack of worry about the consequences; except perhaps only as they might impact on his eventual freedom and lifestyle, but otherwise he feels no remorse or hesitation over how his actions will affect others. If not for his code, he would be an indiscriminate killer. There seems to be no barriers to action in Dexter’s world. I think that is another thing I feel so attracted to. At various times I might feel passionately driven to certain things – at others I will struggle against internal demons or even conflicting passions to get into forward motion. None of this for Dexter. No amount of action or work seems a barrier to him – there are no emotional blocks in the way. There must have been a thousand times I wished I could have waved a magic wand and turned myself into some sort of robot that just got the job done – or at least pop some sort of pill that switched off my emotion. I think this underlies my attraction to characters like Spock.

So do opposites attract? Is it wish fulfillment that drives our connection to characters? Wanting to live their lives? Or is this connection different for everyone?


Amanda Green said...

Chris, interesting post and one that made me think. I can't say that opposites attract, at least not for me. The characters who truly call to me are the ones who are three-dimensional, neither all good nor all bad. They have motivations that make sense not only to them but in light of their backgrounds and circumstances. I don't have to agree with what they are doing in order to appreciate it. The amoral character who is nothing more than a cardboard bad guy will turn me off just as quickly as the one dimensional Mary Sue.

Dexter is an interesting character. (And I will admit right now that, for a change, I prefer the TV show more than the books. Shocking, I know.) Dexter is a sociopath, no doubt about it. He is also highly intelligent and able to hide in plain sight. A sadist and mass murderer, there is little to identify with until you look deeper.

He knows he isn't normal. He adheres to the "Code of Harry", a sort of rule of life taught him by his adoptive father. It allows him to fulfill his need to kill, but in a way that is almost acceptable. He goes after murderers, as well as abusers and an arsonist (I think), who have fallen through the cracks of the system. The Code doesn't allow him to kill someone without proof of their guilt and of the fact that they have no remorse over what they did. This, in a way, makes him a dark hero.

But there is more. In the series, there is character growth. Dexter does question whether or not he should have allowed Jimmy Smits' character to join him on a kill and, when he finds out Smits's character (sorry, I don't recall the name right now) killed an attorney who didn't fall under the Code, and that Smits didn't feel any remorse for it, he kills Smits. He "corrected" a wrong, in a manner of speaking.

There is also Dexter's growing relationship with Rita and her kids. There is an understanding of the kids, a recognition of what is in them, much like Harry's recognition of what Dexter was. There is a protectiveness for Rita that has slowly developed as well.

Yes, a lot of Dexter is his ability to fake emotion. But there is also something of a wounded bird about him...he knows he isn't whole and is doing his best to survive in the world, even doing his best to make the world a better place.

So, yes, I can identify with his desire to rid the world of evil. But, on the other hand, his own ability to kill without conscience is something I most certainly do not desire.

WangZheng259 said...

I don't know. How are we defining opposites here? For a given metric, assuming a zero point, are we assuming opposite sign but same magnitude, or opposite sign but different magnitude. Taking a great many metrics, and using them as axes for an n dimensional coordinate system, I think that many of the theoretically possible minds very close in location my own tend to be monsterous and repelling. Part of the reason I react poorly to certain ideological concepts is because the idea of what I would be like should I or if I had chosen to follow that path frightens or disgusts me.

(I would tend to be boring as a character, as I tend to be greatly disfunctional in the majority of potential settings, plots and so forth. Describing the failure could be done in an entertaining manner, but there are only so many entertaining ways and times this can be done.)

Of the more distant theoretical possible minds, some are interesting and some are not. Of those I can understand and predict, some I like and some I don't. I do not know that distance or being on the opposite side of zero has anything to do with it. (Assuming that all the zeroes on the axes are at the intersection.)

My guess is that for me, several tests are involved. First, as a reader or a viewer, I think I tend to be more interested in world building, spectacle, and skill, then in characters. I like explosions, and dislike settings that the creator has slapped together without thinking things out. Second involves a test involving ideology, values, goals and so forth. I would not be inclined to read a story whose hero was a child molester, especially if this made up part of the story. I dislike the 'Good Guys' of Gundam 00, because I think their goal is insane, and cannot be aquired by any means I would not hate. Where characters are concerned, do they do interesting things? Are they functional in some measure of adversity, or disfunctional in an entertaining manner?

I do not know that I pass the exceedingly functional test, or the entertainingly disfunctional test.

Sousuke Sagara in Full Metal Panic actually passes both the functional and disfunctional tests. He is very effective in the sci fi thriller side of the story, and does all sorts of crazy stuff in the high school romance side of things. While I prefer the Cold War side of the plot, the high school stuff is worth a few laughs, even if it does sometimes feel like making fun of PTSD.

Pat Buckman from Kratman's Caliphate. I've called him an ordinary everyman here before. He is appealing in how normal he feels, and that he does so much that most would want to do in his place. However, he is repelling in that he does the unforgivable in breaking the constitution.

I think it is interesting that I tended to consider a definition of opposite that paid more attention to mental functioning, ideology, politics and soforth and didn't really do anything in regards to gender, ethnic background, age and such.

WangZheng259 said...

I like to read Dexter. I haven't gotten around to seeing much of the show, but hear it is better.
There is another character who fits the criteria of wanting to rid the world of evil, and willing to kill without remorse, who I utterly detest. That would be 'Light' Yagami from DeathNote. He gets a magic notebook that lets him kill people whose names and faces he knows, and sets out to rid the world of evil by killing all the criminals.
I realize the character was partly meant to get people to question there own preconceptions, like Dexter. I also realize that 'Light' is meant to be evil. I think the author of Dexter cheats a little, in having all these undetectable serial killers that only Dexter can find, but he can do it easily and with certainty. I think this is acceptable, and maybe even adds to the enjoyment a little. DeathNote cheats, and it made hate the series a great deal.
One of Light's major supposed character traits is his genius, which is supposed to allow him to pull off feats of planning and trickery that are quite beyond me. However, with my knowledge of the world and ability to think, I found some pretty severe flaws in Light's reasoning that convinced me that the author was just blatently cheating all the time. If Light soaked himself in gas and got lit on fire, the author would then cheat and come up with a BS explanation for why it was actually a brilliant plan, and also cheat to have it turn out successfully.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Amanda. I can see what you mean about Dexter. I think he does have a sort of vulnerability about him that allows you to sympathise with him - that and the fact he cares deeply in his own way about Rita and the kids.
I wonder if a real Dexter could really exist? Combining the amoral killing aspect with the ability to care? Or is this a clever artistic device to get us to like a monster?

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, WangZheng. Very interesting the way you have analysed the idea of opposites. It opens up a whole landscape of possibility, after all there are so many possible dimensions to measure consciousness. Its quite exciting actually. I think I could spent quite a few hours trying to map out potential opposites!
I think you have hit on some important points there. We have been focussing on characters, but this is just one story element. The setting or worldbuilding can become just as important -- or even the dominating thing that is drawn in a story. Some might even argue that setting can become a character in itself -- like the house in Amityville Horror, or the landscapes in Lord of the Rings.

Amanda Green said...

I wonder if a real Dexter could really exist? Combining the amoral killing aspect with the ability to care? Or is this a clever artistic device to get us to like a monster?

Chris, the answer is, in my experience, sort of. A long time ago in another part of my life, I was an assistant district attorney. One case will always stand out. The "boy next door" was on trial for killing a mother and her 8 year old daughter. Another daughter managed to escape. He had a loving wife who, at the time of trial, was ready to give birth to their first child. He had a supportive family. To look at him, to watch him with them, he could have been the next door neighbor you'd never hesitate to leave your kids with or to have date your daughter.

However, he was a killer without a conscience. Not only had he killed the two he was on trial for, but he'd tried to kidnap several other teen girls earlier the night in question. And, after his conviction, he led the police to a number of other bodies across the state.

So, yes, there are people out there like Dexter who can be amoral and yet who can also care about someone or something. Unlike Dexter, however, they do eventually slip up and get caught. Their mask slips, or they get careless or they simply become over-confident.

Jim McCoy said...


I really think that, at least in my case, an attractive character is one that either acts in the way that I would like to think I would in a given situation, or one that acts in the way I'm afraid I would in a similar situation. Some examples seem to be in order.
An example of the first is Cordelia Naismith in Barrayar. She has married a man who is in a high place in a society that is extremely dangerous for important people. Her son is placed in terrible danger and is nearly killed while still in the womb. Her own life is endangered and a war breaks out. But through it all she is true to herself and her beliefs and is loyal to her husband. When her hand is forced, she takes the initiative and not only gets her son back but wins the war for her husband. This is someone that acts in a way that I would hope to be able to emulate.
An example of the second is a little more complicated. Let's use a movie example here. I'm thinking of Corporal Opem (sp?) in Saving Private Ryan. The man goes into combat with a group of soldiers and is a complete coward. He does something admirable in letting the German prisoner go instead of shooting him, only to see it backfire on him. When he's given a chance to save his buddies life he freezes. Even at the end when he's given a chance to capture some fleeing Germans, he can't even be bothered to bring them in once they've surrendered. Still though, and I know he doesn't get much attention from others, he's one of the most entertaining characters in that movie. He's always doing something, and even when I'm watching him and tearing my hair out, my attention is held. It's kind of like watching a train wreck, but it's also about my fears that I might act the same way. It's spooky.

Anonymous said...

Not _opposites_ unless we've totally failed in our own lives. Perhaps _more_ than we are. Perhaps someone with the nerve to step forward and go for the glory where we looked wistfully, but stepped back to pursue a more mundane goal.

Umm, actually that only holds mentally/emotionally and morally.

Physically, I can identify with an opposite, no problem.

Kate said...


I don't think it's so much a case of opposites attracting as being attracted to qualities that we perceive as desirable and that we consider we lack.

Being able to avoid guilt and emotion seems pretty attractive when you're caught in a tangle of conflicting choices and no matter what you do it's going to end badly for someone.

That always makes for an interesting plot point, where someone is able to push away all the emotional mess for long enough to do what they have to - but once the crisis is over it all comes back.

Amanda makes an interesting point with Dexter, about the person who is evil but chooses to do good. There's a lot of story that can develop from that kind of person, simply because of the conflict between their nature and whatever code of conduct they follow.

Chris McMahon said...

Amanda: If only we could actually get inside the head of people like that. What is caring for them? What are they feeling? Or is it some set of intellectual boxes they are ticking that relate back to their own wellbeing.
Its endlessly fascinating, I guess because we will never know!

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Jim. You bring up some really interesting points there. The characters that entertain us don't really have to have much in common with us at all. Like you said, I guess its the fascination of watching do the opposite and us wondering - why?
I guess that's the beauty of fiction. It enables us to put ourselves in those fantastic situations and test our own reactions, and explore what we might do, or what we would want to do if our lives were different. Its just an endless landscape. Amazing isn't it?

Chris McMahon said...

Matapam, I like your idea of the characters being more than we are. I think this probably rings true for me. I think I would really like to be that Gemmell hero. Probably why I only find myself shedding a tear to movies like Once Were Soldiers, where its all about heroic sacrifice.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. Hope the weather is nice in PA at the moment.
Its funny, so much of what I do is driven by emotion and passion (certainly unusual from an engineer, but you can blame my parents -- God rest their souls -- for that career path). And yet I've often been so confounded with dealing with them that I've longed for a switch somewhere to turn them off.