Yes, My Protagonist Can Take Things Seriously

I suppose I have my mother to thank for getting me to love the classic era of movies. That, and Saturday Night At The Movies, which, when I was growing up aired classic black and white films, hosted by a fellow who knew what he was talking about. Between the two, I’ve gotten to find a wealth of terrific films that most people would easily ignore. And by most people, the sort who think that real movies started in 1975, and everything that came before was boring.

Among the actors of the classic era were two who worked together many times, William Powell and Myrna Loy. Six of their films together from the 1930s and 1940s are a single franchise: The Thin Man series. The characters Nick and Nora Charles were created by Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon), and the films got quite an audience at the time. These films are detective thrillers with more then a dash of humour, centered on the husband and wife pair, whose banter and chemistry are smart, sharp, and playful. Nick, an occasional detective who married into money, spends his time overseeing his wife’s financial interests and pursuing the ideal recipe for a vodka martini (often more of the latter). He seems to know an awful lot of people who are, well, disreputable. The films start out with a murder (and usually more before each is done). Nora likes to push Nick back into investigating the case. Nick would much rather finish his drink.
Yet in each film, there’s always a moment when Nick changes priorities; he starts taking the case seriously, and you see his detective’s brain at work, sorting out the case. You can usually tell when it is by the fact that Nick stops drinking (or at least cuts down). Nick proceeds to methodically work things out, bringing together the suspects, and unmasking the killer in a dramatic way (incidentally, if you haven’t seen the second in the series, After The Thin Man, you might be startled by James Stewart’s character).
Now then, before I go off on a film history talk, I thought I’d come to the point. Awhile back, during one of my writer’s group meetings, I was reading a passage from Heaven & Hell. The passage is from the point of view of Stavros Maras, the counter-terrorism unit commander. In it, he’s watching my protagonists and three of his team members get ready for an night time operation against the Covenant. He muses that he sees in the others the exact same professionalism as he does in his own team. That kind of surprised me (and I’m the guy who wrote it, mind you). Why?
It’s one of my lead characters, Stryker. Professionalism doesn’t seem to be a word I’d use to describe him. He’s casual and sarcastic early on in the book- getting this particular spy into a suit is like fingernails on a blackboard for the man. He doesn’t seem to take much seriously. Part of that is that there’s a lot of me in him. And in addition, I have to say he’s influenced by Jack Higgins’ character Sean Dillon, who has been described as the sort who thinks of life as something of a bad joke, so why take it seriously?
That got me to thinking. Late in the book, the wisecracks are muted. Like the good Mr. Charles, Stryker is taking things seriously. His priorities have changed. I think that in part, the terrorist attack at the heart of the book mutes his natural tendency to be sarcastic. He and the others witness the cataclysmic event, see the impact and the death in its wake, and it must have an effect on all of them.
As writers or readers, we all see it in characters when they have that moment when things change; their priorities or their status quo must adapt to the changing circumstances around them. Sometimes it’s a gradual process; other times the turning point is crystal clear, and who they were before is gone, perhaps forever.
Have you ever had that moment with one of your characters when you realize how fundamentally different they are from where they started? Or brought them through that proverbial point of no return?
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14 thoughts on “Yes, My Protagonist Can Take Things Seriously

  1. Magnificent post! Characterization is so important, and it is true that such a cataclysmic event should change people and their priorities; it would not have been realistic to leave him cracking jokes or sarcastic. People change, and in real life events change people in some way, even if in small ways. One book that really affected me and showed a change and growing up as well as loss of innocence was William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”; this book has always stayed with me since I read it in high school. And yes, the old black and white movies still have a lot to offer. Writers back then were great writers! In order to make a great film or a great novel, there has to be a talented and attentive writer. These two characters, Nick and Nora sound intriguing. I haven’t seen these particular films, but I have seen “The Maltese Falcon” and loved it. Another old film that I love is “His Girl Friday” with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell; the humor between them is great and their characters really make the story! Great job William (in the post and on the character of Stryker). Can’t wait to read your book!

  2. The Tin Man series is one of my favorites! And I am a huge fan of William Powell. That man could carry you through a whole movie and you swear he was sitting next to you.

    The fact that the characters change as the circumstances increase in intensity is key to creating believable and accurate characters. Situations weigh on a person and time takes its toll. What I think you have hit on is an interesting phenomenom. There are many out there who seem not to take life seriously (my brother is an example), but when the cards are down, they suddenly rise to the call and get things done. Of course, once the intensity is over, they revert back to the carefree nature. I think it is one way to maintain balance. Otherwise, the intensity can break you.

    Great post!

  3. Love William Powell and I think as our manuscript progresses so do our characters. What started off as my simple romance has become something with added depth and adventure. Is it me or my protagonist that’s changing or both? LOL

  4. The Maltese Falcon is a personal favourite, both the book and the Bogart film, which I’d rate as one of the best films ever made. With the Thin Man, you can still see Hammett’s writing style, but the characters Nick and Nora have a very different sensibility then Sam Spade.

    And I’d also say that one of the things I love about older films is the sharp, clever dialogue, particularly with comedies. There’s a big contrast with current day comedies from, oh, say Apatow, which caters to the lowest common denominator.

  5. I think that watching those classic movies- the Tracy and Hepburn films, Cary Grant in pretty much anything, the Thin Man films, and so much more- has also influenced my writing tremendously. The sharp banter between Stryker and Devon rather shows it.

  6. I must admit I’m not a huge fan of the classic films…however, there are a few. The Sound Of Music is one of my favourites and I love Julie Andrews. TV shows…definitely the I Love Lucy Show.

    Characters have to change and grow. If they didn’t, your story would be flat–one sided, and not at all interesting. People can identify with change and growth the same as characters do. And, I think they NEED it.

    Great blog, William.

  7. If our characters are well developed, then they will be like real people…most of whom grow in even a small way from point A to point Z. If we didn’t have that growth then it’s the writer’s failure to develop the character and the novel/story will suffer for it.

    I enjoyed this post and it’s inspired me to put in my Maltese Falcon dvd soon, maybe tonight. It has been a while since I’ve watched it.

  8. Oh this is wonderful! I watched Saturday Night at the Movies a bit. I love some classics, but I haven’t seen the ones you’re talking about.

    Well, I think every protagonist MUST have a point of no return in the plot and should take the reader on some kind of journey of inward change or growth. I’ve said it a million times before that I think that inward journey is what creates the most satisfaction for the reader.

    My protagonist has hers after…oh, I actually can’t say! Well, something rocks her world…and then a few more things. She doesn’t have time to stop and deal with her emotions. She has to continue and ends up facing a lot of danger. She grows and surprises herself with her strength, but at the same time she does end up having some post-traumatic stress. It’s something I’ve personally dealt with, so I always hate it whenever movie or book characters go through extreme circumstances w/out having any emotional consequences to deal with. It is very important to me to take my character on a journey of realistic emotional distress and eventually healing.

  9. Ah — you just helped me understand a struggle I’m having with a character right now. He’s supposed to be a fun-loving, carefree type, but he’s been way too serious and even a bit mopey at times. But he’s just had an epiphany in which he realizes he has to redeem himself, and make up for some of the bad things he’s done and the people he hurt — it’s going to take time to adjust to that. Just as with your character who witnessed a tragedy, mine is going to be uncharacteristically serious.

  10. Great post, William. I love old movies. Arsenic and Old Lace is classic humor. My main character, Maggie is plagued by panic attacks over stupid situations. When faced with real life-threatening danger, she’s able to conquer her fears and act with resolve and determination. Courage under fire can come in an infinite number of forms–a great tool for writers.

  11. I love the Thin Man series, and old screwball comedies like “Brining Up Baby,” “His Girl Friday” has some great dialoug too. They don’t make movies like that anymore and there will never be another Cary Grant. I think I’ll go watch “Topper.”

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