Saturday, July 26, 2008

Introducing an Antihero: Big Good, Little Bad

Setting up an antihero can be very tricky business. It's not like setting up a villain or a hero, but more like a combination of both. As for a hero, you need to convince your audience that your protagonist is someone worth following. You need to give the reader a reason to care and a reason to want to protagonist to succeed, even if that protagonist is ultimately antiheroic in nature. So in that respect, at least, you introduce an antihero much the same way that you introduce a hero.

But there are some differences. There must be suggestions of bad behavior we can expect in the future, hints and innuendos and even outright badness -- foreshadowing, if you will. In other words, you have to provide a suggestion that there is badness in the character, but that suggestion must not be strong enough to overpower the character's initial likability.

Think, for example, of the Godfather. It's no accident that the story opens at Connie's wedding. What is the element of Don Corleone's character that allows us to cheer for him? In a nutshell, it's his love of his family. We can all relate to this kind of love, but for him, his love is so profound and deep that it means he can never deny a request made on his daughter's wedding day. His love for his daughter compels him to grant all wishes. It's his way, the Sicilian way, of paying tribute to her.

It's not the only endearing aspect of his character, and it's not the only reason we watch him. We are also captivated by his power, his cool temperament, his cunning, his boldness, his control. But these are not the reasons that we forgive him his crimes. We forgive him because he loves his family.

His love for his family is precisely what drives them to commit his crimes. This is classic antihero behavior. Often, the quality that makes us love them the most is also the quality that make them behave the worst.

Which leads us to Don Draper. There are a lot of things to like about Don Draper: his charm, his intelligence, his Superman-esque good looks, his apparent sexual stamina, his leadership qualities. But what is his greatest strength? What is the quality in his character that makes us love him the most?

It's his ambition. He has a powerful drive to succeed which leads him into some workaholic tendencies. Because he cares so much about his work, we care that much about it, too. His work is cool and hip and fun, but more than that, it's important. He's so committed to it that he doesn't go home for days on end while he is working. In fact, it appears that he forgets he even has a family for days on end, all because his work is so engrossing.

Just as we all love our families, we all want to succeed in the work place. We crave recognition, and so does Don. We fear failure, and so does Don. In him these qualities are exaggerated, just as with Don Corleone the love of family is exaggerated. And just as Don Corleone does bad things for love of his family, Don Draper does bad things for the sake of his ambition.

The first episode concentrates on Don's desire to succeed at the Lucky Strike campaign, with a brief segue into the start of the Mencken's department store campaign. Other things happen in this episode, such as Peggy's first day, and a bachelor party, but the bulk of the episode is spent introducing Don and showing him in action in his working world.

Speaking of Peggy, let's take a look at how she and Don interact. It's Peggy's first day on the job. She will be Don's secretary, and she will sit at the desk right outside his door. She is at her post when Don arrives. She stands up, smiles at him, and Joan, the head secretary, says, "Here's Mr. Draper now. With Mr. Sterling." Peggy says good morning. Don keeps walking into his office without saying a word.

Later that morning, when the female researcher comes to his office, Peggy buzzes her in with the intercom. Don says to show her in, and so Peggy does.

Then Don takes a nap, and Peggy is the one who wakes him up. It's only at this point that he notices her and asks, "Who are you?"

Now, we’re meant to believe that he is so focused on solving the problems in their upcoming presentation that he simply doesn't notice Peggy. His mind is elsewhere. But when you stop and think about it, it doesn't quite add up. I don't know about you, but if I had a new secretary sitting outside my door, I would notice. I wouldn't have to interact with her three times before I realized that she was someone different and new. There are days when I can be a total cotton head, but even in my fluffiest moments, I would notice if a body that I worked with every day had suddenly been replaced. Wouldn't you?

So Don is a bit cold, highly self-obsessed, and out of step with his environment. But this is not the first thing we notice about him. It's not the first message we’re meant to get about his character. The first message is that he is ambitious and driven to succeed, that he is a man on the rise, and for that he is worth watching.

Still not convinced? I bet that right about now you're thinking about how Don defends Peggy when Campbell sexually harasses her. I bet you're thinking, but he's nice to Peggy. Everyone else is horrible to Peggy, but he treats her like a professional.

After Peggy is no longer completely invisible to Don, after she has introduced herself and made an impression on him at last, Pete Campbell comes into the office. When Campbell asks, "Who is this?" Don introduces her as the new girl. He doesn't give her a name. But we know that her name has registered with him, because just a moment later, he calls her Peggy. It's not that he didn't know her name; it's that she's not worth introducing. He repeats this exact same behavior in a later episode when Campbell is in the office with his wife.

And what does Don do as Pete sexually harasses Peggy? Nothing. He doesn't say a word. Pete tells Peggy to start wearing shorter skirts, the beginning of an obvious and sexually charged appraisal of her body. Don doesn't interrupt. He doesn't send Peggy on her way. He just stands there and lets it all unfold.

Yes, it's true, he chastises Pete later for this. But does he tell Pete he shouldn't behave like that because it's demeaning to Peggy? No. He warns Pete that if he treats the office girls like that, he will never have any true power. He is not motivated by kind or protective feelings toward his subordinate employee, even though he knows Pete is a scoundrel. Instead, it all goes back to his ambition. He understands what it takes to get ahead, and he's telling Pete that sexually harassing secretaries will not help you reach that goal. One suspects that if Don could sleep his way to the top, he would do it cheerfully. His moral code is defined by his ambition.

We cheer for Don when he takes on Pete, and we probably don't stop to question it more closely. But during the Mencken's department store meeting, when Rachel Mencken refuses to be either charmed or bullied into doing things Don's way, he explodes. He says he refuses to let a woman talk to him like that. And then later, he begins his seduction of Rachel. This is not a man with an advanced understanding of sexual morality in the workplace. His earlier defense of Peggy has more to do with power and ambition than it does with his attitude toward women in the workplace.

Still not convinced? Later, when Don takes Rachel Mencken out for drinks to charm her and earn her forgiveness (worth noting -- he never actually apologizes to her), she says,

"I know what it's like to feel out of place, to feel disconnected. And there's something about you that tells me you know what that feels like, too."

She vocalizes an important truth about him. We see him acting like a superhero, struggling to get a winning Lucky Strike campaign, being touched by divine inspiration at the last minute, saving the day and probably the company. But Rachel sees something else. She sees what is merely hinted at until this moment. Don -- who doesn't see his own secretary, who doesn't see Sal's homosexuality, who doesn't seem to notice that his mistress isn't exactly happy about his late night booty call -- is not in touch with the world around him. If he were a tragic hero, this would be his fatal flaw. But he is an antihero, and it is evidence of his "anti" nature.

We could go on. We could, for example, analyze the very first scene, in which Don questions a waiter about cigarettes and nearly gets the waiter in trouble. In fact, now that you know the kind of small and subtle and even subtextual details we're looking for, go back and take a look at that first scene with the waiter. Listen very closely to what the people are saying. Are they mischaracterizing what's happening? Look for those tiny contradictions.

Don, like most antiheroes, is a complex character. By the end of season one, we understand that better. We learn about Don's dark secret, and we see the heartbreaking consequences for at least one person who has the power to disrupt Don's carefully crafted life. But in the beginning, in this first episode, the writer's job is to make us care enough about Don to stick with him even when he does despicable things. This is accomplished by showing us all the good things about Don in bright and obvious ways, and by only subtly suggesting the not-so-good things.



Anonymous said...

Thanks for that explanation and analysis, Teresa. Now I see that our character is NOT an anti-hero at all. So now I'm not sure what he is. Ruthless yes, when it comes to business. He's not a 'bad' person, though, so I take back my earlier description of him as Gordon Gecko. One of the challenges we have is to make Lachlan interesting and 'care-about-able', even though he isn't exactly endearing at the beginning. By the end of the story, he actually shows he has a heart, but in the beginning he is 'all business'.

So what is a character type that isn't 'superman' at the beginning, so isn't seen as a hero? Is there such a thing?

Natalie Hatch said...

I think Thomas Covenant was a real antihero, I still can't read past page 100 of that first book, he just irked me because he wouldn't get with the program. I'm sure other readers learn to care about him because the books are so successful, but how do you know when you've hit on the right mix?

Edittorrent said...

Great analysis!

I just wish they did a better job with Betty, the wife. There's real depth there-- the grown woman scared of being an adult because the man she loves will probably then reject her. But... but so often they just drop her plotline -- remember when she shot at the pigeons, in her nightgown? Why did nothing ever come of that really striking event?

But it almost fits. I mean, Don certainly doesn't want to consider that his wife is going crazy.

Edittorrent said...

Betty + pigeons + shotgun = so awesome. I loved that moment more than I can express. That was the moment when I knew she would be okay.

I think the season two is going to be all about the ladies. Did you see Betty on that horse? Did you see the way she brushed off Don's, er, performance issues and ordered dinner? She has come into her own.

Oh, and Peggy -- insufferable, yes, but she is in charge of her own destiny, despite all the girl jokes.

OH, AND SAL HAS A WIFE!! I can't *wait* to see what she has to say.


Edittorrent said...

So what is a character type that isn't 'superman' at the beginning, so isn't seen as a hero? Is there such a thing?

He could be a hero. He could be a flawed (tragic) hero. Or a dark and dangerous hero -- they tend to start off scary and turn sweet.


Anonymous said...

All of this is very good analysis, and I can see how you came to these conclusions. But they are not the same impressions I got from watching the first few episodes.

In particular, I don't see Don Draper's driving ambition. He seemed more desperate than ambitious in the Lucky Strike deal. He's got nothing, and it may cost him his job. He feels threatened professionally by Pete Campbell. An ambitious person wouldn't have exploded at client like Miss Menken (even if she was a woman!). In a later episode, he couldn't care less about the award he receives. For me, this all adds up to desperation, not ambition.

I came away with very different impressions. I get the sense that he compartmentalizes everything to defend against his guilty conscience. He's in a world where women are supposed to be trophy wives or office girls, but he's drawn to working women. He's the guy who invents fantasy images, like having the big white house in the suburbs with the perfect family. The ending of episode one was a total surprise to me; it never occurred to me that he had one of those big white houses.

I see the bad sides: the lying, cheating, and chauvinism. I don't see redeeming qualities yet. Despite this, I'm totally into the character, and I care about his story. I couldn't tell you why.

Wes said...

Thank you for the thorough analysis. A respected agent recently told me my MC has contradictions in the first few chapters. I see that now. I've made him come of age too fast. Your analysis will help me develop him better, and hopefully the agent will like the rewrite.