P.O.V. No.28 - Good Guy / Bad Guy

Good Guy / Bad Guy

Sune Liltorp

NB. Though it is not the politically correct way to write I have decided to refer to the good and the bad guy by the male pronoun, even though there are a lot of good and bad 'guys' who are female. Writing he/she all the time takes up too much space and the article would have to be called "Good person / bad person" which in actuality is what it really is about. My apologies to the fairer gender, hope you can overlook this slight.

Making character interesting
Subtext and contradiction are two of the most important means for making characters interesting. Subtext is used to reveal contradiction and contradiction is used to make your characters multifaceted and give them dimension. Giving your main characters contradictions makes them much more believable and easier to connect with, since we, the audience, can recognize contradictions from our everyday lives.

A character without contradictions is boring, non-human and almost impossible to put in dilemmas, which are the situations where we learn about the true nature of the character; through their choices under pressure. If we have no doubt about what a character is going to do, because he always does right or wrong, the story becomes a dull sequence of uninspiring choices with no true dilemma and no audience involvement and empathy.

TRUE CHARACTER can only be expressed through choice in dilemma. How the person chooses to act under pressure is who he is - the greater the pressure, the truer and deeper the choice to character. -
Robert McKee, Story.

In story we need to sympathize and often empathize with the actions of the Good Guy, whereas for the Bad Guy we only need a moment of empathy. The good guy and the bad guy come in many shapes and forms. But from the audiences point of view the good guy is the person we hope will succeed and fear will fail. The opposite is true for the bad guy, though sometimes if it is a poorly constructed good guy the audience will start rooting for the more interesting bad guy. If done cleverly this can be used as a storytelling tool, as with all writing this should be done intentionally serving the true story you want to tell, and not just as a way of manipulating your audience. There is nothing more annoying than a person who has nothing to tell and only reverts to gimmicks to move their story forward.

Types of Good Guy / Bad Guy character:

  • The Good Good Guy.
  • The Bad Bad Guy.
  • The Bad Good Guy.
  • The Good Bad Guy.

The Good Good Guy still needs a flaw (too trusting, too confident etc.) to make him interesting, whereas the Bad Bad Guy needs a scene where it is explained why he has become bad. A truly Bad Bad Guy is not believable and impossible to connect with. That is unless your whole story world is twisted and strange in itself; Like Dennis Hopper's truly Bad Bad Guy in David Lynch's Blue Velvet.

The Bad Good Guy is the quintessential antihero where the flaw in the character is so big that it has become an integral part of his demeanor (drunkenness, hate, despair etc.), but through his actions he still shows us his good side (sense of justice, helping the weak). Like Bogart in Casablanca. The Bad Good guy is often much more interesting since the contradiction is much bigger. This is the type of character good actors want to play because the dimensionality is a much bigger challenge and it makes for Oscar nominations.

The Good Bad Guy is also interesting though not nearly as common as the Bad Good guy. This is the type of character who wants to do well but does it in a bad way. Here we have some of the true tragic characters like Oedipus Rex or Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Again this character is more interesting because of the contradiction behind their dilemma. Wanting is not achieving and saying is not doing.

Two sides of the same coin
Some years back actor Gary Oldman was asked how it felt always playing the bad guy. To which he answered with incredulity: 'Bad guy? I have never played a bad guy in my life!' The reasoning behind his answer is simple; everyone acts true and 'good' according their own point of view. No one believes what they do is evil or bad, it is simply done because that is the way it has to be according to their wants and needs. As an actor Gary Oldman understands that in order to play a bad character convincingly you need to see the world as he does.

The Good Guys and the Bad Guys is a western from 1969 starring Robert Mitchum and George Kennedy. The story is about a good guy Marshall, who just before getting retired finds out that his bad guy train robber nemesis is in the area. Despite being retired he seeks out his nemesis who is sort of retired as well. Finding common ground they become partners and together prevent the train robbery and save the city. The point of the story is that there is no real difference between the good and the bad guy, they are basically the same. Doing what they need to survive according to their own point of view.

As a screenwriter you have to understand this. There are no bad characters in a screenplay, making the whole good guy / bad guy dilemma completely academic. Every character will do the right thing according to their specific point of view. Bad characters need as much love and affection as good characters, if not more. Bad screenplays will have flat and boring bad guys with no real understanding of what terrible past has incapacitated them so.

If you look at child psychology, children aged 4 to 6 want to play the bad guy as much as the good guy. This also comes out as bad behavior, pulling wings off a butterfly or throwing stones after cats. Parents and society will soon put an end to this behavior, but as a screenwriter you need to become that child and embrace your characters with open arms. Of course you need to understand that your audience will have the point of view of your parents and see the world in good or bad. Being that clever screenwriting child you understand your parents, knows how to cheat them and sometimes you even ignore their rather limited view of the world.

Who hurts the most
Storytelling is about characters and the clash of their unique point of view. It is even possible for the same character to be the good guy and provide his own opposition, the bad guy, within himself. When the good guy / bad guy dilemma is within the character himself it is often much stronger and more engaging: Gollum in Lord of the rings and Sam Neill's character in Ivanhoe (1982) . When the conflict is inner and you are your own worst enemy, the battle will rage within and your audience (a western world audience) will recognize their own inner dilemmas living in a world of too many choices. Inner conflict is always much stronger than outer conflict since it happens within the character himself and there is no one else to blame.

A bad guy, unless he is a psychopath (which means it really isn't his fault), is in constant inner conflict making him a potentially much more interesting character than the good guy. Who should really have our empathy the guy doing good deeds or the bad guy who has to live with his? Bad guys have the ability to make us feel much sorrier for them, because to do the acts they do they must truly suffer inside. Look at Shakespeare's Macbeth who kills everyone close to him, all the while suffering from an extreme guilty conscience. The contradiction where he continually kills his friends and family, while suffering the hurt every time he does it make for a very exciting character.

The intrigue and fascination of the bad guy with true inner conflict makes us see the world as it truly is. Instead of judging we try understanding why people do as they do, seeing what is behind the curtain. A storyteller's most important tool is telling the truth, and the truth is that the world is not black and white but different shades of gray. And a dark shade of gray is much more interesting than a lighter because it is much closer to where it really hurts. Beware of the dark side, No not really, as a writer you need to go there and once you've been there you will never come back.

This is why even in screenwriting, Nice guys finish last!

There will always be a need for the good guy in storytelling; he is who we want to be and therefore the often used main character in most films. But personally I want to see more films with a bad guy main character, because in a world of talent shows and reality shows we already get a lot of want, and what we really need is to follow characters that are actually closer to ourselves and that make us feel lucky about being alive, instead of constantly striving to reach the stars.

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