It’s Complicated

jki

What do the three men pictured above have in common? If you guessed, “They’re all white dudes!” or “They’re all sociopaths!” you would be correct, on both counts. But Walter White, Hank Moody, and Tony Soprano share another important characteristic, one that demonstrates one of the best ways to complicate a character. All three men have daughters whom they love very, very much.

It was no accident that, as Breaking Bad came to a close, the last thing Walt does with his family is stare lovingly at Holly as she lies in her crib. I didn’t finish Californication, because the show’s writers decided to put the whole thing on repeat after the third season, but Wikipedia informed me that it ends with Becca’s wedding. And throughout The Sopranos, Tony tells Meadow that she’s more like him than her mother. The major plot line at the end of the series stems from Tony seeking revenge after one of his rivals says some not-nice-things to Meadow at a New York City restaurant.

I call this the “Give the Guy a Daughter” phenomenon. If you have a character, in particular a main character and especially a man, that would be very easy for the audience to absolutely and totally despise, give the guy a daughter that he loves and prizes above all else. We will forgive many sins if the man loves his daughter.

There’s probably a lot of psychoanalysis that could go into this phenomenon, especially regarding the sort of inverted “Daddy Problems” thing going on here. Also, we should probably talk about how women characters don’t get any bonus points for loving their children because it’s just expected, whereas men characters, by simply being around their children, get to revel in the audience’s good graces. But I’m more interested in the mechanics. The “Give the Guy a Daughter” concept works because loving a daughter absolves the man of some, not nearly all, but some, of his moral reprehensibility. If he loves his daughter, he can’t be all bad. But not all characters are monsters, and non-monster characters also need some complicating.

In a tweet not too long ago, Guy in your MFA talked about how his main character having an affair demonstrated emotional depth. It was a smartass remark, but something I often see in short story submissions. The main character is a little boring, maybe a husband who works as an insurance salesman, or a wife who teaches second grade. How does the writer spice it up a little? Throw in an affair. Voila! Now we have tension! Emotional depth! Lies! Perfection!

If it works for Don Delillo, it will work for you.

I brought the “Give the Guy a Daughter” thing up with some of my EIU friends a while ago, and they helped me brainstorm some other ways to complicate a character. If a woman character is spectacular in every imaginable way, make her clumsy. If the character is a total nerd, have him/her listen to hardcore gangster rap. If the character is Catholic, make him guilt-free. Minds will be blown.

I think these concepts work because melding opposites immediately creates tension, and tension leads to drama, and drama leads to a good story. What strikes me as odd is what does or does not become cliché. It seems like the “Give the Guy a Daughter” and “Affair Equals Emotional Depth” concepts could go on forever. But does anyone want to read about another alcoholic priest? Or English professor having an affair with a student? Or writer with writer’s block?

Perhaps the best way to figure this out is to catalogue some other repetitive, but not quite cliché, character complications. Readers, what do you got?

–Sean Towey

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