Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Creating Characters We Want to Hate but Can't

My inner editor no longer whispers to me while I read or nudge at the back of my brain when I see a poorly devised commercial. She screams at the top of her voice. Yesterday was no different while I watched Gran Torino, starring Clint Eastwood. I generally watch movies months and years behind the general viewing public, but don’t fret. If you haven’t yet seen the movie I won’t spoil anything for you.

I just can’t help noticing when I see a story that works, or equally when one doesn’t. Since we’ve been talking about the creation of characters I’ll stick with that topic as I discuss how they managed to make a character like bigoted, bitter, hateful Walter Kowalski so darn lovable.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know there wasn’t much to love about Kowalski. He hated everybody, and I mean everybody. He was an equal opportunity bigot. He had a negative, profane slur to throw against the Irish, Italians, Jews, African Americans, the young, the old, women, Asians, auto mechanics, religion, the Church, and his own children, just to name a few.

He reminded me of a bigger, meaner, more opinionated Archie Bunker having a really bad week.

His reactions to the world were so mean and over-the-top, I couldn’t keep from laughing from time to time. I could also understand why he was the way he was though I didn’t necessarily agree with it. I suppose writers had to make him somehow funny or viewers would throw bricks through theater screens across the country. Of course the character was played by Clint Eastwood, and you expect certain things from a Clint Eastwood movie. It’s hard not to root him even if he is rude and crass and the most hateful creature a writer can create.

There was a reason for Kowalski’s bitterness. I won’t explain here, but the story would’ve been downright insulting if he’d been a sweet old gentleman who passed out candy and witticisms to all the neighborhood children.

The point is Kowalski’s character was multi-layered. Underneath the bigotry and bravado was a heart. I won’t go so far as to say a heart of gold. It was Eastwood after all, but we saw the cracks in the veneer. Like the time he gazed at a picture of his dead wife and told the dog; “We miss Mama, don’t we, Daisy?”

Who wouldn’t get a catch in their throats at a question like that? I think that’s why writers gave Kowalski a dog. American viewers—and readers—will forgive almost any sin if the jerk doing the sinning loves a dog enough to talk to it as though it understands.

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