TV geek that I am, I frequent forums to discuss my favorite shows like Mad Men and Game of Thrones.  I keep seeing people post comments like, “This is the show’s protagonist?  THIS guy?  But he’s so unlikeable!  I don’t know if I can keep watching.”

I’m sorry . . . I thought that was the point?

Don Draper.  Pretty much every character in the GoT universe.  Walter White.  Dexter Morgan.  Nancy Botwin.  Al Swearengen.  Tony Soprano.  All these characters do horrible things– shocking things.  We hate them for it.  And yet, we don’t stop watching—we can’t stop watching.

Characters shouldn’t have to be likable—they should be compelling.

What purpose does that serve?  Well, mainly they’re just mesmerizing to watch.  How often are the villains more interesting than the heroes?  Anti-heroes give us the best of both worlds– they may have good intentions, but they’re flawed, crippled by desires or ambition.  Like us, they make horrible mistakes.  Often, they keep making them.  Or they keep making the same mistake.

We read and watch films and television shows to step out of ourselves.  Fiction gives us the opportunity to think the unthinkable, to speak the unspeakable, to do the nasty.  If you want a boy scout, go watch Captain America.  If you want someone sweet as pie, check out Pollyanna.  But don’t complain when you tune into a show about people who lie for a living, or a medieval-style fantasy featuring broadswords.  Somebody’s going to get mercilessly whacked.

No one said Don Draper was the hero—just the focus of the story.  And just because Don’s the focus of the story, doesn’t necessarily mean you should like him, either.  And, good Lord, I hope you don’t fucking identify with him.  If you do, what’s wrong with you?  (Unless you grew up in a whorehouse, in which case, I’d say your foibles are understandable.)

We’ve always been fascinated by reprehensible characters—Macbeth was not a nice guy.  He was weak and easily manipulated, and ultimately responsible for a lot of deaths.  Sherlock Holmes, one of my personal favorites, is actually the consummate Victorian gentleman in Doyle’s stories.  But he has been altered in recent adaptations to come across as a high-functioning autistic or even a sociopath because we are fascinated by the image of Holmes as a crime-solving machine with no social skills.

The Greek gods were petty squabblers and back-stabbers.  Lancelot and Guinevere were adulterers—and so were Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina.  Indiana Jones, Han Solo and Rhett Butler are all scoundrels.  Humbert Humbert is a perv.

Alex DeLarge and Hannibal Lecter are hypnotic.  Becky Sharp and Scarlett O’Hara didn’t play by the rules, and neither did Jane Eyre.  Tom and Huck and Bart Simpson are all rascals.  Homer Simpson is a gross, selfish asshole who paved the way for Peter Griffin.  Patrick Bateman is a psycho.  Tyler Durden is schizo.  Even the Cat in the Hat lured children into misbehaving.  James Bond is a stone-cold killer.  And that’s why we love him.  We love our characters with skeletons in the closet, with monsters under the bed, with toys in the attic.

There are happy stories and happy characters.  I like Disney and Anne of Green Gables.  I was amazed at how much I loved Captain America—I had expected to find him a boring boy scout like Superman, but he turned out to be pretty cool.

In my own stories, I have found that the difference between an anti-hero and a straight-up hero is their backstory.  Usually, something broke them and made them go dark.  People have said, ad nauseum, that the fact that these fictional characters had awful childhoods does not excuse the fact that they’re awful adults.

Well, no.  But it does explain why they are the way they are.  Most characters need an origin story.  History is not an excuse.  It’s a reason.  We are inescapably shaped by our experiences.

People complain that after six seasons, Don Draper is still the same fucked-up guy pulling the same, fucked-up shit.  Why doesn’t he move forward?

Well, change is hard ya’ll.  I don’t understand why people look for redemption in these characters.  Sometimes there isn’t any to be found because often, people don’t change.  Some of them even get worse.

Like in life.  Which is the point.

If you’re looking for sheer escapism, choose your material carefully.  Not all of it’s entertainment—some of it is art.  And sometimes, it’s the job of art to make us uncomfortable.  That’s why it’s sometimes called provocative—it provokes.  If you want light and foamy, stick to your fucking-close-to-water beer.  Sometimes, the rest of us need something dark and full-bodied.

 

 

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Perchance to Dream

I recently came across this article by Michael Chabon about why dreams suck, both in general and as a literary device.  He is not the first person I have heard express this sentiment.

It has been said that dream sequences in literature (and, to a lesser degree, film and television) are evidence of lazy writing, or worse, a cop-out– a way for the writer to sidestep troublesome plot development and resolution.

I couldn’t disagree more.

The crux of the article for me was this paragraph:

Worse still than real dreams, mine or yours—sandier mouthfuls, ranker lies—are the dreams of characters in books and movies. Nobody, not even Aunt Em, wants to hear about Dorothy’s dream when she wakes up at the end of The Wizard of Oz. As outright fantasy the journey to Oz is peerless, joyous, muscular with truth; to call it a dream (a low trick L. Frank Baum, who wrote the original story, never stooped to) is to demean it, to deny it, to lie; because nobody has dreams like that.

Um . . . I do, actually.

I’m sorry your dream life is so dull as to not warrant a place in either conversation or fiction, but that is not the case for everyone.  While I agree that, by and large, dreams should be reserved for sharing with only our nearest and dearest, they are certainly worth incorporating into art.  Freud said that whether we intend it or not, we are all poets, so perhaps Mr. Chabon is simply not viewing his nighttime experiences through the right lens.

Dreams provide an invaluable source for imagery and scenarios—they are a part of life, after all, and shouldn’t all aspects of life be considered worthy for artistic examination?  The average person spends one-third of their life asleep, which means, we spend a substantial part of our lives dreaming.  Should we dismiss such robust cerebral activity?  We share dreams with all vertebrate animals, so it could also be said that dreaming seems to be something significant as a primal cognitive function, an experience we’ve shared up and down the evolutionary ladder.

I mean, yeah, dreams are frustrating.  I get that.  Our dreams speak to us in riddles and fortune cookies; they chuck non sequiturs at us.  Nobody can seem to agree on why we dream, or how much.  And yet, there are people who are capable of lucid dreaming.  Particularly potent dream images stick with us for years.

My dreams are integral to my creative process—but, in the immortal words of LeVar Burton, you don’t have to take my word for it.

Far more illustrious examples of dream scenes in literature include:

  • The Bible, (yes, I’m treating it as literature for purposes of this essay)
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • The Iliad and The Odyssey
  • The Dream of the Rood
  • Shakespeare (sleep and dream motifs are common in his plays, most notably, Macbeth, Richard III, A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and The Tempest)
  • Paradise Lost
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
  • “Kubla Kahn”
  • Innumerable fantasy, horror and science-fiction works
  • Children’s literature
  • The majority of Kafka’s works
  • Finnegan’s Wake

To name a few.

In addition to works that have dreamlike settings and subjects, there have been many major works that have been inspired by the artists’ dreams, such as Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 

Of course, dreams are frequently utilized in TV and film, and thank God for that.  Would you want to live in a world without the dancing dwarf on Twin Peaks?  Without the cheese guy from Buffy?  Without Tony Sopranos’ visions of talking fish and Annette Benning?  I know I wouldn’t.  These images are provocative, iconic.  They are defining moments in the artistic and pop cultural landscape.

It goes without saying that dreams play a significant role in the visual arts as well—we all know the nightmare tableaux of Bosch and Dali.  There are the works of William Blake, who is considered by some to be the greatest artist Britain ever produced, and whose dreams are rendered not only in his poetry, but in paints, watercolors, and intaglios.  Where would modern painting styles be without dreams—without the emphasis on the variance of human perception?  We would have no impressionism, no cubism, no surrealism.

If we rule out dream sequences, does that mean we must also ban depictions of madness, hallucination and drug trips?  Because I sure do love Homer Simpson’s Guatemalan Insanity Pepper trip, and Hunter S. Thompson, and Trainspotting. 

Dreams help us explore the nature of perception and reality.  Where would philosophy be without dreams?  There is the famous quote from the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, “Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.”  To explore realism, perhaps it is necessary to plunge into nonsense.  More modern works blur the lines between reality and fantasy.  The very nature of creative nonfiction acknowledges the inherent unreliability of all human perception, which is reflected very nicely in the shenanigans our sleep-selves get up to.

There is also the factor of religious visions, which verges into the non-fiction territory.  Again, Chabon asserts that people should not share their dreams.  But if they did not, we would be without significant portions of mystical and spiritual accounts, such as St. Teresa of Avila’s or Carlos Castaneda’s.  We would also be without a significant body of psychological literature.  Carl Jung chronicled his dreams for sixteen years, recently released by his heirs as The Red Book.  Jung referred to it as his “confrontation with the unconscious.”  It seems to me that it’s actually the other way around—dreams are the subconscious’ confrontation with our waking selves, forcing us to examine topics (indeed, immersing us) in subjects that our waking selves would perhaps rather not face.  It is the original virtual reality experience, dumping us into the deep end of the pool and daring us to swim.

In narratives, dreams are extremely useful vehicles for foreshadowing and flashbacks.  For character development, they can depict wishes, motivations and emotions, sometimes with visceral immediacy, sometimes with much-needed levity as the narrative requires.

Chabon goes on to say that, “If art is a mirror, dreams are the back of the head.”  That’s all surfaces and reflections.  Dreams live somewhere underneath the surface.  They are the undertow.

The tendency to read too much into dreams is undeniable.  It’s easy to regard them as omens—and once you start doing that, you start to see signs everywhere.  Part of the dubious appeal of dreams is their ability to seduce and deceive.  They can mean everything, or nothing.  For the sake of politeness and sanity, sometimes it’s best to choose nothing.

But not in art.

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