Saturday, October 5, 2013

Untrustworthy characters

I've been thinking about untrustworthy characters.  You know the ones: Han Solo, Captain Jack Sparrow, Dustfinger from Inkheart.  The guys the hero shouldn't trust, but somehow do anyway.

It occurred to me that one thing these guys all have in common is that they're highly motivated.  Take Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie (Or Episode IV if you count the prequel trilogy).  If he doesn't get lots of money quick, every bounty hunter in the galaxy will be after him.  Sure, he took care of Greedo no problem, but eventually superior numbers will get him.  To save his skin, he needs cash.  Rescuing princesses pro bono publica goes against his story goal.  (So does returning to save the Rebels from the death star instead of rushing back to Tatooine to pay off Jubba.  In fact, Han blows his story goal so badly that Empire Strikes Back ends with him in the clutches of a ruthless bounty hunter.)

Captain Jack Sparrow in Curse of the Black Pearl is equally motivated.  He wants his ship back, and he'll do whatever it takes to get it.  Sure he doesn't want to see Will and Elizabeth hurt -he's not heartless- but that doesn't keep him from using them as bait.

As for Dustfinger, he's pretty driven.  Not only does he betray our heroes early on, but when he learns that if he reaches his goal he'll die, the discovery doesn't actually change his mind, it just makes him a bit depressed.

I think what makes these guys come across as unpredictable is that they don't have the same goal as the rest of the heroes.  We know they're highly motivated, what we don't know is how far they'll go to get what they want.  Will they betray the hero to get what they're after?  Maybe they like the hero.  Maybe they make an effort to save him -but still betray his cause, then wonder what he's so grumpy about.  Or maybe they decide their personal goal isn't so important after all and put all their energy into making sure the heroes win.

If they decide to throw over their own goal out of loyalty to the heroes, it shouldn't be an easy choice.  After all, they've wanted whatever they want since before they met the heroes.  Letting it go now should be hard -hard enough that your audience doesn't know until the last moment which direction they'll go.  Maybe (as in Star Wars) that choice ripples through the rest of the story, causing future problems for the unpredictable character and the heroes.  Your heroes might have to decide if they're loyal back -or if their cause is more important.  If they decide it is, does their friend resent being hung out to dry?  And how does that affect his loyalty?  Or the other character's perception of his loyalty?  Will they still trust him if they know they turned traitor on him?  Should they?  

There are lots of possibilities as soon as you have a character with a different goal from your hero.  The guy doesn't even have to look shifty.  There may be lots of other things that make those wonderful, lovable rogue characters, but different goals is one that's definitely worth playing with.    


  1. I like "rogue," the term you use at the end for these characters better than "unpredictable." {Smile}

    I can't seem to help thinking of Merry and Frodo partway into The Fellowship of the Ring:

    " 'But it does not seem I can trust anyone,' said Frodo.

    ...'It all depends on what you want,' put in Merry, 'You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin -- to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours -- closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo.' "

    Han strikes me the same way: he is trustworthy, as long as you pick the right things to trust him to do. You can trust him to take care of himself, and you can trust him to take care of the few friends and items he considers his own. But you can't trust him to put some nebulous greater good like freedom from oppression by faceless overlords before the needs of himself and his own. That's just not how Han Solo works. {Amused Smile}

    Jack Sparrow (at least in the first movie) is exactly the same way. You can trust him to look out for himself and his own. The greater good can take care of itself as far as he's concerned, but he'll watch out himself, and for the people and things he's adopted as his own. {Amused Smile}

    I'm not familiar with Dustfinger, but if he's like the others, you can trust him to follow his own priorities. you ju8st have to know what those are to understand him. {Smile}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  2. I'd agree, and I wonder if that's what makes these characters so relatable -that they see the world on a smaller scale. Boy, I should've used rogue in my post title. (I could go back and change it I guess.) I was going to say `loveable traitor' and link to the tv trope, but when I read the trope again, the description didn't quite seem to fit what I had in mind.

    Yes, Dustfinger is a bit like the others, and ends up taking over Cornelia Funke's Inkheart series. I love the first book, which stands alone quite well. The second and third book are connected to each other (the second has a cliffhanger ending.) I find the pair intriguing but have not yet decided what I actually think. I think the last book is a little polarizing. You either love what she does with the ending, or retrospectively hate both the second and third book -and I can't decide which is true for me. I felt rather the same way about the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie- I mean in how closely they were connected, and that how you felt about the ending of the third would affect how often you watched the second.

    For some reason this isn't letting me comment as Chicory. I hate computers.

  3. Maybe you're right about their narrower focus making these characters relatable. It can be hard to give yourself over to a nebulous cause... but most of us have a few special friends and family members we make priority. It's not as stark a distinction for most as for Han and Jack, but one of the advantages of fiction is that you can enhance the contrasts. {Smile}

    What did you think about the later Pirates of the Caribbean movies? I watch so few movies, I haven't gotten around to checking them out yet. {Smile}

    Computers are frustrating. I only found your reply now; I'm glad I thought to check. Hopefully it's over acting up for a while. {cross fingers hopefully, Smile}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  4. I'm glad your computer decided to behave for a bit. :) As for `Pirates of the Caribbean,' I like the second movie a lot, but I'm not crazy about the way they tried to change Elizabeth Swan into an action girl. I felt like the change wasn't gradual enough to feel natural. I hated what they did with Norrington -they turned him bitter. They addressed Will's father, which I liked. Overall, I felt like there were too many main characters, all trying to have equal time. In the first movie, It's Will's story. The second movie couldn't decide if it was about Will or Jack. The cliffhanger ending was lovely and dramatic, though, and there were a lot of great moments.

    The third movie I disliked so much that I haven't been able to bring myself to watch it a second time. (That's rare.) The beginning seemed fragmented, the middle dragged, and while the second movie wasn't sure who the story belonged to, the third didn't even try to have a main character. Also, it seemed like the storytellers decided that if one untrustworthy character was fun in the first movie, three would be better. You didn't really know what motivated any of the main heroes, so it was impossible to root for anyone. I will say the end had a nice twist.

    The fourth movie was fun. They went back to having a main character (in this case Jack) and the story was a bit less cosmic, and so easier to understand. There were some nice twists. I didn't love it as much as the first movie (the secondary characters weren't as well developed) but I did enjoy it a lot. It's probably the strongest since the first.

  5. Yes, it's much better when my computer behaves itself. {Smile}

    Thanks for describing the later Pirates of the Caribbean movies. I'll have to think about whether to track any of them down. The fourth sounds particularly tempting, especially if watching 2&3 isn't absolutely required to enjoy 4. {Smile}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  6. Ack! The computer ate my last reply! What I tried to say was the fourth movie is self contained, but Captain Barbossa un-dies near the end of movie two and became one of those not-exactly-bad-guys that you still have to keep an eye on. He's in the fourth movie a little, which, if you haven't been warned and have only seen the first movie, could look like a major continuity error. So. You have been warned. :)

  7. Thanks. That is a good thing to know ahead of time. It could be pretty confusing to see him there when he's supposed to be dead. {Smile}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin