Thursday, January 22, 2009

More About Jerks

I've been thinking more about that Jerk With Layers vs. Dark and Dangerous Bad Boy idea, fine-tuning it in my head. I guess I started thinking along these lines when I realized that some of the criticism I get from editors for my work is that it isn't "edgy" enough, and what's really hot right now seems to involve the dark, tortured characters. I don't think I could write a truly dark, tortured character if I tried (unless I was doing a parody of the type), but that doesn't mean all my characters have to be incredibly nice, knight-in-shining-armor types. So I started a mental list of characters I really like, those who get me emotionally involved in various books, movies or TV shows, and then when I found some who weren't the nice guy, knight-in-shining-armor types, I tried figuring out why I liked them and how they worked. I think I could pull off a Jerk With Layers as a way of having a little more edge without going all the way to Dark and Dangerous.

Then again, the Depression era was known for fluffy comedies and making Shirley Temple the Queen of the Universe, so maybe my time has come and darker heroes will go out of vogue. Still, I don't think it would hurt me to expand my horizons and at least dabble in writing some different kinds of characters.

I have realized that I'm having trouble coming up with good examples of Dark and Dangerous Bad Boy characters who are not villains. It's possible that some of that is due to the fact that if I like a character, I tend to classify him as a Jerk With Layers, since I don't like bad boys. Most of the Dark and Dangerous types I see people swooning over are villains (or come very close to being villains), and it's more the fans who seem to see them as sexy than the writers trying to paint them as tarnished, tragic romantic heroes. Because I tend to be anti-bad boy, there's a strong possibility that I just avoid things with bad boy heroes (which is why I don't read a lot of paranormal romance). The only Dark and Dangerous heroes I can think of are House (my initial example) and Kara Thrace (Starbuck) on Battlestar Galactica. I consider that someone is dark and dangerous instead of just a jerk when his/her behavior is really self-destructive, to the point that it will harm even their allies. House's behavior has at times harmed personally or professionally just about everyone who tries to get close to him, and Starbuck is so screwed up that she actually avoids anything good or healthy and she outright tries to hurt anyone who gets too close to her. I'd say that the behavior of the Jerk With Layers is like a scab on a wound, while the Dark and Dangerous type has gone beyond wounded to damaged, with the wound festering and scarring.

In the romance world, the "healed by love" plotline is popular with the badder types, which may be another reason why I avoid books with those types of heroes. While I do believe that love can be a powerful healing force, I also believe that it takes more than finding a good woman to love for someone that damaged to turn into a good guy and loving suburban husband and father (I've seen that mockingly referred to as the "magical hoo-ha" story, where sex with this particular woman has all kinds of transformative properties). On the other hand, I think the Jerk With Layers could be changed through a good, healthy relationship, because most of the time all he really needs is a boost of confidence, and someone showing him unconditional love and accepting him can do a lot toward allowing him to lower the facade and be himself.

But then there are a lot of other factors that come up in trying to classify characters. Is inner pain and turmoil essential for a Jerk With Layers? I'd kind of consider Han Solo to be a Jerk With Layers, as he mocks others, is sarcastic, is sometimes even crude and rude, and he acts like he's greedy and selfish, but then he's reliable in a crisis and always there for his friends, even to the point of self-sacrifice. He does have moments of sincerity. But I never got the feeling that his Jerk layer was masking any kind of deep, inner pain. Then again, that character was about 98 percent Harrison Ford's personal charisma and about 2 percent a character who was actually developed in the script. I suppose the pain or insecurity doesn't have to be major or traumatic. It could merely be something like growing up in a tough neighborhood where earnest and sincere would get you beaten up, or, in Han Solo's case, the fact that he worked with criminals and thieves, where it would be dangerous to give them any ammunition by revealing his true self.

Most of the examples of Jerks With Layers I initially thought of were sidekicks, and this character type does work well to balance a more earnest hero (that Trickster archetype). It can be a challenge to make the Jerk With Layers sympathetic enough to be a hero. I thought of Dave (the Bruce Willis character on Moonlighting), and then Shrek in the movies was suggested. I've been trying to decide if Mal on Firefly fits this. My initial impulse is to call him a Jerk With Layers rather than Dark and Dangerous, but then that's largely because I like him and I don't like Dark and Dangerous heroes, so I want to call him a Jerk With Layers. But I think it holds up when I think about it more. He seems to want to be a Dark and Dangerous Bad Boy, but he never quite gets there because he can't seem to help being basically a good person. Given the choice, he'll do the right thing, even if it costs him. I think if he'd gone off alone instead of forming a crew around himself, he could easily have become Dark and Dangerous, but even though he snarls sometimes at his crew, I think he knows he needs them.

Perhaps the Jerk With Layers hero needs to be part of an ensemble rather than a loner hero because we need to see that interaction with the people he cares about to see the layers. It's also probably easier to get away with in TV or movies because the personal charisma or history of the actor can give a difficult character a halo effect, and you can't rely on that in books. If we know and love the actor from other roles or if he is very sexy, attractive, charismatic or obviously having fun with the role, we may be willing to cut his character some slack. I think a lot of the villains/dark and dangerous types that fans swoon over owe their popularity to the incredibly sexy actors who play them rather than to the writing. Snape in the Harry Potter books is a snively jerk who really needs to grow the hell up and get over high school, but in the movies he speaks in Alan Rickman's voice, which changes the picture entirely. On paper, I'm sure the character of Guy in the BBC Robin Hood would come across as a social climbing stalker, but he's played by Richard Armitage wearing black leather (I'm sure I'd like the actor elsewhere, but I must admit that the character does zero for me, which I get the feeling is a very unpopular opinion).

You'd definitely have to do "showing" rather than "telling" to get across the Jerk With Layers because any internal monologue on his part to describe his inner pain could easily come across as justification for his own bad behavior. I suppose you would have to introduce him with his good side showing and then show the facade sliding into place or else introduce the reasons why he might be a bit of a jerk at the same time you introduce the character. That's the way Ron was introduced in the Harry Potter books. We see right away that he's surrounded by older brothers who've distinguished themselves, that everything he owns is a hand-me-down and that two of his brothers have made him the victim of their practical jokes, so by the time we see his defensive sarcasm and prickly sensitivity to criticism, we totally understand it.

I'm still wrestling with my Nagging Idea, and I've decided that since this time of year is terrible for actual writing, I may as well go with the idea generation since it does seem to be a good time for thinking.

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