It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have. - William Munny, Unforgiven
In movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Star Wars, our heroes leave a trail of bodies in their wake a mile wide, yet we never blink. Why is that? Heroes like Indiana Jones or Han Solo or Luke Skywalker get a pass largely because of three factors: first, we know from the beginning that they’re Good Guys (although Han Solo is a little ambivalent at first). They’re fighting for the Right Side, for Truth, Justice, to save The Girl from the clutches of Evil. We have to root for them, there’s no choice in the matter, so we forgive them for the carnage. It’s justified.
The second reason is this: who are they killing? Nameless, faceless, anonymous bad guys. And Nazis. You can never go wrong if you’re killing Nazis. And when they do actually kill a bad guy with a name, it’s someone who is so bad and so evil you cheer when it happens. Belloq. Major Toht (i.e., That Creepy Guy with the Glasses). Governor Tarkin. The deaths in these scenes are bloodless (with a few exceptions), and they’re throwaway characters, like the red shirts on Star Trek.
Finally, at least in the little clip from Raiders of the Lost Ark, deaths can be played for laughs. Gunning down a man on the street isn’t funny when it happens in front of your house. When it’s presented in the way it was in Raiders, it is. Funny deaths are forgivable.
We get into rougher territory when we get into the other films, however. In Unforgiven, we kind of root for Eastwood’s little party, because the bad guys in question cut up a prostitute’s face, and the local law did nothing. The women here can’t get revenge directly, so they put money up to get justice. Revenge plays well with audiences, so we’re already on Eastwood’s side at the start. The Schofield Kid, the guy that rounds up Eastwood's William Munny and Morgan Freeman's Ned Logan - up to the point in the film where he shoots the man in the outhouse, has been a really annoying character. He’s brash and cocky and talks trash. He’s scornful and boastful. He’s the kind of guy you wouldn’t feel sorry for if he took a bullet, and, if he did, you’d say, “He had it coming.” But…if you watched all the way to the end of the clip, the character is revealed. He was all talk. He’d never killed a man before, and we see what he goes through as the reality of his actions comes home to him, and he falls to pieces. With this kind of transformation, we can forgive him.
Nancy made stated it very well in her comments to last week’s post:
“it's all about the journey the character goes through both before he does The Terrible Awful Thing, as well as afterwards, and how he acts on his remorse and regret.”And that’s what it really comes down to, isn’t it? The journey, the impact, the transformation.
One of the great things we can do as writers is provide subtlety and shading to our characters. We could go for the broad brush strokes, a la Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars, but it’s more interesting to have characters with depth and complexity. Nancy’s character shocked me with his actions. It was a sharp turn that I never saw coming. Once he made that turn I really had to wrestle with whether or not what he did was ‘in character’ or not, and if I could forgive him. Best of all, it made me think. There's a place for the fast riding thrills in books and movies, but I like to think.
Have a good weekend, all.