Posts Tagged protagonists

Demolished Man: Protagonists

With the first month of the Hugo Read winding down, I figure it’s time to actually talk about the book. The Demolished Man is the story of Ben Reich, a young plutocrat in a future dominated more by businesses than by governments, trying to get away with the murder of competitor Craye D’Courtney while being hounded by police investigator Lincoln Powell. Unless The Demolished Man is the story of Lincoln Powell, an “esper” working to pin the first premeditated murder in nearly 70 years on the boldly cocky and clearly guilty Ben Reich.

There is no question that Ben Reich and Lincoln Powell are the protagonist and antagonist of The Demolished Man. The only real question is whether the word “respectively” can be added to that description.

In the classical sense of the two terms, the protagonist is the character in the book who wants something, and whose pursuit of that goal typically, but not always, drives the plot of the story. Or, at the very least, to whom the plot happens. The antagonist is the character who stands in the way of that pursuit. Getting those out of the way, both of our main characters in The Demolished Man have clear objectives beyond the broader murder investigation plot. That is to say, while it is certainly a goal of Reich’s to get away with murder, that is just a part of a much broader goal surrounding power consolidation and wealth accumulation. Likewise, Powell certainly sees solving the mystery as a goal, but he too has broader desires to advance within the esper guild. Each stands firmly in the other’s way, and the broad goals are contradictory. If Powell succeeds, Reich will be “demolished,” a process not fully explained until the book’s denouement. If Reich succeeds, Powell will be roundly embarrassed and any future advancement within the police force or esper guild will be abruptly halted.

So the book presents us with two characters, and asks us which one we’d like to cheer for. Is our hero the sociopath businessman? It’s not unheard of, and my fondness for American Psycho prepared me for that. Or is our hero the affable bureaucrat? That’s certainly who we’re meant to cheer for in most murder mysteries. Though that’s largely because we see so little of the story from the murderer’s point of view in the typical mystery.

The Demolished Man is a reverse mystery. Like most Columbo episodes, the mystery is not “who done it” but “how will he be caught?” Unlike the typical Columbo episode, however, we don’t lead off with a murder, rather we’re shown all the planning that goes into the murder. We get to see enough of Reich’s rationale, broken as it may be (I’ll talk about this in a later post, as it’s a moment in the book I absolutely adored), and just how much work he puts into killing someone. Because it is work in this future. It’s not until midway through the first act that the murder actually happens, and by this point we’re invested in Reich’s success.

Or, at least, I was invested in Reich’s success.

Yes, I went with Reich as the protagonist. Judge me now if you will.

Powell, through this planning, is living his abnormally normal life as one of the most powerful espers on the planet. We know he’s a police investigator in a book where a murder is about to happen, so we know how he will be involved in the plot, but in these first few looks at Powell, he’s involved only with the internal esper politics and hosting fancy parties for fellow telepathics. Perhaps Powell’s distance from what I knew to be the A-plot of the story is why I sided with Reich as the protagonist. Perhaps, as Jen Brinn has often called it, I had a baby duck problem where I imprinted on the first character of agency I saw, and was willing to cheer for him no matter how morally troublesome his goals may be.

It’s the typical anti-hero problem. Can you cheer for someone who is doing all the wrong things, potentially even for the wrong reasons?

There are arguments to make on either side. And here we get a little more into spoilers, so walk away if you haven’t finished the book yet.

Do you want to cheer for the guy who gets his goals? The character who wins out in the end? Do you play lawful good characters? Then Lincoln Powell is your protagonist. By the end of the book he’s proven Reich committed the murder, discovered the motive that even Reich himself wasn’t fully aware of, and found a fellow esper to fall in love with, fulfilling the eugenic requirements of higher guild office. Rah rah, Lincoln Powell. If you want to go with the title character, give in to the baby duck imprinting, and feel sympathy when your guy loses in a rather spectacular method, join me in being bummed that Ben Reich couldn’t quite pull it off.If you’ve finished the book (or read it previously), who did you see at the protagonist? Did you even see the same duality of choice that I did? Before month’s end, I also hope to look at the use of telepathy in the book, and make some observations that probably don’t fit in full-length blog posts of their own.

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Villains, Antagonists…and Nemeses

A song came out recently.  A fantastic song by one of my favorite troubadours, Jonathan Coulton.  If you don’t know the name, if you’re a gamer you know his work.  He wrote the fantastic songs that close out the Portal games.  His latest album is Artificial Heart and includes a song called Nemeses which…look, I could describe it, but the embedding function in Youtube means I can just show it to you:

My wife is lucky this song wasn’t out two years ago, or I might have lobbied to have it be the first dance at our wedding (as is I fought for a different Coulton song, I’m Your Moon, which ended up as our second dance).

In part I’ve been listening to this song so much recently because it is a fantastic song.  It really is.  Something about the delivery of the line “well played,” just sells the whole thing.  However, it also invaded my brain because, for the first time, I’m writing a story that includes an actual nemesis.

Let me stop here and give my own definitions of a few terms.  First we have a character who is striving towards a particular goal.  In my book this is called “a character.”  If that character is the primary focus of the story, that’s a protagonist.  If a character’s goals are in opposition to the protagonist, that’s an antagonist.  If a character’s goals are in opposition to the laws and cultures of the society, that’s a villain.  I’ve been meaning to look at the differences between antagonists and villains, and that will come in a future Writer Reviews post, just as soon as I pick between Dr. Horrible and The Prestige.

A nemesis, in my dictionary of terms, is that antagonist who is not just working towards goals that put him into opposition with the protagonist, but intentionally chooses goals because they are in opposition to the protagonist.

Basically an antagonist does not need the goal “I will defeat the protagonist.”  A nemesis does.  A nemesis is also often evenly matched to the protagonist, potentially very slightly over matched.  The antagonist in any Sherlock Holmes story is the murderer.  Or the thief.  Whomever Holmes is tracking down.  The nemesis in a Holmes story?  That’s Moriarty.  He doesn’t appear that often, but he was specifically created to confound and be an equal to Holmes.  They don’t have to be an equal.  Superman has plenty of villains, but the only real nemesis is Lex Luthor, the squishy human with no superpowers except knowing where to find glowing green rocks.

Plenty of stories, therefore, have antagonists.  Few have nemeses.  And that’s what makes it an interesting new character to put together.  What puts the thought in the head of a character that he not only wants to achieve his own goals, but specifically wants to destroy the good guy, to bring him down and drag him through the dirt.  Is it to prove a point?  To redress an actual or perceived slight?  Is it bitterness over going bald?

And in the end, the concept of a nemesis comes down to the old cliché: the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.  And that’s what the song sums up nicely, the odd codependent relationship that is either on or just beneath the surface with a nemesis.  “Could it be that you need me to keep out, to run you faster…” This has resulted in two tropes that play on the concept of the nemesis.  The first is the concept of an unrequited nemesis, much like unrequited love (poor Johnny Snow).  The other is the idea of a character suffering an existential crisis after the final (often accidental) defeat of a nemesis, most recently the movie Mastermind.  Either connects with us, because we recognize somewhere that this is nearly a romantic relationship, so it ends up playing on our own memories of heartbreak, just poked at from a different direction.  It turns into an existential crisis.

Comic pitch: Existential Crisis on Infinite Earths.

The one caution.  Just as a character who is nothing but a sighing unrequited lover isn’t interesting beyond…really the few words that I already said, so too does the Nemesis need to have his own character and personality, and goals beyond just the defeat/destruction of the hero.  That may be a goal that is complimentary to the defeat of the protagonist, or directly caused by the defeat, but it needs to be there.  World domination is always nice.

People love a nemesis in fiction.  It’s always the character that shows back up in a TV series that people love to hate.  Like Q.  It brings out the full potential of the protagonist, or even forces the protagonist down a darker path.  To come full circle with Jonathan Coulton, it’s part of what made Portal such a popular game.  Few video games have managed to create a nemesis for the player, rather than just a final boss or a few scattered big bad guys.  GladOS manages to be something that Bowser or Dr. Eggman never managed to be.  It’s not a character that every story needs, but it can be a damn powerful character.  But with great power comes great responsibility.  Alright, back to character sketching.

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