My favourite book as a teen was a dark space opera called The Gap Cycle. It was about space pirates, politics and a poor tortured woman who somehow managed to survive to become a hero. The first book was excruciating to read at parts as the author, Stephen Donaldson, detailed everything she went through. Yet, I was unable to put it down.
The further you got in the series, the more the story seemed to zoom out from the main character’s tragedy while similarly zooming in on the psychology of every character. There was betrayal. There was corruption. There was terrorism.
There was the Drama Triangle.
The first time I encountered the concept of the Drama Triangle was in a prologue to the first Gap book (The Real Story). The author spoke about how within the story the characters moved between points on the triangle.
The points are:
The Hero is the one you root for, the Villain is the one you hate, the Victim is the one you pity. Once you become aware of the points, you see them everywhere. Most fairy tales have them. Most video games have them. But the characters do not always move between them. Often a character will begin in one position and stay there throughout the story.
The question is… can a character be interesting if they don’t move?
One of my all time favourite characters, Spike (from Buffy the Vampire Slayer), is a prime example of a character who moves (and if you haven’t seen the entire show and still plan to, stop reading here).
He begins as a horrific villain, seriously bad-ass.
Rupert Giles: Our new friend Spike. He’s known as William the Bloody. Earned his nickname by torturing his victims with railroad spikes. Very pleasant. Oh, here’s some good news: he’s barely two hundred. He’s not even as old as Angel is. Oh.
Xander Harris: That’s a bad look, right?
Rupert Giles: I think your suggestion of running away this Saturday might’ve been a good one. Spike has fought two Slayers in the last century, and… he’s killed them both.
Then he’s a victim, implanted with a chip to prevent him killing.
Spike : Help me. (Buffy shoves him back and he goes tumbling.) Ohh! What part of help me do you not understand?
Buffy : The part where I help you.
Spike : Come on, I’m parboiling out here.
Buffy : (Giles hands her a stake.) Want me to help make it quicker?
And then, there’s the end.
Spike – “I can feel it, Buffy.”
Buffy – “What?”
Spike – “My soul. It’s really there. Kind of stings.”
[…] Spike – Go on, then.
Buffy – No. No, you’ve done enough. You could still—
Spike – No, you’ve beat them back. It’s for me to do the cleanup.
That’s fine for villains, but can a hero – for example a main character – brush the darkness of villainy and come back, still being viewed a hero?
The way I see it, everyone has a dark side. Under the right circumstances, they could be capable of many things. To acknowledge this in a main character is to make the character real. I think this is a fault that I’ve had with my heroes previously. They’ve flipped between victim and hero but the other side has never threatened. There’s never been a time when, out of anger or bitterness or grief, they’ve struck out in a way that isn’t right.
I guess it doesn’t always work out – it’s a dangerous thing to make your reader lose faith in your main character. Donaldson’s other acclaimed series, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, lost me completely when the main character raped someone. For me that was too far, I didn’t want the character to succeed at all.
I guess it’s a fine line and it’s definitely something to consider going forward.