Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Why I Prefer Middle-Aged Characters

On Sunday night, Masterpiece Contemporary aired Page Eight, which I found every bit as riveting as, apparently, the critics do. It defied many of the tiresome approaches to thriller narratives that involve the rogue agent--ranging from his late thirties to mid-forties—who smokes or has smoked, drinks to excess, and is disturbed by social interactions, yet is still perceived by both sexes as cool and alluring. To me, this formulaic kind of character gives rise to indigestion because it’s a type. This type was developed in the 1970s when (thanks to the help of film noir) the squeaky clean, heroic character—usually a socially-didactic cipher--of the 1940s and 1950s was re-cast as a more three-dimensional human, with serious shortcomings and a dark-side (perhaps more than one). For example, there’s the recovering alcoholic or, say, the reformed pill popper who has been kicked off the force and instead becomes a private detective or perhaps a consultant to the police. At the man’s core, he is understood to be good, but life and its frequently traumatic events have complicated his identity, precipitated a descent into substance abuse. And then there are characters like Kurt Wallander—whom I find absorbing, despite the fact that he conforms to a character type. He is gifted in figuring out cases but cannot negotiate familial relationships and seems vulnerable and deeply damaged in a way that still causes me to hope for his redemption through some deeper relationship.

Bill Nighy as MI5 Intelligence Analyst Johnny Worricker
in BBC Two's Page Eight.

Page Eight has very little of the traditional narrative nonsense I find so often in contemporary movies and mini-series. The main character, Johnny Worricker, an MI5 Intelligence Analyst, is gray haired, lined with age, and generally reticent with what appears to be a calm evaluation of facts. He is unflappable and strategic: the very qualities necessary to being reliable Intelligence Analyst. A viewer can see how he got and maintained the position for so long in a politically volatile environment. He’s been married several times—I remember the number five being batted around during the movie—and this alone suggests some undetermined failing, whether it be an inability to connect or an inability to commit or something else entirely. But his character is broadened by the fact that he does not live in a spare apartment, where housekeeping appears a foreign concept. He has lovely furniture, antiques, and apartment walls painted a bright green, a little bluer and more whimsical than the shade of kelly. Deocrating these walls is a shockly white trimwork and small to medium-sized Modernist paintings hung close together in salon-style. This is a somewhat surprising revelation of character, suggesting a deeper and richer internal life than Worricker projects in everyday circumstances, where he appears aloof or discomfitted, a demeanor that is brought on by his daughter's own paintings of torture victims. Clearly, too, he has collected art for many years. Our intelligence analyst has not just a appetite for acquisition (surely that argument might be made, given the number of paintings on the wall and his number of marriages, if the two collecting habits can somehow be equated), he also has the capacity for aesthetic appreciation. Not only that, he is a shrewd collector, cashing in an especially valuable painting with his (female) dealer—a relationship the director suggests was, through glance and dialogue, at least previously romantic—purchases from him for many banded stacks of cash. This, we find he carries around in a plastic shopping bag, which we see in the final scene as he is headed off to self-imposed exile in South America.

When I wrote “The Corpus Lupi Experiment”, I also chose a fifty-something man, Liam, for my main character. (I suspect Johnny Worricker, though, to be closer to his middle-sixties) I realized now that I choose these older figures (In “A Thousand Incarnations, A Thousand Deaths” I chose a middle-aged female, who worked as a lone secretary in a dentist’s office) for two reasons: (1) the popular media usually develops and focuses on teenage or twenty-something characters, or on characters perceived to be in their prime, which I consider to be in the mid-thirties to early forties and (2) middle-aged characters are more realistic (even when I’m writing about unrealistic things, like vampires and werewolves).

Let me explain. We are given to understand, although this perception is slowly changing, that the love-lives of those who have crossed the threshold of 45 are no longer worth inspecting. Whatever fantastic illusions that might easily be sustained in teen and twenty-something relationships, the ripeness and complexity of thirty-something relationships, is no longer worth examining after 45 and certainly never past 50. Good Heavens, no. The media tells us this in unspoken ways: sex after 45 is dirty. There are wrinkles, maybe physiological complications. No one wants to see an older woman attempt to woo a younger man, and we certainly don’t want to see a younger woman being “preyed upon” by an older man. When we do see this, there is eventually some reckoning or a return to social mores becomes part of the narrative. Certainly, a middle-aged character with another middle-aged character has also traditionally been deemed unpalatable to audiences (again, I acknowledge there are exceptions to this rule--like, ugh, The Bridges of Madison County--and I recognize that this attitude is changing).

But I believe that these middle-aged characters and middle-aged relationships are much more absorbing precisely because of their complication, because of the characters’ histories….because much of life is spent feeling like you’re off balance, not like you’re on top of the world. And middle-aged characters embrace this insecurity or have at least come to terms with it in a way that younger characters do not. Middle-aged characters carry regret and sometimes denial. They are filled with historical surprises that younger characters simply do not have. Often, the middle-aged characters are not heroic but instead remain riddled with crippling uncertainty. And this is precisely what makes them so intriguing. Perhaps it’s because I am moving away from the ability to identify with the preoccupations of twenty-somethings, and I can identify with the buffeting by life that middle-age characters undergo. To me, teen and twenty-something heroes are unrealistic, cheap, a dime-a-dozen. Give me a middle-aged survivor of life’s challenges any day of the week. Grizzled and wrinkled they may be, but they’re just far more interesting.

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