The Protagonist: Freedom to Act

While reading about Toronto’s Mad Mayor in preparation for last week’s post, I came across a number of expressions of support for the beleaguered mayor that seemed nonsensical at first:

I like Rob Ford because he does whatever he wants. He does not let what other people think get in his way. He thumbs his nose at the downtown elites.

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Freedom to Act is why we often idolize criminals.

or as Bill Maher puts it “I love this guy Rob Ford because he sticks his fingers back in people’s faces and says, ‘What, you don’t do anything?'”

This sentiment is easy to dismiss as irrational, entrenched partisan support for a populist conservative. However, as a writer, I wonder exactly what draws people to a figure like Ford; a man so unfit for public office that his whole time as mayor seems like a joke, at least until I realized that he has a real, solid core of supporters that could grow and ensure his re-election. It reminded me of something I read in one of Joseph Campbell’s works. Let us move away from Ford, who is a false hero if anything, substitute other figures who are well known for their vices as well as their qualities as protagonists.

I like Alexander the Great because he does whatever he wants. He does not let what other people think get in his way. He’s not afraid of the Persian Empire.

Alexander the Great is possibly the greatest living example of a heroic figure. However, despite his accomplishments he often comes off as flawed — a bloodthirsty drama queen more concerned with his own divinity/posterity than creating something lasting. He certainly does what he wants, and definitely sticks it to the man — the vast Persian Empire to be precise. Interestingly when he starts to get cozy with the remains of the Persian Empire, adopting eastern imperial customs, his greek soldiers begin to have doubts.

I like Conan the Barbarian because he does whatever he wants. He drinks, he carouses, he fights, and he does not care what others think. He shows up all those weak, civilized men.

Conan the Barbarian is a fictional character. He is a an uncouth brute whose love for money, drink, and women constantly leads him into a cycle of thievery and violence until he builds up enough of a reputation to become a king. His dislike of civilization (the elites in this case) is presented as a kind of virtue. Conan wanders aimlessly in his pursuit of bling and babes and the only “good” that he does is incidental, the destruction of monsters, corrupt cults, and overbearing civilizations that get in his way. He is almost presented as a force of nature.

Another, more complex character that I constantly hear this kind of admiration attached to is Walter White, the broken chemistry teacher turned ruthless meth dealer from Breaking Bad. Walter is the protagonist of the show, a man that the viewers have great sympathy for because he overcomes tough circumstances and goes on to build a life. He shows toughness and resolve, and intelligence (the hallmark of a modern hero) as he does so. But as many have pointed out, despite being the protagonist he ultimately descends into pretty evil territory. None other than George RR Martin called him out as a monster, which is quite impressive given Mr Martin’s skills at creating memorable villains and flawed heroes.

Rob Ford, Alexander the Great, Conan the Barbarian, Walter White. What do these men, and people like them have in common as protagonists? What can they teach aspiring writers about the very idea of the protagonist? Why do some people admire them?

The answer is simple: Freedom to Act.

Each one of these characters, real or fictional, is seen as heroic on some level because they are able to act when others do not. Rob Ford drinks, smokes crack, associates with gang members openly, and lies (among other things) but resists any attempts to remove him from his job and seems to revel in the attention his bad behavior brings. Some people admire him for the ability to “live the life” and still maintain a hold on power. Meanwhile most people would have been buried by just one of the revelations that hound Ford. Hell most people go to jail if they are caught using crack, just once. Ford remains free and active, striking back at his critics, for now. Alexander marched his troops across the known world, founding cities, destroying decadent empires and testing his luck at every opportunity. He often acted in strange and dramatic fashion, descending into bloodlust or mad acts of bravado, but came off unscathed (except that last time). He challenged the very gods at times, and seemed to win. Even now he is admired for his boundless ambition and his willingness to act upon it. Even the responsibility of his position as a leader did not seem to weigh him down as it did others. Conan the Barbarian, the uncivilized man in a land of decadent civilizations, is also a man of action. He does what he wants and will fight anyone who tries to stop him. Walter White, a far more modern man, finds himself facing a bitter, pointless end and decides to fight back, casting off the chains of lawful conduct and descending into a criminal underworld where only the ruthless survive and prosper.

These protagonists all do things that some people want to do,  and even more occasionally fantasize about doing, with little thought for what the rest of their societies think of them — they are free to act, and ultimately the hero is defined by their descent into the realm of action (badly paraphrased Campbell) and is often at odds with the rest of society while they are in the process of acting. They bring change, and change is always unwelcome to some. Even Alexander, a mighty king far above the common man, had his own elites to contend with. Of course that narrative can be used to drive any fantasy story, or good genre fiction, and especially a tale where the protagonist is a villain or a false hero.

In brief, freedom to act, to do what others cannot do, to take on the monoliths of morality, law, and conventional behaviour is very compelling in a protagonist. This is especially true when this character’s freedom causes them to butt heads with the elite of their world; perhaps that is why `the rogue, done good’ seems to be the quintessential modern hero and why every politician in north america runs as anti-establishment. Freedom to act, without regard for others: an idea both wondrous and terrifying.

walter-white

Proof that some people will see freedom as heroism, even in the presence of undeniable evil.

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2 comments on “The Protagonist: Freedom to Act

  1. judaidan says:

    Wouldn’t you agree that a primary factor in the popularity of such anti- heroes, historical or fictional, is male wish fulfillment? In our first introduction to Walter White, we see him emasculated and humiliated at every turn. In our current climate of economic instability, ever evolving gender roles and so on, I have no doubt that these trials are ubiquitous (on a less dramatic scale) for many men these days. Like Walter White, who was incredibly ambitious, proud and talented but never achieved the greatness he felt entitled to (and this entitlement, I would argue, was his greatest flaw) so many people these days can relate to the feeling of being pummelled into mediocrity by life. Walter White is able to amass a fortune, vanquish enemy after enemy and die on his own terms, it seems like a victory despite the fact that he commits vile acts that collaterally destroy or damage many innocent people along the way (including his own family). He is unapologetic, even in the face of death and even sneers with contempt at the idea of facing an eternity in hell, not because he doesn’t believe, but because the taste of power has become his Mephistophelean bargain. Most men, powerless in life, shackled by debts and obligations, days devoured by tedious employment (and so in), it is not difficult to imagine how such anti-heroes can be utterly compelling.

  2. grimkrieg says:

    Freedom to act is definite wish fulfillment. I’m not entirely certain if it is exclusively male, but it is definitely a very popular fantasy among men and in male oriented pop culture.

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