One of my favorite TV series is “Midsomer Murders,” the British cozy-cum-police procedural set in small town England, now in its twentieth season. Other, newer favorites include “The Brokenwood Mysteries,” a darker cozy-cum-police procedural set in small town New Zealand, and “Hinterlands,” so dark it’s actually Scandi-noir masquerading as village fare, set in small town Wales. All three shows share commonalities. They focus on police investigation of crimes in rural areas with adjusted per capita murder rates that rival Chicago’s. The biggest difference between the three is the degree of dysfunction in the main characters. Midsomer’s DCI Barnaby is an ordinary guy, a well-adjusted everyman with a well-adjusted wife and daughter. His home life is ordinary, if not outright idyllic. The drama and trauma occur on the job. Brokenwood’s DSS Shepherd, on the other hand, is a man with a complicated past that includes several ex-wives and at least one dead one. You get the sense he’s experienced a lot of unhappiness in a life accented by the show’s country/alt rock soundtrack. Hinterland’s (the darkest of the shows) DCI Mathias makes Kurt Wallander look like the president of the pep club in comparison. Devastated by the death of one of his children, he’s lost his wife and home and spends as much time battling inner demons as he spends tracking murderers.
Dysfunctional protagonists seem to be the “thing” in modern books, TV, and movies. The damaged hero is often as “messed up” as the villain. It’s gotten to the point where you wonder if there’s an unofficial competition to create the world’s most broken protagonist. I’ve heard authors admit to “piling on” the trauma, going out of their way to load down their character’s pasts with as much tragedy and affliction as possible. I’ve read some books where the author went so far with the dysfunction device, the protagonist (and most of the supporting characters) ended up being a walking collection of problems that bogged the story down more than advanced it. The dysfunctional hero trope is so common it’s now used to comic effect. Wreck-It Ralph, a hilarious movie about the secret lives of arcade game characters, explicitly describes one as “being programmed with the most tragic backstory ever”. The Ref, a hilarious movie about a home invasion, plays on the idea that the victims are so screwed up, the “bad guy” ends up becoming their counselor.
I’m not opposed to dysfunction in film and literature on general principle, as long as the dysfunction is an integral part of the story and not just something glommed onto a character in an effort to be trendy. Some of my favorite characters have issues. I’ll add Det. Bobby Goren to the ones mentioned above. A schizophrenic mother, a uninvolved stepfather, and a serial killer biological father certainly put the quirky star of “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” high on the screwed-up life list. But I do think dysfunction has been overdone. It’s so prevalent, it’s become humdrum. Take a pill, already, see a therapist. Some authors (including authors of screenplays) don’t even try anymore. They grab a psychopathology textbook and saddle their protagonists with a laundry list of complexes and personal problems, occasionally throwing in a physical issue or two for variety, and call it a day. They assume that’s all that’s required to create a character worth sticking with for a couple hundred pages or a couple of hours in a theater or past the first commercial break. But “effed up” is not a synonym for interesting. I admit syrupy-sweet, “perfect” characters with charmed lives are annoyingly Pollyanna-ish. Average characters, however, are not. At least they don’t have to be. Don’t we all know at least one “basically normal” person who interests us? A dysfunctional background is not a prerequisite for drama and conflict. And well-adjusted doesn’t mean nothing bad ever happens. Bad things happen to good people all the time. Look at the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. James Stewart and Doris Day epitomize middle-class normality on vacation. Then they witness a murder. Then their daughter is kidnapped. Bad things. Not boring. In Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, an average, well-adjusted girl must confront the fact that seemingly normal, well-adjusted Uncle Charlie may not be. The ordinariness, bordering on banality, of the people and the town heighten the suspense and terror in the film. The devil comes to visit Norman Rockwell. In Suddenly, Frank Sinatra’s hitman holds an average family hostage in their ordinary home as part of his plot to assassinate the President. Nothing dull about that. The Slender Thread offers “regular-guy,” college student Sidney Poitier as a crisis hotline volunteer who must locate the suicidal woman who calls him before the pills she swallowed have their intended effect. Plenty of drama. Normal is not a synonym for snooze-fest.
Unbroken heroes can carry a story as well as broken ones. They can confront the same danger, conflict, and obstacles. What differs is how they handle those things. A protagonist from a happy, or at least functional, background is already out of her comfort zone when she’s unexpectedly faced with a crisis or put into dangerous circumstances. Instant drama. A character from a dysfunctional background is used to trauma, expects conflict, approaches the world from the assumption that rotten things are more likely to happen as not and life kind of sucks. They’ve developed survival skills to get them this far, survival skills they can call on to help them through the next trauma, which doesn’t come as much of a surprise in their hyper-vigilant existence. But a character who’s never experienced adversity, never had to learn to cope? Someone who, like the subject of the Mighty, Might Bosstones’ “The Impression That I Get,” has “never been tested”? They have no survival skill set to fall back on, no ingrained coping mechanisms. The “untested” hero faces a steep learning curve in the “deal with it or die” game. How would someone who led a charmed life cope when that charm wears off? What does someone do when their basic assumptions–that life works out the way you want it to, that the world and people in it are basically good, that terrible things only happen to nonspecific “others”–prove wrong? When life which seemed so pleasant and harmless rears up without warning and smacks them upside the head? Then kicks them in the teeth? Do they crumple, unable to dip into their reserves and find a way to fight back? Do they rail against the injustice about to crush them, angry that they did all the right things and got sucker punched anyway? Lose faith because they didn’t get what they thought they deserved? Or do they rise to the challenge? Show their resilience? Draw on strengths they didn’t know they possessed–or borrow strength from others–and overcome the obstacles? How do they change, knowing the world isn’t really the warm, safe place they once believed it to be?
Which side of the dysfunction junction do you fall on? The more problems the better? Enough with the traumatic backstory already? Somewhere in the middle? No preference as long as it’s a well-drawn character involved in a gripping plot?