Sunday, 13 January 2019

The Night Eats The World - Protagonist Design

The Night Eats the World, a 2018 indie horror release starring Anders Danielsen Lie as zombie holocaust survivor Ben, and directed, in a first-time feature length effort, by Dominique Rocher, is an entertaining way to spend an hour thirty minutes, with a very misleading trailer. You'd think this was action, action, action, chock-full of tense thrills, and it really isn't. If anything, it's zombie-lite; you rarely see the walking dead, which combined with an intelligent monster design makes the ravening ghouls much more threatening this time out. It's more a bleak, character-driven drama about loneliness and dealing with trauma, which works on its own terms and draws you into its claustrophobic Paris apartment building.

It didn't work for me, though, and it's because I really have no sympathy with the protagonist.

Ben is a misanthropic music lover who wants to get his cassette tapes back from his ex-girlfriend. The ex has moved out of wherever she and Ben lived, and inadvertently packed Ben's stuff among her belongings. When he goes to her new apartment, he finds her place packed with partygoers and an inconvenient current boyfriend, a reminder of Ben's sexual failures. Ben wants his tapes, but party comes first, and she's more interested in being hostess than solving Ben's problems. So Ben gets mopey, and drunk, and more drunk, until finally she pushed him off into an office where all the boxes are. He finds the tapes, but is incapable of moving at this point so he passes out and misses all the zombie action.

This is the first ten minutes or so of the film. He spends the next hour twenty surviving on his lonesome and realizing how much he misses having people to talk to.

As a slow-burn tragedy it works, but because I thought Ben an unlikeable, miserable prick at the start, and didn't have much reason to change my mind for most of the narrative, I wasn't too invested in his adventures. I know people like Ben. You know full well that if you were silly enough to sit next to Ben at this party one of two things would happen: he'd get drunk and say nothing at all, or he'd get drunk and say something unpleasant about his former girlfriend, or the party, or life in general. Either way, about as attractive as a slug excreting into your beer.

Which meant I spent more time picking apart the film than I did enjoying it. I mean, how many times can you pull the 'it was all a dream' trick, anyway? Damn, that must be the best fire alarm in the history of fire alarms, to go off now when there's no AC mains supply. Those batteries really held out. Does Paris not have some municipal code that mandates the blocking of fireplace flues? Why, in God's name, are you using YOUR ONLY SHOTGUN to prop open a door while you make a stealth run through a zombie-infested street?

See, if I actually liked Ben, or found something to admire in him, I wouldn't even think about these little things. Well, I might grouse about the number of times 'it's all a dream' gets used as an excuse for plot bullshit.  I see the film's based on a novel by 'Pit Argamen' aka Martin Page, and I'm really hoping the novel has more depth. It feels as though it might be a story with plenty of internal monologue, which is always tricky to do on the big screen.

If you're going to spend any amount of time with a fictional character, it's important - vital, even - to find something likeable about them. Dirty Harry has plenty of flaws, and you probably wouldn't want to live in the same apartment building as him, but he does have bravery, and compassion for the victims of violent crime. That was enough for five films, even though the character was paper-thin and two-dimensional at the end of it - and didn't have that many dimensions at the beginning either.

All of which got me thinking protagonists, and RPG characters.

I don't listen to every RPG podcast nor do I watch every Twitch stream - there aren't enough hours in the day. However I've listened to and seen enough of them to ask myself how I'd design an entertaining character. If Ben's failing is that he's not attractive in any way, then what makes a character attractive and therefore worth spending an hour thirty with - or a dozen or so RPG sessions?

The Deadly Sins get a lot of love, but the Virtues aren't nearly as appreciated. Chastity, Temperance. Charity, Diligence, Patience, Kindness, Humility - these are the things that make a character interesting, and each Virtue has modifiers that further elaborate the core tenets of the virtue. Some RPG systems lean heavily on this. Vampire presses the Humanity button repeatedly to make up for the evil nature of its protagonists, and Humanity is part of Temperance. However it's true across the board, whether explicitly part of the system or not. Persistence, making an effort - all part of Diligence. Forgiveness, Compassion, Bravery - Patience, Kindness, Humility.

To give you the longer version:

Chastity (purity, abstinence)
Temperance (humanity, equanimity)
Charity (will, benevolence, generosity)
Diligence (persistence, effortfulness, ethics)
Patience (forgiveness, mercy)
Kindness (satisfaction, compassion)
Humility (bravery, modesty, reverence/deference)

If there is to be anything likeable in a character, they ought to demonstrate at least one of these qualities. Nobody has to be a saint-in-training, but then you don't have to be a saint to be brave, or show forgiveness, or abstain from getting rat-arsed and falling into a self-pitying, boozy stupor when the zombie apocalypse shows up.

Gumshoe uses the Drives mechanic to give characters motivation, and these Drives can be tied to Virtues to make characters more interesting. A Drive without some kind of foundation is meaningless, but a Drive with a foundation in Virtue has meaning.

Using Nights Black Agents as a template: Altruism and Atonement are fairly obvious. Altruism springs from Temperance, perhaps Charity. Someone becomes altruistic because they have great humanity, benevolence, generosity. Atonement can have the same source, but comes at that source from a different perspective - one dark event that leads the character to seek atonement through humanity, or generosity. Comradeship from Humility, bravery, even reverence, in this case submission to the legitimate order of a superior. Mystery from Diligence, with its focus on persistence and effort. Nowhere Else To Go from Kindness, with compassion. Patriotism is Humility wrapped up in the flag. So on and so on, with odd ones like I Never Left, Programming and Collector linked to hidden Virtues, part of the cover story.

This doesn't have to be a ton of work. Remember the one sentence rule. Going back to an old post about hacking, I designed a character:


One sentence: Former Nollywood actor and con artist shooting for the big leagues.

To make things interesting, add:

Virtue: Diligence (persistence). Kayo loves a challenge, and makes sure every hack he undertakes is carried out to the very best of his ability.

Adding that Virtue not only makes the character more interesting, it also adds extra roleplay hooks. By playing this Virtue, the Director gets extra ways to dig into Kayo's story, creating new plot paths designed with this Virtue in mind.


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