Writerly Sound Bites, Number 10: Character Progression – What About Characters Broken Beyond Repair?

Per the sixth installment in this series, we have seen that characters do not simply break due to an “earthshattering event.” The eighth installment, which had to be split into three separate articles, went into detail about how characters broken by other people can heal from this trauma. Some rightly ask, however, about the Character Broken Beyond Repair. What about him?

First it would be best to define our terms. “Broken” in this sense does not mean someone who had “one bad day” and decided to become a villain. No one in real life who has a bad day chooses to go on a rampage to slaughter innocents – not unless he already wanted to do so. This is where villains, as described in the third installment and elsewhere, come in: they want something, and they are quite willing to kill whoever stands in their way no matter how innocent that person may be. Some of them just enjoy hearing others scream, so harming innocents is what they want to do with their lives.

“Wait! That’s not right!” some say. “What about those people who aren’t villains, who don’t kill innocents – at least as a matter of course?”

These types of characters may not kill innocents as a matter of course, but they are broken for roughly the same reason: they do not want to be whole. Every time an offer to heal is presented to them, they refuse it. Or if they accept it, their acceptance is only temporary due to the fact that they desire their own will above their own good and that of others.

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A case in point would be none other than Marvel Comics’ famous Punisher. Frank Castle was a Vietnam veteran with a predilection for violence. He liked fighting and, moreover, killing. Not in the way a fighting man such as John Carter* would, either; Carter enjoys a good fight but he does not kill wantonly or brutally. It is implied via flashback that had his family and the law not held him back for some years, Castle could and would have become the killer he is now. Moreover, he never would have lost a moment’s sleep over it then any more than he does now.

When his family is murdered by the mob and the law fails to apprehend their murderers, the only civilizing influences Castle had on his behavior are gone. He also has a greater motivation to let his inner killer loose. As Punisher writer Carl Potts explains, Castle becomes the Punisher in an effort to punish himself for failing to save his family. Castle feels enormous guilt for abiding by the rule of law rather than take preemptive action to protect them. So he deliberately attacks and murders criminals in an effort to die himself, to punish himself for “allowing” his wife and children to be murdered.

Although this is cathartic for audiences, it does not and cannot make Castle a hero or a healthy man. Several stories have shown that his life of killing has driven him to the brink of or over the edge into insanity, such as the time he tried to murder Spider-Man. The Wall-Crawler was a well-beloved hero to the common man despite J. Jonah Jameson’s attempts to paint him otherwise and, as a street vigilante himself, Castle should have known the hero’s reputation. Bystanders’ appreciation of Spider-Man is unstinting, so sooner or later, Castle would have heard the good things people actually had to say about Spidey. The fact that he snapped and went after the Web-Slinger shows just how much his desire for violence and his thwarted death wish had overridden his reason.

Castle makes it a practice to go after violent criminals the law cannot or will not touch, and his history of protecting young children from murderers is admirable. None of it makes him a hero or anything less than a character Broken Beyond Repair because he could choose to repair himself. He could choose to forgive himself for the loss of his family and he could choose non-violent means of bringing violent criminals down. G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown* series, among others, offers one viable way of stopping violent offenders without resorting to mass carnage.

Yes, I am actually suggesting Frank Castle could have turned to God, become a priest, and defeated villains that way. It would not have been nearly as cathartic for readers, but it would have been healthier for Castle as a character and just as realistic. Stranger things have actually happened in real life; I can see the potential of a character in much the same straits as Frank Castle turning to God, then becoming a priest or a preacher to save lives and souls rather than take the former and – possibly – ensure the damnation of the latter.

Frank Castle chose not to do that. While this makes him an excellent cathartic character and anti-hero, it can never make him a true hero. This is why he is a very good example of a character Broken Beyond Repair: the Punisher would not have it any other way. He will go to his grave punishing himself and others for sin through violence, providing no real solutions for either himself or society at large, and that ultimately makes him a pitiable character in comparison to the other denizens of the Marvel multi-verse.

Gollum from The Lord of the Rings* is another such character. Gandalf, Frodo, and others mention this several times. The Wizard even puts a fine point on it: “He [Gollum] both hates and loves the Ring, as he hates and loves himself.” Now, loving oneself is a subject that is fraught with misconceptions and it is too easy to fall into error or sin. Self-love which blinds a person to his or her faults or which does not will the good of others or oneself leads to Gollum’s wretched existence.

It has to be said that Gollum does not love himself properly, any more than he loves anyone or anything else properly. He is a slave to the Ring and to his own passions; he stopped looking at the natural world of sun, stars, moon, trees, and birdsong to grub around in the dirt. Long before he became enamored of the Ring and the “secrets” he used it to collect, he was fascinated with the “roots” and things hidden in the dark.

The Ring took advantage of that misplaced affection, tapping into Sméagol’s desire for knowledge in the deep caverns of Middle-earth, for things that were beyond his ken and which would bring no good to him or others. Déagol’s refusal to give him the Ring was enough to provoke the already selfish Gollum to commit murder. While the Ring works on the souls of all who hold or behold it, those who love themselves and others properly are able to resist its power to some degree. Of the nine members of the Fellowship of the Ring, only Boromir succumbed to the corruptive influence of the Ring, and he regretted it soon after.

If he had chosen differently, if he had truly loved himself properly, then Sméagol would never have murdered Déagol. He would have resisted the Ring’s power and his friend would have lived. Instead, he capitulated to the power of the One Ring – which is precisely why he hates and loves it. He hates and loves it because his desires are as disordered as an addict’s: he wants the substance that will make him “high,” but he also wishes to be better than he is. Due to his unwillingness to actually attempt to be better than he is, however, he can only do “what he doesn’t want to do” – or, rather, what he would say he does not want to do.

This is what Nathaniel Hawthorne meant when he said: “All that isolates damns; all that associates, saves.” Gollum’s desire for knowledge or for “secrets” he could lord over others isolated him from them. This is the reason why he was banished from his home and, eventually, burrowed under the Misty Mountains, where he remained for at least five centuries. He was unwilling to associate with others, to choose to be better than he was and become the person whom he had been created to be. By isolating himself from all others, he damned himself.

None of this is to say no one tried to rescue Gollum from himself. They manifestly did. Gandalf made the first attempts, the Wood Elves of Mirkwood made the second, and Frodo arguably did the most for the poor creature. Lacking in the absolute malice that makes Sauron an implacable enemy to be destroyed at all costs, Gollum is a wretched personage who has no will to control his evil inclinations.

It is sad and pitiable but not, as Gandalf wisely pointed out, incurable. Gollum could have chosen at any time to turn aside from his evil. He lacked the strength of will to do so, which eventually cost him his life in a miserable manner. Betrayed by the Ring as well as his own weak nature, he dies in the fires of Mount Doom, a warning to others that isolating oneself to please one’s appetites can never end in a good way.

Mike, the mouse from Illumination Entertainment’s film Sing*, is another good example of this mindset. An arrogant street performer obsessed with being respected, he plays on street corners for cash. When we first see him in the movie, he is playing the saxophone. A passerby tosses a coin to him and Mike takes offense when he realizes the coin is a penny. “A penny?! How dare you!” he snarls at the monkey who dropped the money in his instrument case.

When the monkey demurs, saying the penny was all he had, Mike literally shakes him down and makes him empty his pockets. He kicks through the items the monkey lays out, including the latter’s inhaler (“What d’you smoke outta this?” he asks in confusion), before seizing the shiny metal clip holding all the cash the monkey has on him. “You saw it! You all saw it!” Mike shouts to the other pedestrians on the street. “The monkey lied!”

No one was really paying attention, of course, but public opprobrium falls on the monkey who was essentially robbed nonetheless. Telling the monkey to “Pick on someone [his] own size” next time, Mike tosses the empty clip at him and goes back to playing. While it emphasizes his greed, the scene also shows the mouse’s arrogance goes far beyond mere avarice. He doesn’t just want money; he wants the respect which he believes it confers on those who have it.

This is emphasized when he tries to enter a nightclub on the heels of a beautiful female mouse, but is prevented by the bouncer, who allows a mobster and his henchmen to enter unmolested. When Mike is accepted into the singing competition at the heart of the film, he is eager to claim the hundred-thousand-dollar prize. Certain that he will be the winner, before the competition even begins, he acquires a credit card and starts spending money like water. He later cheats at a game of cards, fleecing the mobster of his money, earning unnecessary enemies just to prove he is smarter than them.

This comes back to haunt him and the competition itself when the mobster attempts to shake him down and then threatens to kill him if he does not pay his debt. After narrowly escaping that fate, Mike returns when the main cast manages to put on the singing show despite their losses, only to leave again when he learns there is no prize money and thus no adoration from a large crowd of viewers. He goes back, however, when the show makes the news and his former competitors receive accolades from the public.

In each case, Mike’s pride and determination to win respect as he understands it isolates him from the other members of the cast. Their mutual love of singing and desire to perform simply because they enjoy it and want to share that joy with others allows them to save themselves as well as the show. Mike’s determined, selfish pursuit of public esteem only ends with his debts coming back to eat him.

Harrison, one of Kirk Douglas’ characters in The Man from Snowy River*, is similarly isolated. Some twenty years before the film starts, Harrison and his identical twin brother Spur fall in love with the same woman, Matilda. Being young and foolish as well as unable to decide between the two, Matilda decided to make things interesting. She told the brothers that whichever one of them made his fortune first would be the man she would marry.

Harrison (The Man from Snowy River)

Immediately, Spur began mining for gold while Harrison bet his life’s savings in a horse race. Harrison’s bet paid off and he became wealthy overnight. Since he had won his fortune first, Matilda married him. That should have been the end of it, but it was not. Harrison proved to be intensely jealous of those whom he thought might steal his wife from him or lure her away. Most of his suspicions fell squarely on Spur, who still loved Matilda but recognized she could never be his.

Whenever Spur came to visit, Harrison would try to chase him off, certain his brother was trying to steal his wife from him. That was never Spur’s intention; although he still loved Matilda and always would, his brother won his fortune first and thereby Matilda’s hand in marriage. Spur would never stop loving her but neither would he have accepted her affections while she was his brother’s wife – nor would he have tried to steal her from Harrison.

Unfortunately, Harrison would not believe that. He banned Spur from the ranch he had bought for himself and his new bride but his brother made one last attempt to say good-bye to the woman he loved. Spur gifted Matilda with a prize colt and was preparing to say farewell when Harrison returned. Infuriated and blind with envy, Harrison shot his brother, certain that he and Matilda were having an affair behind his back. Matilda’s protests fell on deaf ears and it is little wonder she died giving birth to Jessica, Harrison’s daughter.

During the film it is made clear that Harrison is still jealous, not only of Spur but of anyone he deems to be better than him in some way. This is made clearest in his attitude toward Jim Craig, the hero of the movie who begins courting Jessica. Harrison’s insecurity is based on the fact that he made his fortune through sheer luck. He knows the odds of winning the bet on the horse race were slim, that if he had miscalculated even a little, he would be broke and a nobody. Spur, for all his disappointment in his mine, worked for his living.

Jim, in spite of his youth and lack of fortune, is a capable man. A working man who knows his limits, his strengths, and is not only capable but willing to work hard for what he wants. Unlike Harrison, who as Kipling put it, made his fortune “…on a game of pitch and toss” Jim has no need to wonder whether or not he is a man. He just has to prove it.

Friday Flicks: 'The Man from Snowy River' | HORSE NATION

Since he never proved his manhood to himself Harrison, unlike Jim and Spur, can never rest secure in his own mind. He did not earn his fortune. By luck, by chance, it is his. Yet it could just as easily have been someone else’s good luck. That is why he fears it may be snatched away from him by someone better, and the better could be either his twin brother or the man who has fallen in love with his daughter. After all, what if marriage to Jessica is how he plans to steal Harrison’s fortune?

The envious mind is never at peace, never at rest. It can never trust, never find room for others, because to it all others are threats. Threats are to be kept at bay and never associated with, which is why Harrison will die an old man and a lonely one. He hoards what he has and will not share it with anyone else – not even his own daughter, from whom he withholds his own love, in large part.

Characters Broken Beyond Repair are broken precisely because they have neither the strength nor the will to accept their weakness and then work to improve it so that it becomes a strength instead. Or, if not a strength, then at least something that is not used against them. If they put in the work, these characters could have healed and become better, as the characters listed in the eighth installment did. They might even have become heroes.

But they chose not to be any of the above. They never conquered their flaws or let anyone into their hearts to help them heal and grow stronger. Rather, they isolated themselves, and that isolation damned them to miserable, vain lives bereft of anything truly good.

May we all learn from their mistakes, and our heroes with us, future authors.

*These are Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase something through them, this author receives a commission from Amazon at no extra charge to you, the buyer.

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna, Uranus, and Sol. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue in 2020, and she recently had a story published in Storyhack Magazine’s 7th Issue and Cirsova Magazine’s 2021 Summer Issue. Order them today!

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3 thoughts on “Writerly Sound Bites, Number 10: Character Progression – What About Characters Broken Beyond Repair?

  1. The interesting part is about Castle/Punisher. While I never really followed him, I never heard that he “liked killing” prior to the deaths of his family.

    Still it is interesting to compare Punisher to Batman. Bruce lost his parents (even witnessed their deaths) and might be considered a bit insane. But Batman has strong lines that he will not cross (more so than Punisher). Thus Batman is not evil and Punisher can be considered evil.

    Liked by 1 person

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