Be prepared. This is a longer post than I usually write. I got carried away. Apologies. Maybe because it’s back to school time that these first few paragraphs may seem like a classroom lesson, but if you keep reading I promise it gets better. I suggest you pack a lunch or read it in sections; stretch first we’ll be awhile. Okay, ready? Ahem… Stories give a narrative account of events either real or imagined. Those events involve characters. The characters the audience relates to are the heroes we root for. We want them to win. We are invested in their character arc as they journey from one place to another, learning something, transforming internally and improving their lot in life along the way. It is understood in most stories that after trial and tribulation the main character chalks up a win. This is similar to the way Americans believe in success. That if you do the right thing, if you work hard, if you don’t give up, you will eventually get what you want. It’s America’s Promise which can be summed in the equation
Talent + Hard Work = Success.
In screenwriting, heroes’ arcs go up because of good behavior and after several losses they end winning what is most important to their journey. In a negative character arc, the anti-hero’s journey is the result of bad behavior and choices that hurt others and eventually themselves because they end losing either their life or what is most important to their journey.
In the 21st century there are modern updates to the negative arc. A few work, most don’t. Why? Because America is manipulated by a handful of wealthy people facing the reality that culturally and ethnically they need to share resources with the rest of us and it is freaking them out. The 2016 Presidential election is proof of that. So now in Donald Trump’s America, bad behavior is rewarded. In the negative character arc the anti-hero always wins and I throw up a little in my mouth.
WHEN BAD IS GOOD
There are some negative character arcs done so well the characters are classic. Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in The Godfather trilogy (really just Parts I and II) is the Mac Daddy example. The Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close) in Dangerous Liaisons which won a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award for Christopher Hampton is deliciously evil because her scheming is fun to watch, but this bitch hurts people so she gets her just desserts in the end. The most recent successful TV example is Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in Breaking Bad whose fate is never in question, only how he dies is determined by how far down his arc goes. Looking further back, the Seinfeld series ending satisfied story-wise because the group ended in jail. Yaassss. Many people criticized this ending, however the gang had a negative arc, they couldn’t win in the last beat. Them’s the story rules. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. And Do Not Win.
But this is no longer that America’s Promise. The rules seem to be flexible now and even in writing negative character arcs, the people freaking out are writing themselves as winners. My friend Consuelo Mackintosh has been recommending I watch a couple of things on Netflix. Last week I had the time so I did – a film The Founder (2016) and a series Ozark (Season 1 – 2017) both featuring anti-heroes who break the negative story arc rules and succeed. They may win, but it is the audience who loses.
WHEN BAD IS JUST… BAD
The Founder is the mostly true story of Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) who was a 52-year-old struggling milkshake mixer salesman in the Midwest in 1954. After selling a major order of mixers to a successful hamburger stand in California owned by Richard and Maurice “Mac” McDonald, Kroc drives across the country to find out how they succeeded. Kroc’s so impressed with the McDonald’s Speedee Service System (which is actually a thing), he flatters the brothers into showing him how they do it then cajoles his way into building a franchise system and ultimately takes over and forces the Mickey D brothers out of their own business. Of course then Kroc went on to McCorporatize the world. BTW – the McDonald brothers got zilch because they made a handshake deal with Kroc that was not an enforceable contract (not in writing) so Kroc even screwed them out of royalties. GET EVERYTHING IN WRITING!!!!
Along the way Kroc divorces his wife, Ethel (a role that wasted Laura Dern’s time) and marries the young, sexy wife of one of his franchisees. The film seems to understand how corrupt Kroc is by making his trophy wife (Linda Cardellini playing a role similar to the one she played in Mad Men) as ruthlessly ambitious as he is. Ray Kroc was a lightning rod of a business person so it is fitting he is played in the film by an actor as magnetic as Keaton. Only he plays Kroc with such nasty undertones that he is unlikable. I found myself rooting for the McDonald brothers (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) who embodied the Promise of talent + hard work = success. They were happy with what they had. They did what they set out to do, didn’t get greedy and were bringing freaking McDonald’s to San Bernardino. It’s too bad they met Kroc. Kroc’s insatiable persistence would make Machiavelli proud. Persistence is Kroc’s (only?) virtue and it is the early scenes in Act I, the top of his arc where he is most sympathetic. On the road, peddling his mixer without success, he plays a self-help record from a Dale Carnegie type extolling the power of persistence. Screenwriter Robert Siegel sets us up to take this journey to success with Kroc and the brothers by adding persistence to the American equation.
Talent + Hard Work x Persistence = Success
For anyone on the flip side of 30, Kroc’s story could be inspiring – A flailing salesman seizes the idea of franchising a successful local eatery and the rest is history. In order to franchise the restaurant, his brusque, bullying manner overwhelms the McDonalds who were willing to go big or go home, but not at the risk of their core family values. That’s the movie I wanted to see. In my version, Kroc is exposed as an asshole when his trusted employees leave him and it is revealed he went back on his promise to the brothers. He needs to end alone like Michael Corleone. Instead these two events are told as title cards during the end credits. Instead of a new equation for a new generation Siegel shoved down our throats a barely pleasant story about a determined son-of-a-bitch screwing people over for money and power. Welcome to Donald Trump’s America.
When Kroc breaks bad he gets to the point where he no longer gives a fuck about who he hurts. He tells the brothers he has found a way to cut them out and there is nothing they can do because they can’t afford the legal fees of a lawsuit. He kicks them while they’re down with a put-down, “Nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.” Ouch.
The Founder presents itself as revisionist history, but its version of Kroc is a crock. He is presented as a man who created the fast food industry by devising a scheme to buy the land the restaurants are built on and lease it to franchisees who buy into the corporation paying franchise fees. Control the land and you control the profits. It shows his struggles with the brothers as a fight of modern business vs. old-fashioned family values. The idea being business is what makes America great. Uh– not for this viewer. It fails to take Kroc the man into account. The movie is all plot. We have no idea who he is, only what he does. I can only assume he is as big an asshole internally as the external journey suggests.
While The Founder breaks the rules by glossing over the truth, Ozark breaks the rules by trying to re-write them. Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) is an accountant who co-owns a financial investment business, but his real business is laundering money for the second largest drug cartel in Mexico. When the Mexican drug boss discovers his partner stole 8 million, he kills him right in front of Byrde. He is about to kill Byrde too, but this is Jason Bateman who always plays characters who talk their way out of trouble. His Marty Byrde does this using a plan the partner had of going to Lake of the Ozarks, a popular resort area in Missouri and laundering the money in the heart of opiate-addicted, Bible thumping, trailer trash America. For some reason, the drug cartel agrees to this plan and gives Byrde (and his family who know about all of this) three months to get the 8 million back and show the cartel how more can be made. Why they don’t throw in with the FBI agents on their trail I’m not sure, but the lead agent is pretty screwed up himself. Instead Byrde on his negative fall chooses to seek assistance from a local bad girl with a heart of gold. As 19-year-old Ruth Langmore, Julia Garner is the best part of the show. Her arc is a positive one and it works because she earns her outcome. Like Walter White, Ruth helps her family the only way she knows how and shows enough emotional backstory to win the audience’s trust and respect even when she does bad things.
If Ozark is trying to be Breaking Bad, it is failing miserably. Walter White and his wife Skyler are basically moral people pushed by fate down the rabbit hole and along the way make bad choices they struggle with and are not proud of. Marty Byrde and his wife Wendy (Laura Linney) make the conscience choice to jump down that same hole and seem surprised when bad things happen. Their realest character moments are not spent regretting the moral and physical danger they are in, but in whining about why they have to deal with the danger at all.
In both The Founder and Ozark, the anti-hero’s negative character arc is all plot – but no heart. The substance of a character comes from fixing an internal flaw. In a positive arc, they’ve changed and it’s a happy ending. In a negative arc, the Marquise de Merteuil remains the same and is booed at the opera. Walter White was always going to die, but he died bloody because of his negative arc. The Founder tries to address the fixing of the flaw by having Kroc look in the mirror and relate his story as a practice speech. Yes, that’s all. He pauses as he looks himself in the eye and lies about his “founding” McDonald’s standing in his Beverly Hills mansion preparing to give a speech in front of other gazillionaires and their trophy wives. That’s his rock bottom? A negative arc that goes up? Sit your ass down, Kroc.
Talent + Hard Work x Persistence / Luck = Success
Despite the call for equality, middle-age white folks from suburbia still act entitled to have the formula work for them and are angry when it doesn’t. That is America for the rest of us. We need persistence and luck for all that talent and hard work to pay off. But it doesn’t mean we lose integrity and we certainly don’t whine about it if we do. No one wants to watch characters who break bad then complain about the consequences. Negative characters done well just get it done and suffer in the denouement.
In essence, both Kroc and Byrde are talented but unsuccessful. America broke its promise. These are men who screw people over because they are angry about being middle-class. What have they got to be angry about? The greed is never really explained. They aren’t trying to hold on to what they have, they are going for new opportunities to get what they don’t have. They believe they have earned something and they want it. It seems a given that people in the suburbs feel owed… what? Whatever constitutes success, I guess. That is enough to start an anti-hero’s journey in Act I, but that feeling of entitlement is a flaw and the story will not sustain it as a virtue.
The anti-heroes in a negative story arc need to be well-developed, clearly flawed and lost in the end. Writers need to show the internal conflicts that make some of the plot devices the only choice. I know the producers of Ozark know this rule because they tried to apply it in creating an entire episode devoted to character history. It was a way to add some behavioral insight into the how and why of getting into this dirty business, but only adds to Marty and Wendy’s insufferability as individuals and a couple. This didn’t work for me because the scenes they chose did not sufficiently go to character flaw – only to family survival. As there are many ways to survive and still be moral, going into business with the second largest Mexican drug cartel is a huge leap for a character as smart as Byrde who could have gone many ways.
Ozark knows the rules of the negative arc, but they act like they are updating it by letting their nasty characters win. I’m on to you, Ozark. But you’re trying too hard. They experience money laundering as a vulture mentality where the Byrdes swoop in to failing businesses, churches, resorts, etc. drive up costs and leave the owners holding the bag. Vultures picking the bones. Everyone in the Byrde family is awful. Wendy is a cun…ning piece of work cheating on her husband, denigrating the life of the poor in the lake area and screaming at store clerks because they don’t have pistachio ice cream. In episode 6 – the simple act of knocking over a patio lantern because she thinks it is ugly is done with passive aggressive glee. As a character flaw it shows she has what it takes to blatantly get what she wants without repercussion. Fine, but the writing goes sideways when she always wins. The kids – son Jonah plays with dead animal carcasses to study vultures (not a coincidence?) and has a morbid interest in hunting rifles while daughter Charlotte is an annoying teenager who cannot be bothered to think of anything beyond how her parents illegal acts stop her life of spoiled brattiness. Nothing new and honestly, I was hoping for one of Jonah’s stray bullets to knock this little girl over as a fitting punishment for the entire series.
Similarly in The Founder, the anti-hero’s vulture mentality does not lose – Between the sly leer at the franchisee’s wife he would later marry and the disdaining glares at Ethel, Kroc spends the film finagling his leap to the top. He is a desperate man willing to do anything, including taking the heart out of men with considerably less guile. The vulture mentality is all the substance we get, but… Psst. Lean in, my emerging screenwriting friends, being an ass does not give a character depth. Ethel may have not been the Lady Macbeth his 2nd wife is, but from a storytelling point of view her lack of enthusiasm for the franchising idea does not balance with his mustache-twirling style cruelty.
Bateman’s Marty Byrde doesn’t have the charisma of Kroc and as an actor Bateman is no Keaton. I absolutely love him in Arrested Development. Michael Bluth is his niche as an actor – snarky good guy trying to do his best in a bad situation. He should stick with that and let another actor bring nuance to Byrde’s uncontrolled rage.
In Ozark the only losers are the drug cartel and the FBI – huh? If you are going to break the rules, folks, at least keep something that makes sense realistically.
What is the moral? Does a screenplay really need one? No, but it does need a solid story and theme that resonates with the audience. Trying to figure out themes in these two offerings is depressing. I guess The Founder is “If you don’t do whatever it takes to have it all, you’ll end up with nothing.” And Ozark can be summed up as “Kill or be killed.” Both had the potential to succeed, but they didn’t because the characters didn’t lose. As part of Donald Trump’s America The Founder and Ozark show that rules and morals no longer apply to middle-age, middle-class white guys who want it badly enough. They always win.
HOW TO WRITE GOOD NEGATIVE CHARACTER ARCS
Simple, do two things:
1. Keep America’s Promise. An anti-hero must lose something the audience can relate to. Choose the right moments to show character flaws. Like The Aviator. Howard Hughes was not a nice guy, but with his flaws – illnesses, near-death experiences, physical scars, undiagnosed OCD, business losses and personal faults – made him human. The film even addresses backstory for his OCD by showing a moment from his childhood that he carries through his life.
Make the character lose big. Michael Corleone loses his immediate family, Walter White loses his life. Ozark suffers in its storytelling because Byrde needs to lose ** SPOILER** he doesn’t. Oh, yes, he does have a few rough days, but then he brought them on himself and is able to talk his way out of whatever trouble comes his way. We want satisfaction. Where is his comeuppance? If the anti-hero ends negatively, who cares if he learns anything as long as we, the audience, find emotional closure.
2. Respect the equation – Talent + Hard Work x Persistence / Luck = Success
A film with a good old-fashioned negative arc is A Place in the Sun. Montgomery Clift gets girlfriend Shelley Winters pregnant but instead of marrying her, he starts dating rich and very nice girl Elizabeth Taylor. He comes close to killing his girlfriend to “take care of the problem” but changes his mind at the last minute. She accidentally drowns anyway. Bad luck. He still gets the death penalty because it’s 1950. The modern update of the story that I think is the negative arc anti-hero success the producers of Ozark were going for is Woody Allen’s Match Point (2005). Jonathan Rhys-Meyers plays a tennis pro who kills his pregnant mistress to stay with his rich, classy wife. Same basic story, but since this is the 21st century, the anti-hero gets away with the murder. This works as an update because of the theme “I’d rather be lucky than good.” It appreciates the new equation and understands how much luck plays a part in arcs for good and evil characters. Every character in Match Point has some degree of ruthlessness and Rhys-Meyers owns his success as the result of good luck. Something that neither Ray Kroc nor Marty Byrde even consider.
The Promise of America is for all of us. Talent + hard work should equal success, but it doesn’t always, that’s a fact. Even if The Founder didn’t give a treatise on the dangers of the negative character arc, emerging screenwriters beware: characters who go down the rabbit hole and do not face challenges must not come back up. They don’t get the win. That is the promise of bad behavior. Written correctly, it is a cautionary tale, not a victory lap. I’m not saying don’t write characters who do bad things (I could have included Animal Kingdom TV and film, Sons of Anarchy or many more), what I am saying is today’s audiences don’t have the discretionary income to throw away on stories that make them feel defeated. If the people in the majority do not give an audience hope for success, then you, emerging screenwriter, certainly should.