After considerable delays due to post-RenFaire fatigue (more on that later) and another article I wrote as a sort of lexical fighting retreat, we come round once more to the Wheel of Archetypes. This time, a man you know. A man whose words are few but potent as the broadside of a battleship, a man with nothing to lose except, perhaps, his temper.
He is Dirty Harry and Darth Vader, the Terminator and Sanjuro, and come to think of it probably far too many Samurai protagonists in pretty much every medium there is. He is The Man Who Ran Out of Fucks. He doesn’t necessarily have to be a man, but usually is because heaven forbid we slot a woman into a conventionally-male role.
Of course it’s crass to include a curse word in the title and doubly crass to reference THE MEMES in said text box, but I am nothing if not a strange, crass little man. Actually, I’m 5’11”, so I suppose I must be nothing. Nevertheless, it’s time I stopped my font-dallying and got to business. The Man Who Ran Out of Fucks (hereafter Sgt. Nofucks for brevity’s sake) is a popular character, not least because he’s almost the embodiment of classic masculinity.
Whether he’s got a good heart beneath his grit, as with Sanjuro, he’s only the lesser of two evils, as with Dirty Harry, or he’s a particularly stoic villain as is Vader, his demeanor is nigh unto granite. No setback is great enough to draw emotion to his voice, nor any victory enough to make him smile. At most, the events of the world around him are just excuses to show feelings (read: anger or aggression) already brewing in his steel-plated soul.
Of course, the truth is that Sgt. Nofucks is human on some level, and in most cases his armored facade of a face serves some other purpose. For example, Sanjuro uses his seemingly implacable gaze to hide the real reason for his actions from the gambling-den gangs he pits against each other. His true purpose in Yojimbo, his debut as a character, is to clear the criminal life from a town so that the few decent people in it can make a living.
Sanjuro understands that the instant he shows any concern for others, any altruism whatsoever, he both places them in danger and weakens himself in the eyes of the gangs. His mystique is as great a weapon towards his end as the katana at his side. As Yojimbo ramps up to its climax, Sanjuro’s charade falls apart and it’s the loss of his conjured invincibility that puts him (briefly) at the mercy of the gangs.
Vader, by contrast, uses his inhuman dispassion not to hide his nature from his subordinates, but to augment it. There’s not a single trooper in all the Galactic Empire who doesn’t understand how volatile Lord Vader’s temper is, yet not even his closest allies (insofar as anyone is really close to Darth Vader) know for sure when he’s about to lose it. It’s impossible to say to what extent Vader ever really gets angry with the men he destroys: rebel soldier or unsuccessful Imperial admiral, Vader never speaks while killing.
Whether his scarred face twists in rage beneath his mask we never see, and his voice carries the same calm authority after every execution. That’s the point: there’s no warning sign that Vader’s had it, and everyone goes out of their way to keep him appeased.
I can’t really speak to Dirty Harry, unfortunately, having not had the opportunity to watch the movies yet, but the Terminator is perhaps the truest example of the archetype. This ties in well to a rule I haven’t mentioned yet, which is that a character who perfectly embodies an archetype wouldn’t really be human.
The Terminator’s a death robot from a far-flung future of dystopian robot Hellmageddon, so there you go. The Terminator has one mission, which he is driven to accomplish without mercy, remorse or respite. He has, in fact, run out of fucks from the very moment he was brought to completion. He’d make a pretty boring character if he weren’t the antagonist, in which role he ends up being perfect.
This brings me to the “handling the archetype” bit. Unless you’re writing a character poured in the same mold as Arnie’s most robotic outing, you must be very, very careful about this one. A character who truly doesn’t care is harder to make function as a protagonist because there’s never any question of what they’ll do.
Does Martensite Ellis, famed bounty hunter of the Orion Arm, need to run down her latest target in a stolen APC, but see a group of alien schoolchildren screaming in her path? Will she heed their seven-eyed stare of existential terror, or- right, answer’s no, she’s already over the last fleshy roadbump. Martensite Ellis honestly doesn’t give a fuck, remember? Schoolchildren are replaceable, but the paycheck for offing Zima Grey?
Not so much. If, on the other hand, Martensite has a heart under all the body armor and hidden guns, we have other variables. Zima’s wanted across the galaxy for slavery, extortion, and a whole lot of murder. Getting out of the APC to shoot him gives him the chance to shoot back or escape. Now we have a question of the greater good to work with.
On the other hand, bad guys may not bother using innocent people as shields if our lead’s a known antihero. In this context, the reputation becomes something useful enough that posturing stops being posturing in the normal sense. If innocent people will die from our iron-lipped MC showing a shred of humanity, then take no prisoners it is. Any emotion has to be carefully controlled and shown only for calculated impact, forcing the protagonist to act like such an asshole that they never get any credit for doing the right thing.
Again, I don’t recommend that you write a main character who actually doesn’t give a fuck, although if you can make it work then you certainly should. I’m all for doing things in writing that people say can’t be done, I just don’t want you folks blaming me if it turns out they really can’t. Just remember that the main use of having a character who doesn’t normally give a damn is, naturally, showing them give a damn.
Or a fuck, for that matter.