Sunday, April 21, 2013

Michael Corleone and the power of an unforgettable anti hero

At first thought a writer might think that the protagonist of a novel needs to be likable. Readers should be able to relate to the character and care about what happens to him or her because they like that person.

This is not necessarily the case. Some exceedingly famous novels are dominated by characters that are neither likable nor admirable. But they are entirely unforgettable.

I believe that it is most important for a protagonist to be interesting. Readers aren't always looking for a main character like them. They want someone who can take their imagination to new places and experiences. And they hope for that rare character who can reveal profound truths.

A preeminent example of a famous character from a smash hit novel is Michael Corleone from the Godfather by Mario Puzo. He is basically a reprehensible person that most people would pray they never cross paths with. Yet, he's a great literary figure. I read the Godfather by Mario Puzo nearly 20 years ago, and I still think about it. That is the hallmark of a powerful novel.

What is so interesting about Michael Corleone? 

In many ways his appeal comes from his willingness to be the bad guy for the sake of others. He will take the risks. He will make the hard decisions. He will do the killing. In his mind he justifies his actions because he is protecting his family and providing for them. He's defending his father's legacy.

He pledges to Kay that he'll make his business empire legitimate, but does he really mean it? Is that goal even important to him? If being a legitimate business person was so enticing to him, why does he keep threatening rivals and killing people? Why does he even go so far as to kill his lack-wit brother Fredo instead of forgiving him? He could have exiled him to someplace where he could do no more harm.

Maybe Puzo's point with Michael Corleone is that a powerful man will do anything to keep his power. And he'll tell himself it's all right because he's doing it for his family.

Michael expects his wife to be grateful for how well he provides for her and the family. In his mind she should just accept the life of privilege that he gives her. The story as portrayed in the films shows that Kay's conscience ultimately guts her ability to play the role. She wants to believe him when he lies to her, but eventually she can't accept that she and her children are the so-called justification for his brutality.

Eventually, she can support him no longer and aborts their child. All of Michael's power evaporates when Kay declares that she will bring no more of his flesh and blood into the world.

Michael ends up alone and stripped of his supposedly sacred motivation. He's still a wealthy and powerful man, but his justification for his actions abandons him. He's deserted by the woman that was supposed to blindly appreciate his ruthless efforts.

I consider him a metaphor for a world ruled by men supposedly for the benefit of others. These powerful men let their women have no say in what goes on yet claim that what they do is for their benefit. Michael actually does what he does for the sake of being powerful. It's all about what he wants.

Literary figures such as Michael Corleone illustrate the power of fiction to create people that are unforgettable, and memorable is more powerful than likable.

What anti heroes have struck a chord with you? Comment about characters that you found more memorable than likable. How do such figures make books better?