Mad Men won its fourth statuette in a row for Outstanding Drama Series at the 2011 Emmy Awards. The show is set in the world of advertising; a world of illusion, sleight of hand and outright deception.
It is a quintessential Power of Truth story and is anchored by a wonderful Power of Truth protagonist, Don Draper/Dick Whitman (Jon Hamm). Surface laughter, glamour and the sophisticated tinkle of ice in a cut-glass tumbler of scotch obscures the dark and tangled subterranean underpinnings of the man, the profession and the era. All is not well in the American “Camelot” and its aftermath.
In addition to issues of perception, illusion and deception, Power of Truth stories are also about the nature of loyalty and betrayal. These stories ask: What exactly is loyalty? What is betrayal? How do we betray ourselves? How do we betray others? Can you be loyal to someone and betray them at the same time? When should you let go of old loyalties and move on? How is the ground shifting beneath you? Who or what can you trust? When does loyalty look like betrayal? When does betrayal look like loyalty?
Those questions swirl around another 2011 Emmy-nominated drama, The Game of Thrones. Issues of loyalty and betrayal consume Emmy winning Best Supporting Actor, Peter Dinklage in the role of Tyrion Lannister. Tyrion has suffered (and will suffer) staggering betrayals in the story. Like his powerful father, Tyrion also has a talent for political maneuvering, sabotage, conspiracy, treachery and betrayal.
Power of Truth characters inhabit a story world that is a potential minefield, filled with explosive secrets, concealed enemies and unexpected pitfalls. This character’s philosophy might be stated: “Things are never what they seem.” “Trust no one.” “Question everything.” “Everyone has a hidden agenda.”
These story themes could also describe The Good Wife and protagonist Alicia Florrick. Julianna Margulies won the 2011 Emmy for Best Actress in Drama for her role as Alicia in the series.
Can she trust her husband? Can she trust herself? Who is betraying her? Who is she willing to betray? Who is really an ally and who is really an enemy? Secrets, lies, and lack of trust all play key roles in the plot twists for each episode.
On a personal level, Power of Truth protagonists are all hyper-aware of shifting alliances and are always on the lookout for possible falseness, duplicity or treachery in any relationship or situation. These characters are very imaginative and perceptive and that creativity and sensitivity can also get them into trouble. They can spin disaster scenarios or conspiracy theories inside their heads that have no basis in reality.
But then again, as Woody Allen famously said: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t really after you.” Power of Truth character often sense something is amiss in the world before others do. They just can’t prove their suspicions– yet.
The Power of Truth character asks, “What does society demand, expect or value?”—and then often sets out to debunk or disprove the answer. These characters are compelled to uncover the concealed nature and (often rotten) underbelly of things.
A character driven by the Power of Truth is often the protagonist in mystery stories, conspiracy stories, suspense stories, mistaken identity stories, investigative stories and detective stories. In an ensemble cast, these characters are frequently secret keepers, strategists, counselors or advisers. In whatever role they play, they look beneath the surface of things to discover what lies below or is hidden from view. They ask: “What don’t those in charge want you to see?”
Power of Truth character Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) on The X Files voices his frustrations and the futility of nailing down the ever shifting truth in these kinds of stories: “Why is it that every time I think I know the answers, someone goes and changes the questions?” Nothing is quite what it seems in Power of Truth stories. Nothing is certain. The ground keeps slipping from beneath the protagonist.
But not every conspiracy story, mystery, suspense story, thriller or detective story is a Power of Truth story.
Erin Brockovich, To Kill a Mockingbird, Silkwood and The Insider are suspenseful stories all involving some kind of criminal conspiracy. A crime is committed. Evidence is falsified or covered-up. The protagonist wants to expose these crimes and stop or punish the real wrong-doers. But these stories are not Power of Truth stories. Why?
Each of these stories deal with the Power of Conscience. In each case, the protagonist is clear about what has happened (or is happening) and what is morally right. The story struggle is about what to do to right the wrong. How much responsibility can or should the protagonist take in the situation? These stories ask, “If I am my brother’s keeper how far must I go on his behalf?”
The Power of Conscience character’s answer to the above question is: ”All the way.” Once the character has decided to right the wrong, the question then is how to prevail. This character’s pursuit of justice costs him or her dearly. This protagonist often gives up or loses his or her job, family or other important relationships or suffers other personal losses on the story journey.
These stories are about law vs. justice, answering the call to one’s higher duty, standing up for one’s moral code, and taking responsibility for and sacrificing for another’s welfare. At the 2011 Emmys, Kyle Chandler (Coach Taylor) on Friday Night Lights, plays a Power of Conscience character and took home the award for Best Actor in a Dramatic Series. (He plays a high school football coach and is not involved in a crime story.)
The Devil’s Advocate, Wall Street, Catch Me If You Can and The Talented Mr. Ripley all involve crimes and cover-ups to a greater or lesser degree. Active deception is involved in all four stories. But these films are not Power of Truth stories either. Why?
Each of these stories deals with the Power of Ambition. Each protagonist knows what he is doing is wrong or illegal. Each proceeds anyway in order to achieve or maintain the approval, prestige, status, or position he so desperately craves.
These stories are about how far a protagonist is willing to go for material or social gain. Power of Ambition characters let their moral scruples go one-by-one as they lie, cheat or steal to get ahead. They are keenly and acutely aware of their social standing and are willing to use any kind of fraud, trick, deception or cover-up to maintain their illusion of social or material success. All they want is to be liked and to be admired.
At the end, when these characters have nearly lost everything that matters on a human scale, they often reform their ways and “do the right thing.” If the story is a tragedy they continue in their illegal or illicit ways until they and everything that truly matters is hollowed out or destroyed.
The protagonists in The Shield, Scarface, The Last Seduction and The Sopranos all involve criminal activity, the suppression of evidence and the elimination of anyone who interferes. But not one of these are Power of Truth stories. Why?
These are stories are about strength vs weakness. Each of these Power of Will protagonists does whatever is needed to survive, to expand territory or to conquer others. There is no ambiguity or uncertainty in their actions. Might makes right. The Law of the Jungle prevails. Win or die.
Never showing any sign of weakness is key to every decision a Power of Will character makes and every action he or takes over the course of the story. These characters say to themselves and others: “I had no choice. I had to protect myself, my empire or my family.”
They sacrifice tenderness, kindness, a sense of mercy and forgiveness to dominate and forcibly control the situation. These actions lead inevitably to the loss of their humanity, their soul, and often their lives. Those who live by sword tend to die by the sword. (A key difference between a Power of Will character and a Power of Ambition character is that a Power of Ambition character really wants to be liked. A Power of Will character would rather be feared.)
The Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Professional and In the Bedroom all involve crimes and cover-ups. But none of these stories are Power of Truth stories either. Why?
These are Power of Reason stories about logical deduction, the mastering or attempted elimination of emotion (emotion being the enemy of objectivity) and some profound alienation from society. Dr. Gregory House, the medical detective and master diagnostician in the television series House, is a television example of a Power of Reason character and story.
Dr. House investigates each medical case with keen penetrating powers of observation, a ruthless razor sharp logic and cold rational deduction. He is alienated from others and usually manages to alienate everyone around him. The patient is more of a puzzle to be solved than a human being to be nurtured and healed.
In Power of Reason stories ambiguity and deception might be hiding the solution to the problem or crime, but the protagonist is absolutely clear-headed (often to the point of near inhuman dispassion). There is little personal investment in the investigation, merely a difficult puzzle to be solved. At the 2011 Emmys, Jim Parsons (Sheldon Cooper) on The Big Bang Theory plays a comic Power of Reason character who took home the award for Best Actor in a Comedy Series. (He is a scientist involved in research rather than in any kind of criminal investigation.)
I recently watched the film adapted from the play Equus. A young man inexplicably blinds six horses at the stable where he worked as a caring and responsible stable hand. He is committed to a mental institution where an experienced psychiatrist tries to solve the mystery and heal the boy.
This isn’t a Power of Truth story either. The psychiatrist/investigator is a disillusioned Power of Idealism character. He wonders if healing the boy of his passion and madness, only to send him into a stupefyingly mundane world and a dull ordinary life, is a noble thing to do. This film is about the intensity of passion and whether pain is the price of being truly alive, even if for only a horrifyingly insane moment.
The trick to all of this analysis is to determine what the situation and story journey brings out in the character. What is at the root of the crime, the murder, the conspiracy, the unusual phenomena or suspenseful situation? What does the solution, and how it is obtained, say about how the character views the world, his or her philosophy and essential human struggle?
Power of Truth stories wrestle primarily with certainty vs uncertainty, illusion vs reality, loyalty vs betrayal or truth vs lies or deception. In these stories the protagonist can’t fully trust anyone—not even him or herself.
My new book discusses exactly how to create a rich compelling plot for a Power of Truth story, how to use suspense and reversals to keep the audience engaged and guessing at every twist, how to develop fresh original characters and how to make this kind of story your own.
The book will be available for a short time at a discount to readers of this blog and newsletter. Send an email to etbscreenwriting (at) gmail (dot) com to get on the list.