By Shawn StJean
In this latest entry into our popular ongoing series at Clotho’s Loom, we examine a pair of minor character-types that recur throughout literature and film. They might both be subsumed under the blanket of moral coward, but I prefer to get a bit more granular for the benefit of the writers out there. Because one is a more ancient incarnation, and the other, more contemporary.
The two were brilliantly used together in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986,) the militarized sequel to Ridley Scott’s original (1979). Paul Riser got appropriately cast as the slimy, sweating Burke, a corporate lackey who attempts to impregnate the heroine Ripley and her adopted daughter, Newt, with xenomorph embryos for the Company’s bio-weapons division. When she discovers her so-called friend’s plot, Ripley acts as Cameron’s mouthpiece: “Y’know Burke, I don’t know which species is worse; you don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.” I think anyone who has labored in an office building of any kind has known a Burke.
Long before his well-known stint as nice-guy explorer in Cameron’s Titanic, the late Bill Paxton earned a place in the director’s troupe as Private Hudson, an all-bluster Marine who kicks ass and takes names, until, that is, the tide of battle turns against his unit: “I don’t know if you’re keping score, but we just got our asses kicked, pal!” In the hands of a Panicking Fool, a gun becomes a weapon against everyone around him, and friendly fire becomes as great a hazard as a battalion of enemy combatants. Especially in the more modern (Vietnam era, especially) war films does this figure turn up. It is probably the advent of firearms into narrative that makes him so much more viable for writers: running away only endangers oneself, whereas indiscriminate gunfire endangers everyone.
Dante reserved his 9th circle of Hell (Treachery, the worst of said circles,) for the base betrayer. Virgil leads the author-narrator to a position to witness the sufferings of Judas Iscariot, Brutus and Cassius (traitors to Julius Caesar). While Judas’ motives have in later times been complicated by artists such as Martin Scorsese, the original motive is the ever-popular one: silver (Burke). Brutus, of course—best known in the presentation by Shakespeare—while believing he acted in the best interest of the Roman republic, the fact remains that he literally stabbed his friend without warning. He did not challenge him to open combat, or a political battle of wits, or so much as a game of chess. If judged only by his actions and not by his motives, Brutus qualifies as moral coward.
The notion of moral cowardice and betrayal is complicated in western literature by the presence of women characters, from Medea to Gone Girl, because women are not traditionally expected to possess the analogue of moral courage. This is a patently false prejudice of our culture, of course, but it has become so pervasive that, in a typical narrative stocked by male characters, any female will automatically fall suspect when a betrayal occurs. Writers often exploit this. They can, because male-centric narratives operate from a male perspective—including the idea that women’s motives and perspectives are, by definition, irrational, impenetrable, and mysterious. “If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a dirty, double-crossing dame,” insists Big Jim Colfax, one of the male arch-criminals of 1946s The Killers, a quintessential, Hemingway-based film noir that sets the tone for the next 70 years, and counting. Because as a man, murder, theft, and betrayal are par for the course—but if you’re a woman, well, let’s just say that things are about to get warm for you.
Inasmuch as many genre stories (horror movies and sci-fi, westerns too) function as microcosms (literally “small worlds”) in which groups of characters represent the types of people one would find in real life, a betrayer is bound to turn up, as well as a fool (if not a panicking one—the person who needs to have the hysteria slapped from her mouth). Panickers lose the ability of rational thought in a crisis, and in fact never tend to think ahead in the first place. So if you know someone who leaves the house in cold weather without a coat, who drives a car around without a spare tire, first aid kit of any kind, or so much as a screwdriver, and relies on a cellular telephone and a smile to bail her out of any crisis, you may know a potential panicking fool. By contrast, a betrayer may be a cold and calculating logician, weighing beforehand the risk-versus-reward factor of every situation, and acting upon best opportunities. It should go without saying that such a person will perfect the art of lying. But with a little experience, these too can be spotted in the wild. Anyone who spreads a lie or gossip about anyone else to you, is sooner or later going to do likewise about you. Don’t kid yourself otherwise. Unfortunately, the experience this costs, of learning what true friendship is the hard way, is dearly bought.
One reason archetypal characters function so well is that we, as reader/viewers, recognize the part of ourselves that they personify. Deep inside of all of us there’s a little voice that shouts “Run! Scream! Run!”, and also a voice that looks at another person and says “If zombies chase us, I’m tripping you.” Because high-stress situations bring out our most primitive, base instincts.
Luckily, panicking fools may not be as familiar to us in life as in texts, outside video-games (wherein every deathmatch map has one person running around in the open, firing wildly. Snipers love this guy.) But anyone who has gone through an American secondary school knows the person who will sell you out, to further their own agenda: from miscarriers of misplaced confidences, to boyfriend-stealers (and cheating boyfriends), to friends who abandon you for better friends at the earliest opportunity. And therein, I believe, lies the enduring popularity of the base-betrayer figure. To the extent that all adult human beings are damaged, at least some of it can usually be traced back to betrayal. When a person abuses your trust, they don’t simply harm you; they harm every single person, for the remainder of your life, who will be worthy of your trust.