How do you get an audience to root for someone who’s on the wrong side of history? When you’re writing a book or screenplay, it can be a tricky business. You have to make the character seem sympathetic, while still staying true to the history. You can’t shrink from portraying the brutal realities of his or her choices. So often this leads to a black-and-white character audiences love to hate (like the sadistic British soldier in The Patriot, played by Jason Isaacs. Man, how I hated that guy!).
But how do you create someone in shades of gray, someone who makes the viewer feel torn?
I thought a lot about this while we watched Indian Summers on PBS Masterpiece, which just finished its first season. It’s a miniseries in the style of Downton Abbey, following the interconnected lives of British expats and their Indian subjects in the waning years of the British Raj. Set against the backdrop of India trying to gain its independence, it’s a slow burn of a story that entwines politics, romance, prejudice, and scandalous secrets into an agonizingly good tale.
As you might guess, there are a ton of characters on the wrong side of history. Most of them hail from the British expat community: there’s the social club owner who makes increasingly hateful comments about the local Indian population; the washed-up drunk who’s bitter about losing his land to a successful Indian businessman; the lonely missionary’s wife who lashes out at her husband’s half-Indian colleague. They’re all people I love to hate. It’s easy to hate them.
And then there’s Ralph Whelan, Private Secretary to the Viceroy of India, a white man who’s lived his entire life in India. He’s devoted to keeping British rule alive and well – he’s convinced it’s right – but at the same time he’s harboring a secret past that reflects his ambivalence about the local Indian population. Ever since Ralph strategized about how to minimize Gandhi’s hunger strike, Josh has referred to him as Darth Vader: “You know you’re on the wrong side of history when you’re against Gandhi,” he pointed out. But I think Ralph’s more complicated than that.
Every time Ralph makes a decision that shows how much he despises Indian self-rule, he shows his generosity in some other area of his life. He protects his sister from gossiping expats, or he helps Aafrin, one of his Indian employees, move up the ladder of the Civil Service. Or he fights to meet with the leader of the Untouchables to give them a voice in government (and then tells the Viceroy it’s to destroy any deal they could make with Congress). He’s a complicated character, and you can never tell what he’s really trying to do. But he’s generous enough to make you care for him, even as you hate some of the things he does.
It’s an impressive feat on the writers’ part, one that dramatizes the complexities of British rule while remaining (relatively) true to the history. Plus, it’s a great lesson in how to create morally ambiguous and compelling characters in historical fiction. And it made the difficulties of this task all the more clear when I watched a very different kind of movie last week, one that tried and failed to create a sympathetic character on the wrong side of history. Check back next week for Part 2 of this post: the Dark Side.
(We may or may not be watching a lot of Star Wars to get ready for this weekend’s opening…)