Conventional storytelling centres around a conflict between the hero (the protagonist) and the villain (the antagonist). The protagonist fights for something beyond him or herself: loved ones, friends, a community, justice, the truth, an idea or way of thinking that will make the world a better place—fighting for the benefit of the many. The antagonist fights for personal gain and self-interest: ego and vanity, self-aggrandisement, perverting justice, covering up the truth, perpetuating falsehoods, bullying and threatening others to maximise their power—exercising repressive control for the benefit of the few. In typical action and adventure stories this involves a plot in which the antagonist attempts to subvert the natural balance of things to skew it in their own advantage. Their ultimate goal: to enslave the world. Once the people are demoralised or living in fear, the villain can exercise mastery over the population, monopolise available resources, impose taxes, manipulate the people, impoverish them, and consolidate their grip on power to ensure their control remains unchallenged. Actions derived from either selfish or selfless motives are the fundamental difference between a good and an evil character.
Self-obsession—confusion, inner turmoil, and anxiety—forms the core trait of the antihero. They are alienated, wrapped up in their inadequacies, imprisoned within their inner demons, a subject of dysfunctional emotion and an inability to communicate to others. They are unable to transcend themselves, unable to become less selfish, less needy. Benjamin Braddock’s overriding weakness and confusion in The Graduate leads to him on a path against the system, breaking conventional taboos, and in the process breaking other peoples’ lives. The redemptive character starts out being selfish and focused on his or her desires, to the detriment of others, but they are able to learn from experience that they can pay back their past wrongdoings through altruistic deeds and self-sacrifice. In Silver Linings Playbook Patrizio Solitano and Tiffany Maxwell, who have both caused problems for their family and friends due to depression and mental health issues learn to see beyond themselves, open themselves up to the world, and move on from their dark past histories.
Classic action movie villains in the superhero genre, like the Green Goblin, are self-obsessed, unable to move beyond their hatred, envy, greed, and a desire to be recognised as important. James Bond Villains such as Dr. No, Blofeld, and Goldfinger, are completely motivated by selfish ends, self-glorification, ego, vanity, and power. They are unable to countenance any form of empathy, delighting instead in sadistic brutality, possessing people like tools and status symbols, treating their lovers as little more than disposable property.
The contrast between a self-obsessed and selfless character sums up the difference between a truly unpleasant character, and a likable one. It sets a character apart, even before they can be judged by their actions. It’s difficult to really like: Kym in Rachel Getting Married, Bobby Dupea in Five Easy Pieces, Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, The Queen in Snow White, or Scar in The Lion King. Redemptive characters like Colonel Nicholson in Bridge on The River Kwai, spend the entire story doing the wrong thing (in his case, helping the enemy build a bridge, to satisfy his ego and vanity and thus delude himself that he’s in control), but he is able to turn things around at the very end. Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino is another redemptive character who finally saves the day through self-sacrifice. The obnoxious Phil Connors in Groundhog Day relives the same day over and over again until he learns to be less selfish and to think about others.
Selfless actions require moral consciousness, and self-confidence—the ethical or intellectual clarity to focus on what is outside of him or herself. But, there are times in storytelling when a character lacks clarity. They are lost, confused, misguided, or deluded. In struggling with issues of identity, purpose, and their role in society, they are battling with an invisible ‘monster’ (fear, vanity, the lack of a positive identity, prejudice, lack of worth)—in these cases a sense of self can be a positive thing. A character can go in the other direction, on a journey to a new land, to spiritual enlightenment, and moral awakening.
Self is a complicated fusion of beliefs, experiences, and natural forces—there must be some essence of selfishness to enable self-preservation, and ordinary (healthy) human desire, and enough selflessness for a character to do things for others. It’s a balance, one that defines who and what a character is and does. Selfishness can produce beneficial results for a wider group, and selflessness—instead of leading to spiritual and moral development—can result in a loss of identity (always doing things for others and not for one’s self). The ‘monster’ in storytelling is all self-preservation and no empathy, but a character without any ‘self’ risks boring the audience with his or her lack of perceived personality, or an ability to make mistakes. Their place in the story is as a character who has already arrived at their destination, the ‘mentor’ type character.
A character’s sense of self and selflessness—that delicate balance—is integrally bound up with their identity and purpose within the story. It’s also something which we, as an audience, decode and make sense of.