Characters that represent other things
I don’t know why I was thinking this, but the other day I was considering the relationship between Higgins and Magnum on Magnum, PI. Higgins is, in many ways, a father figure for Magnum, whose actual father died when he was very young. And after having his wife killed (or not) in Vietnam and being taken as a prisoner of war, Magnum needed a place to be a child again–to recover from what he’d went through. He was lucky enough to befriend the novelist Robin Masters who gave him access to a big estate, a fast car, the tennis courts, the wine cellar, and Higgins–the guy who kept him from wallowing too deeply in adolescence. (Oh, and a really awesome theme song.)
But for some reason, I took a different look at the characters the other day and saw something I hadn’t seen before. Higgins, aside from being an older, more mellow British version of Pete Campbell from Mad Men, is British. Magnum is American. Obvious, right?
But look more deeply at the characters. Higgins is, as the series points out, part of the peerage. He has a title, albeit a low one–one he almost gives up to marry a woman. But the peerage isn’t what it once was, and Higgins place in the peerage, like the Queen’s place in the world, is lower than it used to be. The royalty are simply celebrities. And their country, once a great and masterful power, isn’t a super power any more.
Higgins, being older than Magnum, is in the same position. He was once, if you believe his stories, quite a virile man, an honorable, flawed warrior. Some of it was bluster, but the character was well enough developed to show that not all of it is. Higgins has a comfortable and somewhat sedate life acting as a servant to an American author–Robin Masters–whose tastes he finds trashy and inappropriate.
The same viewpoint exists through much of the series about Magnum. Higgins finds him coarse, immature, impulsive, lacking in honor, and unfit for the toys and power he’s been given. That same could be said about a British and European view of the United States. They’ve been around a lot longer and know more. We’re still immature and we don’t make decisions the way a more seasoned country would.
Magnum, on the other hand, views Higgins as often too formal and status-conscious. Unwilling to have fun, like filling the fountain in the front yard with dish soap and teaching a bikini-clad diving expert how to swim in the tidal pool.
Magnum likes baseball–a hot dog and beer enjoyed shouting your lungs out on a summer afternoon, while Higgins prefers to spend his days properly attending a snooker (properly pronounced snewker, not snucker) match, while wearing a suit and tie. He sees Higgins as being less than he once was. And he sees himself as being through some things, but having his best days in front of himself, still.
I could be totally full of bull on this. But it’s an interesting way to read the characters. Maybe it wasn’t intended that way. Maybe it’s totally in my head. Or maybe not.
Either way, if you can make your characters represent other things–without being too obvious about it–you can add to the readers’ appreciation of your work.