FX’s series Taboo is a fascinating watch in a lot of ways. It’s a well-acted, well-written, well-directed affair of the gritty world of Britain in the wake of the War of 1812 with its former colonies in America.
But as anyone who’s watched it knows or will tell you, it’s the protagonist, James Keziah Delaney, who really makes the show. Delaney is a mysterious, sinister, and often violent individual struggling to hold his claim to Nootka Sound over in the Americas (by Vancouver) against the machinations of the Honorable East India Company and the British Crown.
In general, writers try to get audiences to sympathize with their protagonist, and one of the best ways to do this is to get into that character’s head. By exposing their true feelings and vulnerabilities, we get to know them and feel for them. And when we learn things about the plot as they do, we feel like we are a confidant and part of their circle.
Let’s take Orphan Black, for example (MAJOR SPOILERS TO FOLLOW).
At the beginning of the show, we follow Sarah Manning and quickly are put into her shoes as we learn of her problems trying to secure custody of her daughter. We also witness the shocking suicide of a woman on the subway and feel the same revulsion she does. After assuming the deceased woman Beth Powers’ identity – a woman who looks identical to her – the truth about her death and the reason why Sarah and Beth look identical starts to unfold before us. We discover the truth behind the Dyad Institute and Project Leda’s illegal cloning experiment at the same time Sarah does and watch right alongside her as she tries to plan and outsmart the amoral scientists trying to manipulate and kill her and her clone sisters. This makes Sarah a very sympathetic protagonist who feels near and dear to us.
In contrast, Taboo keeps a wall between us and Delaney that we rarely see over. It’s clear from the start that Delaney has a lot of knowledge and secrets that we, the viewer, are not privy to. Even the associates working with him to secure Nootka Sound and the promise of its wealth in trading routes are never told any more than is exactly necessary to fulfill their roles. Because of this gap between Delaney’s knowledge and our own as viewers, along with Delaney’s emotionally dead and violent demeanor, we don’t feel that closeness and connection we would otherwise have.
Does this make Delaney a bad protagonist? Hardly. In fact, it’s what makes him so interesting.
Delaney is a mystery, both to the audience and his associates. We know what he’s after, but we’re never quite sure why. We know that he has some strange sort of power, but it’s never fully explained. We know some of his backstory, but never the full details of his life. Delaney only tells people as much as they need to know to fulfill their use to him, and we, the viewer, are only told as much as we need to know to follow along. As we watch Delaney sow chaos into London like a force of nature, his secrets held tight to his vest, we find ourselves intrigued. Who is this man really? Even if we don’t find him completely sympathetic or even likable, we feel compelled to keep watching and find out. Rather than the distance between ourselves and Delaney turning us away, it drives us to want spend more time with him to try to close that distance.
Of course, it’s important to supplement the missing qualities for these protagonists somehow. Creating a character who is sympathetic and finding things out along with us as they work with the protagonist can help to give us the qualities we need to emotionally invest in the plot. And making the protagonist make up for the deficit in emotional distance with qualities like magnetism and mystery is essential to keeping audiences coming back for more.
Protagonists with a large knowledge gap between themselves and the audience can be tricky to pull off, but with careful crafting, they can be every bit as compelling as the sympathetic and vulnerable protagonist who lets us into their head.