You’ve heard that old gem that every villain thinks he or she is the hero, right? What if you could write a character that develops and evolves so well that you could take them from victim to hero to villain and then all the way to redemption, of a sort?
Well, you can. If you do, I’d suggest looking at Kurt Sutters’ Sons Of Anarchy, and in particular Jackson “Jax” Teller.
Let’s get real; Sons of Anarchy is just Hamlet on motorbikes. Jax is Hamlet (both born leaders with deceased fathers, good intentions that spiral to violence etc), Clay is Claudius, Gemma is Gertrude (though, in all honesty she’s more of a Lady MacBeth), and any number of the elders, Piney, Unser, Bobby, could be Polonius.
Is that what makes Jax such a fine example of character development? No.
You see, much like Hamlet, Jackson starts his life as a victim in many ways; his father is killed at a young age, he’s dragged into a life of crime, albeit willingly, and throughout the early seasons his attempts to change his life and the focus of SAMCRO are beaten down at every turn by Clay, and in some cases Gemma. Despite being an Anti-Hero in the truest sense, his morality coming from senses of duty, honour, and familial responsibility rather than morality or legality, he is a passive anti-hero.
Victim To Villain; Passive Heroics and the Illusion of Having No Choices
Jax lets himself be taken where the wind blows for much of the early seasons.
He leaves Wendy because of her drug addiction and is blown back to Tara when she arrives in Charming. He is then blown in to the arms of various women (ugh, Ima) when the going gets tough with Tara. He nearly fucks his own sister, for Christ’s sake, and when Tara ends up in legal trouble, understandably angry and distressed, because of something she did to protect him? He jumps dick first into a brothel madam-cum-high-class-pimp; Collette. In the end, however, he lets Tara go free.
On a side note she has to literally beg him in a public place not to kill her in front of their children before he realises that he has become the monster under the bed to his own wife…. but, hey. I’m not bitter.
Jax’s love life(lives) provide a perfect microcosm for his overall story arc, and this symmetry is something so prophetic and well-written that we would all do well to take heed.
The pattern of Jax’s life goes as such;
- Belated Redemption
Jax marries Wendy because he feels he has no other choice; he confesses to Tara that it was a “sad time out” because he never got over her. He plays the victim while using Wendy, and when the going gets tough and she becomes addicted to heroine he bails. Enter Gemma; Gemma plays villain at first to allow Jax to maintain his wounded persona, but when Wendy gets out of rehab Jax tries to play hero by urging Tara to downplay their relationship for the sake of Wendy’s recovery.
He then chases her out of town, and when she returns, clean and ready to take care of her son, he forcibly injects her with heroine in order to keep what he see’s as “his”.
The arc doesn’t finalise until after Tara’s death when he leaves everything, including the children, to Wendy’s care. But he never actually tries to make personal amends.
Or there’s Tara;
She leaves him, and when she returns he sets about tugging her heart strings. He puts her in awkward positions by having her patch up injured club members time and time again, and then shoots her stalker in her home. When she begins to crumble under the stress and tries to escape again Jax does nothing to support or help her, but instead throws a tantrum and jumps dick first into another woman. Multiple times.
After the Ima fiasco Tara is kidnapped and pregnant so they end up back together again, after which he barrels down a course of action that lands him serious jail time. Tara cares for the children and waits, and he eventually promises her they will get out. He becomes an active hero for Tara when he attempts to extricate them, and when he reneges on this promise and she seeks her own escape he becomes the villain himself.
He redeems himself only just before her death, after which he slides back into violence and carnage.
This is what makes Jax such a fascinating character study; he lives, for the largest part of the show, under the belief that he has no choices. It’s only when he becomes President that he really takes control, and coincidentally this is when things really spiral out of control for the club.
The shattering climax, that realisation that over time he has become the villain in his own story, is so effective because we see the slide and we, the viewer, know that Jax is becoming more and more morally corrupt as the show spins out.
I once joked with my, then, partner that I had thought I would love Jax and Opie, but ended up hating them in favour of Juice, Tig, and Chibs because each of their characters was at the very least an active participant and had a morality of a sort that they held to. Jax and Opie both suffer from a martyrdom mentality that kills everyone and everything around them.
As writers we can learn from this undeniably masterful deployment of characterisation because it shows us, firstly, that you don’t have to like a character to root for them. Secondly, that symmetry is key; characterisation extends to the milieu of a characters life as well as the defining story arc. Thirdly, anti-hero’s don’t have to be edge-lord, morally grey gun-slingers like Dirty Harry. Sometimes an anti-hero is the pretty boy down the road who pretends that none of his bad choices could have been avoided.