Writing: “El Paso” and the Flawed Protagonist

marty robbins

With Father’s Day approaching, I’ve rediscovered a cd that my husband assembled a couple of years ago. We call it “Dad” music, because it’s a compilation of random songs that we listened to with our fathers.

(Tangent: Our families didn’t know each other before we met, but both being Midwest kids, we find a lot of familial similarities. For instance, if the word “well…” is uttered in front of either of our fathers, he will invariably reply, “Deep subject.” Ha. Ha. Ha. It’s my dream to get them both in the same room, say “well,” and listen to them do it at the same time. Someday…)

The opening song on the cd is “El Paso,” by Marty Robbins. My husband summed it up as “a four-minute western,” old-style storytelling in song. It’s also an excellent example of a character who manages to be sympathetic, in spite of his failings.

It shocked me a bit, listening to this song as an adult, to realize that the narrator is really the antagonist, or if not the antagonist a protagonist who is clearly in the wrong.

The song opens with a love story- ahhh, unrequited love. The narrator cherishes a passion for the girl Feleena. It doesn’t seem she has shown him any attention whatsoever, though he does call her ‘wicked’ and ‘evil’- I wonder if she ever toyed with his affections?

A third party enters the picture- a handsome young cowboy, interested in Faleena. Does she return his interest? Apparently, since the narrator challenges the cowboy, fights, and kills him.

Let’s pause here. What reason do we have to ‘root’ for the narrator at this point? Well…he loves the girl. Apparently. Though we don’t have any evidence of this except for the fact that he shoots someone who she’s interested in…and then runs. Maybe in the second half?

He steals a horse and flees, but his self-imposed exile is short. He must return. Why? Remorse? A need for justice? Nope. He wants to see the girl again.

Well, he’s faithful- you’ve gotta give him that!

The flight for the cantina, the description of his injuries, and his final reunion with Faleena drive the tragic story to it’s conclusion, closing the story arc neatly in four minutes and change.

Here’s what I find interesting. I like stories where the bad guys are bad and the good guys are good and things work out reasonably well in the end. There are exceptions, but generally speaking I do not gravitate towards the ‘bad boy’ tales.

In spite of this, I can’t help rooting for Marty Robbins’ narrator.

How does he do it?

It may be partially that I grew up hearing the song and feeling sorry for the poor narrator, gunned down just as he finds the girl. The catchy melody doesn’t hurt either, but I think the real answer lies with the way the story is told.

Robbins sings the song in first person. (My eldest just asked today, “How can he sing the song if he’s dead?” Time for a lesson on POV!) We listeners hear some of the thoughts and motives of the narrator. He knows what he is doing is wrong. He calls the murder a ‘foul, evil deed.’ His desperation is evident as he steals the horse and flees.

And yet, he can’t stay away. The despairing words- his life being worthless, nothing left- demonstrate the narrator’s mindset as he turns back to his certain destruction.

Even his thoughts as he’s dying aren’t the thoughts of a desperate criminal. In the end I picture him as a kid, not too bright, who made some pretty stupid choices over a girl and pays the consequences.

Therein lies the ability to sympathize with the character. His actions are evil, but his motivations aren’t deliberately so. How many of us haven’t made foolish choices, gone down roads we know we shouldn’t, because of love or pride or simple stubborness?

Flawed characters have an ability to resonate that perfect characters lack.

What gives your readers the ability to empathize with your characters- what strengths or flaws make them human?

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2 Replies to “Writing: “El Paso” and the Flawed Protagonist”

  1. A most excellent analysis of the song! Isn’t it strange how some stories engage us despite being outside our normal tastes? There’s something about learning of the human natures opposite our own that keeps us fascinated despite any level of repugnance we may feel.

    Liked by 1 person

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