Thursday, April 19, 2012

Why Do We Like These Guys...?

            Sorry there wasn’t a post last week.  I got the galley proofs for my new book, 14 (available in June from Permuted Press), and I spent about six days going over them line by line.
            There’s a weird trend in advertising lately.  Have you noticed that most of the people we’re supposed to be rooting for in commercials are kind of... well,  jerks?  They’re rude.  They’re smug.  They do obnoxious things that are supposed to be cute.
            Of course, unlikable characters are nothing new on television or in books.  There are hundreds of characters who are jerks to an almost criminal degree, but we still like them.  You can trace it back for decades.  Centuries, even.
            Let me give you a few examples.
            Presented for your approval is one Homer J. Simpson.  He’s an alcoholic.  He’s rock-stupid.  He’s self-centered.  He subjects his kids to physical and emotional abuse.  He’s lazy to the point that he’s endangered countless lives in his hometown of Springfield, and a fair amount while traveling abroad, too.
           Here’s another one.  Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother.  Barney’s rude, misogynistic, very manipulative, and openly cruel sometimes.  When you consider the political climate these days, it’s worth noting that Barney is also a one-percenter who’s gleefully acknowledged eliminating jobs to increase profits at the multi-national corporation he works for.
            And, lest you think I’m not taking this seriously with all the sitcom references, let’s also add in Doctor Hannibal Lecter (the version from the novels, to be clear).   He’s a monster.  No two ways about it.  He’s a murderer who’s killed people in some truly horrific ways.  He’s tortured people.  And there’s his defining trait, of course... cannibalism.
            How could anyone possibly like any of these characters?  Heck, how is it that people end up rooting for them?  We laugh when Homer throttles his son, we cheer when Barney abandons the woman he just slept with, and we approve when we realize Lecter’s tracked down the asylum director who treated him like an animal for years.  Is there something wrong with all of us?
            Not really.  If we look at all of these folks, there’s certain key traits they all share that make for great characters.  More to the point, theses are traits that are almost always missing from characters that frustrate and annoy readers and/or audience members.
            First and foremost is honesty.  One of the main things we love about these characters is that they’re all true to themselves.  They know who they are and they see no need to hide it.  Nobody likes a hypocrite or someone who keeps switching sides.  It’s why we all grind our teeth over politicians who say one thing on Tuesday and then say the complete opposite on their next campaign stop.
            If Barney was constantly telling us what a sweet, caring guy he was we’d find him slimy at best, reprehensible at worst.  Part of what makes his womanizing acceptable—to us and his friends—is that he doesn’t deny it in any way.  He has no problem admitting what he does and even admits it may hurt some women ... but he’s not there to deal with it, so what’s the big deal?  Homer’s almost gleeful about his alcoholism and has frequently fought the idea of trying to learn anything new.  Lecter doesn’t see any moral difference between eating a person and eating an animal, so he has no problem discussing the appetizers he set out for his unexpected guests.
            One mistake I see a lot of writers make is when their characters are telling us one thing but showing us another.  Yakko says he’s taking time off and trying to get his head together, but really he’s out cruising and screwing around every day.  Dot tells us she’s loyal to her husband but sleeps with three different guys from her office.  Wakko insists that he follows the rules to the letter, but we catch him cheating a dozen times during the game.  There are times this type of thing can work, but this kind of dishonesty can turn a reader against a character very quickly if it’s not handled right. 
            A similar problem is when writers think ambivalence is a character trait.  They have characters who are constantly unsure or second-guessing themselves or their actions.  That kind of self-doubt can work in small doses, but it gets annoying real quick.
            The second thing that makes us like these horrible folks is that, despite all their unlikable characteristics, each of them tends to be a pretty decent person at the core.  Often in each of their respective stories, we’ll see these characters do something or make a gesture that doesn’t really benefit them, but it gives us a glimpse of who they really are when they’re not trying to score points or keep up appearances.  There’s an old saying you might’ve heard that sums this up well--someone who’s nice to you but not nice to the waiter is not a nice person.  In screenwriting this sort of thing is sometimes known as the “saving the cat” (thanks, Blake Snyder), and it makes us—the audience—like these characters a little more.
            When Homer gives up his dream job at Globex to make his family happy, it’s showing us that he really does try to be the best father and husband that he can.  When Barney flies cross-country to tell Lily she needs to wise up and get back together with Marshall, it lets us see what’s really important to him.  If you’ve read any of the books by Thomas Harris, it’s pretty clear that Hannibal Lecter, despite some of his more gruesome dietary preferences, is kind of a classy guy.  He’s polite.  He’s generous.  He appreciates fine art and fine music.  He has a very good relationship with his orderly, Barney, born out of professional courtesy for one another.  Just because he sometimes does awful things to people doesn’t mean he’s needlessly cruel.  In fact Lecter never kills randomly or without purpose, and there’s a fair list of people in the books he doesn’t kill who he easily could have.
            Even if you’ve only seen the films, you may remember that one of his defining traits very early on is that he despises rudeness.  Lecter makes for kind of an interesting twist on saving the cat.  When his hallmate, Miggs, is exceptionally “discourteous” to Agent Clarice Starling, Lecter kills him for it.  After the good doctor escapes, Starling’s confident he won’t come after her because “he would consider it rude.”  If he was just a cannibal, Lecter would be no different than Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  It’s this underlying decency that elevates him above a schlock-paperback slasher.
            I see this get messed up a lot in books and scripts.  The writer presents an unlikable character or characters that I’m clearly supposed to like on some level, but I’m never actually given a reason to like them.   A lot of horror stories fail because of this.  If I don’t like a character on some level...why would I care what happens to them?
            That bit a moment ago with Miggs brings me to my third and final point...wish fulfillment.  While these characters are doing unlikable things, they’re all doing things that—on one level or another—we all wish we could do.  It would be awesome to goof off at work and drink every night and never get punished for it.  We’d love to sleep around and have no emotional fallout from either our partners or ourselves.  And, much as we’d like to deny it, there are times we’d all really like to see obnoxious idiots dead for the things they’ve done to us and to the people we like.  Preferably dead in a really horrible way.  The condescending doctor.  That jackass supervisor at work.  The guy in the insane asylum who throws bodily fluids. 
            A lot of times I see people trying to do the unlikable-but-likeable thing, and the real problem is that they’ve made a character who... well, just isn’t likeable.  There’s almost no way to put a positive spin on someone who stomps puppies to death or molests schoolchildren.  Personally, I find it really hard to get behind a bigot.  There are times that even saving a whole cat shelter can’t make up for a character’s unlikable traits because too many lines have been crossed.
            Yeah, I know the cannibalism thing is a little beyond what any of us want to do, but here’s an interesting point—you barely ever see Lecter’s eating habits in the books.  We hear about them, but in the first three books there’s only one incident where we actually see Lecter eat part of a human being (and it’s at the end of the third book in the series).  So it’s a character trait that’s inexcusable, but it’s also carefully kept at arm’s length.
            And that’s some of the reasons why so many of us can’t help but like the bad boys and girls.     
            Next time, I'd like to talk about a trio of failed television shows and why they failed.  There’s a good storytelling lesson in it for all of us.  Honest.
            Until then, go write.

3 comments:

Rakie said...

There's vaguely related question i meant to ask you at some point, about horrible characters who are redeemed during the course of the story, a la "Scrooged" or "District 9" (to pick examples at random). I'm trying to write a redemptive story at the moment, and am having problems in that my main character starts out being hugely unlikeable (which i'm assuming they'd have to be to some extent, in order to make good later). Do you think the points you make today might work in this case? My save the cat moment doesn't come until at least halfway through the story, and i worry this is too damn late for anyone to care about the character by then...

congrats on -14- btw!!

Rakie said...

PS. I've just remembered the bit in the third Hannibal Lecter book where he eats a bit of someone. Eeeeek. Thank you so much for reminding me of that. :)

Virtual Stranger said...

Hey, Rakie. Sorry it's taken me so long to answer.

I think the points here could be applied to a redemptive story, although my points here were really for "the asshole we like from the start." Having your stc moment halfway through does make it tough, but it worked for Rick in Casablanca.

Consider that in A Christmas Carol, and all the many versions of it, we get to see early on that Scrooge wasn't always like this. The Ghost of Christmas Past lets us see that he was once a happy little kid, and it was only a few small choices that turned him into... well, Scrooge. So even if we don't like him, we understand him.

Similarly, while Wikus in District 9 does some pretty awful and cruel things, it's pretty clear he's doing them out of complete ignorance. He's not evil, just... well, an idiot.

And, yeah, that whole dinner scene at the end of Hannibal is just creepy as hell, isn't it? :)