Unlikeable Heroes… and Villains

This week I watched Glee (obviously) and was thoroughly entertained as always until something awful happened. Without getting into specifics in case it is still saved on your Tivo, I will just say this: THEY ARE TRYING TO HUMANIZE SUE SYLVESTER!
If you don’t watch Glee (sigh…), then all you need to know is this: Who was once the perfect villain is now developing a “softer” side which makes me want to scream. Whether in literature or on screen, sometimes people are just mean. Jeff Lindsay, author of the Dexter  novels, recently touched on this in Entertainment Weekly, saying “My Dexter pretends to be nice. [TV’s] Dexter is trying to become nice.” And it’s true – TV Dexter now has a family and a conscience – and for what? So people can relate to the serial killer main character? 

Now, I’m all for creating dimensions in your characters. In fact, they need complexity in order for a reader to remain interested in their story. However, if I may turn the conversation back to where it started, with television, let me say that some of the better shows on television right now (other than Glee) are Arrested Development (in our hearts!), The Office, House, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. And they all feature unlikeable characters. We root for Michael Scott despite his insensitivity and cluelessness. We secretly want to be members of the Bluth family. We are Dr. House. 

This trend was perfected, and therefore started, by Seinfeld, whose characters were so selfish and trapped in their inabilities to show common decency, that they were imprisoned for it. And yet. We LOVE them. They are not characters who we want to date in real life, or even have as our close friends, but we love them.  

OK, so why do we love them? For me, it’s because in real life, in adulthood anyway, there is rarely “character development” in the day-to-day. If a tragedy befalls you or your circumstances change in ways that you have to keep up with, then it is natural to alter a piece of your personality (if not your whole being). That means that if you write a story in which your character must change by the end, then I’m sorry to tell you that that is what you must do. 

This is actually something the boyfriend and I have discussed recently. One of our favorite jokes at the moment is mocking the new Sandra Bullock movie, The Blind Side. Specifically, this dialogue:

Woman: “You’re changing that boy’s life.”
Sandra: “No, he’s changing mine.” 

Not all changes need to be that dramatic (and preferably not so poorly written). In life, changes take time and are not usually so declarative. Be subtle in your writing, but remember that if your story is more character-driven than it is plot-driven, chances are there won’t be any huge internal changes by the end anyway. In the way that a Jane Austen wedding scene makes one question the couple’s future happiness, characters like Nick Hornby’s ever-adolescent men “change” by reluctantly accepting society’s expectations.  

While keeping in mind that not everyone needs a Carrie Bradshaw “and suddenly I realized” moment, don’t be afraid to create some unlikeable characters either. Sometimes they can be the most interesting characters to read, whether protagonists or, for example, the walking embodiment of evil. Don’t feel obligated to “TV Dexter-ize them” unless you think it will better serve your narrative. Or, as the BF put it while we were discussing this, “If a character is a rapist, do we necessarily have to know why he’s a rapist?” 

An example of this that comes to mind is Push, the bully, in the Stanley Elkin short story, A Poetics for Bullies. He is by no means a rapist or murderer, but who’s to say he won’t grow up to be one? Push narrates, opening with: “I’m Push, the bully, and what I hate are new kids and sissies, dumb kids and smart, rich kids, poor kids, kids who wear glasses, talk funny, show off, patrol boys and wise guys, and kids who pass pencils and water the plants – and cripples, especially cripples.” 

Elkin gives us glimpses as to why and how Push is the way he is, but he never implies “and this is why you should feel bad for him.” He just is what he is, and not to ruin it, but he doesn’t exactly become a better person in the end. And yet. We care. And even if he doesn’t want us to, we end up loving him.

2 thoughts on “Unlikeable Heroes… and Villains

  1. I always hated how Anthony Minghella watered down the Tom Ripley character by making him vulnerable and insecure. He completely missed the black humor of Patricia Highsmith's novel. He is also somewhat of a prototype for the Dexter character so I can see why they had to tamper with Dexter too. The problem with the Dexter TV show is that in sociopathy is a real thing and people who are that way can't grow a conscience. That's like having an paraplegic be like “You know what? I'm gonna start walking.”


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