Hating their guts

When I was shopping One Hand Washes the Other around, one editor told me the lead character was too unsympathetic to tolerate. He certainly was unsympathetic—seeing his ex-girlfriend’s cancer as a way to get her back—but for various reasons, that was essential for the story. Fortunately Abyss and Apex liked it despite the lead (and several other people had exactly the reaction I wanted), but clearly such a self-centered lead (and believably self-centered, not the comical kind) was not to everyone’s taste.
That came to mind after reading this post about the 1980s comedy Buffalo Bill and it’s notoriously obnoxious protagonist (I didn’t see the show, but I remember the critical reaction). The post concludes that the show works because it’s really about the other characters “who deserved better fates than to have their livelihoods depend on their stars, and railed regularly about the injustice of their fates, though rarely to their miserable benefactors’ faces.”
Although I haven’t seen the show, that does make sense as a general tool for working with unlikable characters. And so I got to thinking of other ways to make them work:
•Redemption. This is a classic, and one I’ve used in several stories myself: The character learns he’s screwing up and reforms. It can be schmaltzy and heavy-handed (some of Frank Capra’s films) but it can also be powerful and moving.
•Comeuppance. Payback comes and it’s a bitch. This can work depending how effective the payback is: I’ve read stories where the protagonist loses his short-term goal but doesn’t really suffer anything in the grand scheme of things; that can be mighty unsatisfactory.
•Humor. The guy’s a jerk, but he’s also a buffoon and a blowhard. As The Hathor Legacy notes, this can go wrong badly if the guy isn’t as funny as the creators think. On the other hand, All in the Family proved it can succeed brilliantly.
•Wish fulfillment: The guy gets away with murder, and we just dream of being able to pull off such stunts
•Charisma. Or screen presence or roguish charm, whatever you call it. Which is pretty much what Larry Hagman’s J.R. Ewing on Dallas had, to name one example. This can go horribly wrong for the same reason as humor: Characters often aren’t as charismatic as their creators imagine.
•Redeeming qualities. Matt Dillon’s cop in Crash is an appalling bigot, for example, but it was impossible for me not to sympathize with his efforts to care for his sick father.
That’s my list. Anyone got more?


Filed under Movies, Reading, Writing

2 responses to “Hating their guts

  1. Pingback: Diversity storm: the Black Witch controversy (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: Greedo, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and flawed heroes | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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