Something has disappointed me about modern cinema, literature, and television. The art that’s held to the highest esteem these days seems to concern the most wretched personalities. Fight Club, Black Swan, Wanted, Looper, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, anything and everything on the FX network (American Horror Story, Sons of Anarchy, Archer, The Americans, It’s Always Sunny…jeez. It’s like FX is the a-hole network!), Gone Girl, and even Seinfeld.
Some of the above, I enjoy. Most, I do not. I’ve heard writers say “you can make a character unlikeable as long as you make him interesting,” but I don’t think that’s the *key,* exactly. Because it depends on what you define as interesting.
I can’t relate to Walter White. Or Joe, from Looper. Or Natalie Portman’s character from Black Swan. To me, they’re all just terrible or messed up people and I really can’t put myself in their shoes or care about their stories because I never would have gotten myself in their situations to begin with. I don’t have sympathy from drug addicted characters. I don’t have sympathy for characters “forced into a life of crime.” I definitely don’t have sympathy for characters who are snarky jerks just for the sake of being snarky jerks, or any other example of What’s Wrong With This World. If a character tilts back his seat on an airplane, I’m done – you, character, are a monster that I don’t care knowing!
Now, before you accuse me of rose-coating fiction, let me make one thing clear – I know that characters should be flawed. Characters should not be perfect people. They should have weaknesses, they should do crappy things to one another, they should have biases and -isms.
But think about your friends and family. None of them are perfect either, yet there’s something about them that makes you want to keep knowing them. Maybe they have some controversial views, or they drink too much at parties, or they’re flaky, or they’re late. Yet, the good qualities outweigh the bad.
On the other hand, if you’ve ever known a needy, drug-addicted self-destructive emo creep Holden Caulfield wannabe in real life, most people will probably tell you to defriend them on Facebook and cut all ties immediately. No, you probably don’t want to stick around and see if they “turn out okay,” or if they ever “redeem themselves.” You just want out of that relationship, and will probably never look back.
So, here’s my philosophy for what makes a good “damaged” character: make them say stuff that the reader will agree with and relate to. This is why The Joker in Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and Gordon Gekko in Wallstreet and Amy Dunne in Gone Girl were all so terrifying. They’re not really protagonists – they’re antagonists – yet they fascinate us because we agree with so much of what they say. Everyone has some degree of dark thoughts or secret judgement, and the best “dark” characters are those who address it. Not just some whiny, anarchist rebel who may represent a “phase” we went through when we were younger (at best), or the type of person we’d loathe to be around (at worst).
Think about it this way – the only “bad” people who are your friends are people who are “bad” in the same ways you are. Maybe they’re cynical like you, loud-mouthed, or equally as forgetful. You can’t really blame them for being the way they are, because you’re that way too. You understand them. Austin nor I are “nice” people by most standards, but we get along in our mutual misanthropy.
So, if I’m going along with your story, the characters need to be likeable people, or they need to be so similar to my dark side that it terrifies me. The first are simply enjoyable to read about and the latter make me see the world in a different way. On the flip side, I just don’t get what completely irredeemable characters offer to the reader/viewer. If I’m not relating, I don’t care. And if I don’t care, it doesn’t matter if they turn their lives around before the end.