If I Can’t Like You, I Might As Well Fear You

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!

Pictured: A deranged sociopath collecting his next victim.

Pictured: A deranged sociopath collecting his next victim.


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.

7 thoughts on “If I Can’t Like You, I Might As Well Fear You

  1. I’m glad to see this addressed because I feel the same way. Although Breaking Bad was a great show, I found myself liking it less as time went on because I kept liking Walter White less. I want to like my characters–even if they do bad things (like Dexter; how can you not like Dexter? Unless you’re a bad guy and see his knife, he’s so nice; a great oxymoron for a serial killer…). I loved Gone Girl, but I didn’t like Flynn’s Dark Places as much because I didn’t like the characters at all. I heard Sharp Objects is similar. I have it on my shelf and will read it, but that might be it for me if all her books remain that way.

    • Yeah, Dexter is a great example of someone who literally gets away with murder with the audience because he’s charming. There are a few examples of characters with reprehensible deeds who get away with it because they’re funny/intelligent/have a good side. Making a dark character fun or funny – Seinfeld is again an example of horrible people who make relatable observations and/or cause you to laugh at their suffering – is a tried and true way to do this.

      And yeah, I related to Amy because she made good observations about women and relationships. I’m not sure I could as easily relate to a woman who masturbates to slitting her wrists. O_o

  2. I love to hate a good antagonist. There’s just something about feeling that fuming anger that makes me want to yell at Walter White on my screen or Amy Dunne on the pages that I kind of love. I think it’s just anything that makes me feel that passionate, even in a negative way, is refreshing and exciting. I also have to appreciate it from a creator’s standpoint. That takes major chops to create a character I can’t stand, but still want to know more about.

  3. I admit I like terrible characters but only if they can be redeemable. I love when antagonists can be redeemed or relatable in some way. I think you have to do that to make fiction work, because too many times I’ve started watching shows and if there isn’t one character I like or see myself liking later on, I lose interest and don’t bother watching it. I get that. I don’t have time for obnoxious characters that I can never connect with, and I think that a lot of people feel this way.

    • I think that’s the ticket, which is why I found your Ethan so intriguing in Unbridled. Normally I don’t care for characters like Ethan, but he had such a good center – being family oriented and self-sacrificing – that it made him genuinely sympathetic. And ultimately, I think the story was about his redemption.

      The best antagonists are the sympathetic ones, so I don’t get how authors think their protagonists can get away without being sympathetic. Your villain is allowed to be someone I love to hate. Your hero, not so much.

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