Borders Line: Who Says Characters Have To Be Likable?
I don't understand the frequent complaint by viewers and readers that if a character is unlikable, a show, book or movie is unworthy. I like a good conflicted protagonist, even a downright mean-spirited one. To me, fiction only has worth if it reflects a truth about humanity. And the truth is, humans are often assholes. So why must a character be sweet and wholesome to engender audience favor? I don't mean that you should like unlikable characters - by definition, that's hard to do - but definitely don't duck the fiction that creates them.
One unavoidable certainty is that this dismay is more pointed at unsympathetic women than men. It's true in life as in fiction - cold men are considered strong while cold women are considered bitches. This principle is never so aptly proven as with the audience reaction to Don and Betty Draper (Francis) and Walt and Skyler White. Don's amoral, dishonest, negligent to his children and often cruel to the people who care about him most. Betty's petulant and immature, but most audience members loathe her to a degree that seems unreasonable while idolizing Don. Walt is a manufacturer of meth, a murderer and a total life-ruiner. Skyler punishes him for this reason. And man alive, the Internet wants to string up Skyler White. There's a similar contrast between the reaction to Girls and that to Entourage. Or between the few "woman-child" movies that were released last year (Bridesmaids, Bad Teacher, Young Adult) versus the man-child movies that are released every year (The Hangover, Knocked Up, Old School, so many others). I hear far more complaints about unlikable female characters when despicable male characters are given a pass. And I like them all. They're all assholes, and I find them all fascinating. Well, maybe not the characters in Entourage or The Hangover, but the rest of them.
I also think contentious characters in films and books are more easily accepted than in television shows, due mostly to the length of exposure. Scarlett O'Hara, Lisbeth Salander, Michael Corleone, Charles Foster Kane, Daniel Plainview and Holden Caulfield might be disagreeable or even detestable characters, but we're not witnessing their infamy over a period of years. Audiences grow weary of seeing a character make the same mistakes over and over again through years of their lives. Although books and movies aren't left entirely off the hook: one of the most common complaints about The Great Gatsby is that none of the characters are sympathetic. Who cares? They're rich characters, complex and memorable. They have devastating histories and yearnings. I don't need them to be pleasant on top of all of that.
The point of an enduring character isn't "someone you'd like to befriend." You don't have to admire them or want to be them. A good character can still fall squarely in the "kill" chapter of "fuck, marry or kill." All that's required of you is to believe in them. Understand their motivations; accept their eccentricities. If a character can do that for you, it doesn't matter if he or she is a sweetheart. And aren't bad characters more fun? I'd rather hang out with Scarlett than Melanie any day of the week and twice on Sundays.
Stop avoiding Breaking Bad, The Great Gatsby or It's Always Sunny because none of the characters are sympathetic. If we don't adore a character, we're free. Any number of terrible things can happen to Walt, and we don't have to regret them because, frankly, he deserves it. So we can just sit back and enjoy the mayhem.
So bring me your Walts. Bring me your Mavises. Bring me your Hannah Horvaths and Patrick Batemans and Betty Drapers. Leave the squares at home and let's have a party.