I gobble up two television shows like an addict in a heroin shop: Stargate Atlantis and House. I don’t care about the plotlines – they’re always the same, recycled from old scifi or old medical dramas. I don’t even care about the token hot guys in each show (even if they do have Aussie accents and cool hair).
What I love about these shows are the a-holes Rodney McKay and Gregory House. Rodney is a narcissistic, misanthropic, hypochondriac scientific genius. House is an anti-social, misanthropic, haunted medical genius. Frankly, I don’t care what their jobs are. All I care about is the things they say. The things I always want to say, but feel the need to struggle to hold back (note I don’t say I always hold back. I know who I am, people).
If I were to meet either of these guys in real life, not three seconds would pass before I’d want to poke them in the eye. It’s not like they’d be hilarious jerks to everyone else, and nice and chummy with me. They’d push my buttons too, and I have very prominent buttons. Ahem.
Atlantis isn’t rocking the Nielsons, but House is a pretty big show. Even my dad watches it. So I started thinking about it…who are the characters we love?
Scarlett O’Hara: raging bitch
Rhett Butler: selfish rake
The cast of Seinfeld: selfish a-holes
Woodrow Call: judgmental prick
Dracula: bloodsucking manipulator
Han Solo: selfish rake
Batman: self-important vigilante
I could go on and on. Literature, film, and television are full of characters we’d absolutely hate in real life. Sure, they’re full of nice guys and sweet women, too, but the ones that fascinate us are often the ones who do and say what society tells us regular, likeable people should never do and say.
They break rules, for one. The world loves a rule-breaker, someone who doesn’t consider the consequences. Rules are in place for a reason: to prevent people doing the things they want to do. Otherwise, you wouldn’t need the rule, would you? So any character who gives a finger to the rules is doing what we want to do, but can’t.
In breaking the rules, they say what we want to say in our minds, before our socially-grown filters stop us from telling the annoying doorway-smokers their genital organs should putrify, from rolling our eyes and walking out on our moronic boss mid-sentence.
They piss people off. They’re outrageous. They stand outside the boundaries of society. And that’s what we love: the outsider.
Modern society pushes “the individual.” We’re all unique, we’re all important in a singular sense. We all have value for different reasons. It’s bullshit – we’re all pretty much the same, otherwise we wouldn’t be allowed to participate in society at all. Those who step outside societal rules are shunned – if you’re too abrasive, if you say what’s on your mind when you want to say it, you don’t get invited to social outings. You don’t get called for coffee or drinks. People are too afraid you’ll say something that confirms all their own fears about themselves.
And that’s just talking about someone who is a teensy bit outside society. Forget about all those who live a three-day trek away from civilized behavior. Forget the loonies, the criminals, and the politicians.
If we want to function in the human world, make friends, have family, avoid conflict, then we have to obey the rules. We can’t say what we want to say, do whatever we want to do. We conform.
So when we read a book about a woman who values her life over societal norms, or watch a film with a man who hates people but loves his dog, we fall in twisted, perverted love with these characters. They are truly individuals, placing value on something other than what society tells them to value. Even when they have no redeeming characteristics, we are enchanted: Charles Manson, Dracula, Dexter are killers, murderers, psychotics, and yet we consume their stories like midnight ice cream raids.
It’s something to think about, as a writer. We writers aren’t usually daredevils. Hemingway was an anomaly. We’re usually nice, somewhat dorky people. When a lot of writers start out, they want to write about themselves, or versions of themselves. They write about nice, somewhat dorky characters. Because these characters are reflections of the author, the author doesn’t ever want anything bad to happen to them. So they wind up with nice stories about nice characters that put me to sleep by line three.
Then there are the writers who build characters completely opposite from themselves: evil, irredeemable people who do nasty things for no reason. Also dullsville.
It’s the characters that walk the line between human and inhuman. Who are fatally flawed, but who seem to have good reason for being so. Who want desperately, or hurt deeply. Who tread outside society because they can’t find their way back, not because they’re just nuts.
They’re hard characters to build, to maintain balance. But if the writer can find that sweet spot between nice-boring and evil-boring, it’s a character that will compel any story forward.
Now if you’ll excuse me, my boyfriend House is waiting for me.