Sunday, January 2, 2011

In Praise of Unlikable Characters

Happy New Year!

With that out of the way, let's try to get back on schedule. Here is an article from The Millions by Emily St. John Mandel in praise of unlikable characters. It's from back in October, but I've been keeping the bookmark around to post about it here.

I can’t get behind this statement in its entirety, because the implication is that the practice of dividing people into “nice” or “mean”, or “kind” or “unkind”, or “friendly” or “unfriendly”, or whichever set of labels you wish to use, belongs exclusively to the world of grammar school. We’re all flawed, of course, all of us both nice and mean, but I’m only really interested in spending time with people who manage to remain consistently kind. There was a time in my life when I was impressed by sheer genius, sheer talent, and would seek out people based on this alone, but that was a while ago. At this point I find myself uninterested in spending extended periods of time with interesting people if they aren’t also somewhat nice, if they don’t also comport themselves with some measure of honor.

I think there is a lot of room these days for unlikable characters. Take television and movies for example - when I was little, the good guys in cartoons were unfailingly good, the bad guys always evil. There was very little black and white involved. Today, particularly with the popularity of anime, the anti-hero gets introduced to kids at a younger age, and they love it.

I think the first anti-hero I really liked in modern media was Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He was a vampire, he was evil and toyed with people to amuse himself. And that was really, really interesting to watch. He became a favourite character, added to the main cast after numerous successful guest spots on the show. He was funny and, in an odd way, charming - he was a rake. And also evil.

People seem fascinated by the dark hero; take Batman, arguably more popular than Superman. Superman is boring. Batman broods over a tragic past and can be viewed as a psychotic vigilante. We can't get enough of gritty Batman. Maybe the days where we wanted our heroes to be pure and good are gone; maybe we like them better when they're at least a little bit bad. It makes them seem more human, or at least more... attainable isn't the word I'm looking for. Like their bouts of heroism are more believable or inspire us to achieve more because they are flawed like us. Who doesn't want to be a little bad sometimes?


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