Sunday, July 25, 2010

Likable Schmikable

Likable characters go a long way. At least, that seems to be true for most people, and not just in the writing world. People put down books, turn off movies, snore through plays, and stop watching television shows because the main characters aren't likable.

I, however, do not seem to care. I say "seem to" because up until recently, I hadn't realized this about myself. But now that I put all the pieces together, I realize that it's true: I don't need characters to be likable in order to appreciate something, and not because I'm just that awesome, or anything. It's because likability is sort of like outer space, for me: I am aware that it's there, and if someone points to a constellation, I can nod and acknowledge its existence, but it's not like I'm walking around with a crick in my neck because I'm always staring at the sky. Catch my drift?

For example: I loved Inception. And the day I posted my review on the blog, I checked out Kathleen Peacock's comments about it, particularly when she said she just didn't connect with Leonardo DiCaprio's character. Upon reflection, I realized that I didn't have strong feelings about his character either, or even medium feelings-- but it never occurred to me as I watched, and it had no impact on how I experienced the movie. "Interesting," I thought.

Another example of this pattern is: Harry Potter. Book 5. Order of the Phoenix. Harry spends the first part of the book screaming at Hermione and Ron and generally acting like an emo, angsty teen. When I talked to other people about it after reading, they mentioned how frustrated they got with Harry in that book because he just wouldn't quit whining. I, however...did not notice. Or rather, I did notice that Harry was in a grimmer frame of mind, and I noticed that he was yelling a lot, but it just didn't bother me. I figured: he's fifteen. He's in a crappy position in the universe. People around him keep dying. Of course he's freaking out. It was believable and justified. The end.

My question is: do characters need to be likable?

And my answer is: not necessarily. (At least, not for me.)

For me, characters need to be multi-dimensional and believable. Their actions and thoughts have to make sense to me (even though I know that in real life, actions and thoughts don't have to make sense-- but we're talking about fiction here). But I don't have to agree with what they say, think, or do in order to get involved in the story.

Breaking Bad, for example. It's about a guy who starts cooking crystal meth in order to leave money for his family if he dies of lung cancer. At the beginning of the show, you sort of feel for him even if he is making drugs, because you understand his motivations. But as the show progresses (and I haven't watched all of it, but I watched season 1), he becomes a little too much like a drug dealer; a little too ruthless. He loses a lot of his likability. But it's still a great show.

And let's not forget villains.

I love villains. I love them more than protagonists, a lot of the time. The Joker? Maniacal and creepy. Gollum? Crazy and obsessive. Voldemort? Soulless. Ursula, from The Little Mermaid? Haunted my dreams as a child. Even the yeerks in Animorphs struck me as genius when I was 10 and I was devouring those books (mind-controlling slugs that slime their way into your brain, for those who didn't read).

Sometimes villains are surprisingly likable (Gollum, for example), but sometimes they are just EVIL, and you HATE them, but you LOVE that you hate them, and sometimes you even root for them, even though you know it's wrong, wrong (tricksy! False!)! Sometimes I find myself wishing that Ursula had just smacked Ariel in the head with a giant tentacle. Ariel was annoying. (Also: Dear Ariel. If a man "falls in love" with you while you are INCAPABLE OF SPEECH, you have a problem. Sincerely, Me.)

The list goes on, really.

I think we like villains so much because they're fascinating. Most of us aren't running around murdering people, so we want to understand what kind of person does run around murdering people, and why, and what their lives are like. The best part of the new Star Wars movies (...and there aren't many good parts to choose from) is that they show us how Anakin got warped and twisted into Darth Vader. Is he likable? Um, not really. Even before he's evil, he's a whiny toolbox. But did I think "that was AWESOME" when he stalks out of the Jedi temple with a red light saber, having just killed a bunch of kids? Yes. And not because I am completely soulless. (Really. I swear.) Because I am fascinated.

So my conclusion is this: you do have to pay attention to likability. Likable characters can go a long way. But I think it's more important that characters are fascinating. Complicated. Believable.

How important is likability for you?


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