A funny thing, this Twitter thing. Funny how people take to using 140 characters or less to settle a beef between themselves. This week in Needless and Immature Reactions via Twitter comes surprisingly from Judd Apatow, who took exception to Touré, the well-known critic and essayist, slamming his recent film, This is 40.
Touré tweeted, “Warning: ‘This Is 40′ is a horrible mess with a meandering plot and few laughs and characters who are hard to like. What happened?” Apatow responded with a personal cheap shot, that, frankly, isn’t worth reprinting here. It bothered me that Apatow, who I find to be a very creative filmmaker, would respond so childishly to a valid criticism. I saw This is 40 last weekend. I actually enjoyed it, although I found it about 30 minutes too long. What Touré found to be a weakness, I found it a strength: This is 40 is about the realization that life is full of ugly truths we’re too often ill-prepared to face up to. And we deal with those realizations in shocking ways. In other words, there was much I could related to the characters Paul Rudd (Pete) and Leslie Mann (Debbie) portrayed. As they approached their mid-lives, it dawns on them that their lives are a mess, their marriage isn’t as stable as they’d imagined (it never was, really), yet despite all the meandering, it’s those complications and messes that we learn to embrace from our spouses in order to see our marriages and our families survive and thrive. True, Apatow delivers this message in a crude and often heavy-handed fashion, but it works, and it is funny.
What struck me most about Touré’s tweet was the “characters that are hard to like” comment. I ask, since when is it a requirement that characters are supposed to be likable, or easy to like?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read one piece of criticism, whether it’s a review in the New York Times or a fiction critique workshop that singles out a lead character for being “hard to like.”
I agree with Touré that Pete and Debbie are hard to like, but that doesn’t make their characters any less engaging or compelling. I doubt Touré was trying to paint Pete and Debbie’s unlikability as a sign of their characters being weakly written. Fiction is rife with characters that are, by design, “hard to like,” but no less compelling.
Literature is rife with them: Raskolnikov. Anna Karenina. Ignatius J. Reilly. Holden Caulfield. When I read Pride and Prejudice, I found Elizabeth Benett so fucking irritating, yet she compelled the shit out of me. She was pretty hard to like, but Jane Austen wrote her so well, so full of brio and drama that it was hard to ignore her, despite her faults.
The cinema as well: Rick Blaine. Michael Corleone. Travis Bickle. Hannibal Lecter. Hell, Han Solo can be pretty hard to like at times. Admit it.
Me, personally, I tend to write characters with deep flaws, and often times my characters can be unlikable. The main character in my work-in-progress is, frankly, an asshole. Sure, he’s got that lovable asshole quality that allows him to get away with one fuck-up after another, but he’s an asshole nonetheless. There are things he does that makes him hard to like.
There’s a notion in fiction writing that an unlikable character can be made likable through a single redeeming act. I had this discussion years ago with an editor who was running a fiction writing workshop, years ago. She helped me piece together a short story about a corporate drone who had stripped his own personal identity away for the sake of careerism, to the point that in spite of being caught in a life-changing situation, he refuses to change anything about himself in the end. She argued he must change, or else you lose the reader. Why make the reader invest so much in a character that’s hard to like when there’s no payoff.
I countered with John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. Rabbit Angstrom is a middle-aged jerk caught forever in arrested development, and when his life changes, does he change inside? No. He only gets worse. He runs.
I won that debate. The story’s ending remained as I’d wanted it.
I don’t ascribe to the theory that unlikable characters have to find some sort of redemption. Pete and Debbie don’t redeem themselves to each other at the end of This is 40. They realize that despite their flaws, however deep and however much those flaws make them want to contemplate murdering one another, they can’t imagine their world without one another. This isn’t redemption, it’s acceptance.
Likability is overrated, I say. What I want are characters that are real. Atticus Finch may be the epitome of the wholesomeness of remaining true to your values and doing what is right in the face of injustice. He could have been a real Mary Sue, but Harper Lee never made him so; Finch was stubborn, and quick to temper, but he was real. Captain Ahab may be the epitome of pure insanity in the face of blinding terror, but he was never a one-dimensional character, a dull villain. Melville made him an unhinged yet compelling villain for the ages. He made him real.
(And the fact that Gregory Peck played both Atticus Finch and Captain Ahab on the silver screen isn’t lost on me right now)
So you can have your characters that are easy to like. Me, make them hard to like, as long as there’s a method to their unlikability. Besides, they’re easier to write. Trust me on this.