(And as Will so famously said, thereby hangs a tale.)
Unpleasant characters don’t have to be villains, you know. They’re not always twirling their moustaches, laughing maniacally while placing bound damsels in distress on railway tracks… not unless you want to deal with unbearably hoary old clichés, anyway. Which, in this day and age, when jaded, world-weary readers/viewers seem more aware than ever of tropes, plot twists, and cliché, I advise strongly against. Because, really, unless we’re channelling some saccharine saintly type, we ALL have unpleasant sides, don’t we? Perhaps Even Me. (And frankly, even saccharine saintly types can be quite unpleasant as they sanctimoniously proceed through life, reminding the rest of us, overtly or covertly, how woefully imperfect we truly are.)
Most unpleasant characters are, I think, that way primarily because of what SF author Robert Heinlein light-heartedly but accurately referred to as life’s ‘Surprise Party and Practical Jokes Department’ i.e., the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ life routinely chucks at us tends to have a marked effect on our dispositions, outlooks, and actions. (Yeah, I know all about the ‘nature vs. nurture’ debate. While people can be jerks from day one, I think what goes on in and during their lives has a greater impact.)
Even protagonists can be UUTs (Understandably Unpleasant Types --- pronounced oot, I’ve officially decided). Personally, I don’t recommend making a protagonist an UUT… it’s important for readers to be able to like and relate to protagonists, and many of us, I think, at least labour under the delusion we’re nice people more or less all the time. (That’s called rationalization, folks, and humans are mostly past masters of rationalization.) But I can think of at least two protagonists who are UUTs. Are they effective? Well, Vox Populi, Vox Dei, I say… AKA The Reader Must Decide:
Edmund Pevensie is one of four sibling protagonists in C.S. Lewis’ classic children’s fantasy The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe from the Chronicles of Narnia series, and Edmund is certainly an UUT. He’s angry, mouthy, rebellious --- quite a jerk, in sum --- which is, actually, played up more in the stunningly gorgeous 2005 film version. In fact, we can go further than mere jerk, because he betrays his three siblings and quite literally goes over to the Dark Side, at least for a while, before eventually, smartening up and getting redemption. (To be fair, he doesn’t initially understand the precise nature of the deal he’s making with the White Witch.)
So what is it making Edmund understandably unpleasant? Well, to start with, there’s a war on --- the Second World War, and he and his siblings are evacuated out of a London being bombed nightly by the Luftwaffe. So… dislocation, separation from parental unit, relocation to an unknown environment not particularly conducive to children… check, check, check. Let’s also not forget he’s the third-born of four children. Now, as a first-born myself (I know… you’d never be able to tell), I can understand only intellectually what it would be like to be in the middle of the pack --- not the oldest/bossy star first child, not the youngest and ‘cute baby’ to be spoiled, just part of the Great Unwashed scrabbling for attention in the middle --- but I know there’s a great deal of literature out there discussing the psychological millstones of being a middle child. And once you get started on a certain path, even when you realize it’s heading off a cliff, a great many of us find it hard to swallow our pride and admit our mistake.
My second UUT of the day is (perhaps more controversially, although I’ll go with Kingsley Amis on this one --- he said if you can’t annoy someone, what’s the point of writing?) …Katniss Everdeen, of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. I need to be honest up-front: I don’t like Katniss very much. I find her sullen, apathetic, and totally unwilling to accept the role that’s (admittedly) thrust upon her… right up to the end of the entire tale. She doesn’t want to take up any kind of leadership function, and allows herself to be manipulated by forces around her. Now, before you unleash all kinds of invective about how wrong I am and how Katniss is the greatest thing since sliced bread and how dare I take this attitude… sure, you’re entitled to your opinion… as am I. How is she different from Edmund? you ask. Well, Katniss is the sole protagonist, not one of four, and more importantly, unlike Edmund, she doesn’t undergo any great character epiphany by story’s end.
Again, to be fair (the ‘understandably’ U in our acronym), Katniss never asked for any of it. She didn’t want her sister selected as tribute; she didn’t want to have to volunteer in her place; she didn’t want to be forced to kill others in a bread-and-circuses gladiatorial arena on live TV; and she certainly didn’t want to become the face of an entire rebellion. I get that. Most of us wouldn’t want any of it, either. In spite of our frequently laughable romantic notions about ourselves, most of us just want to be allowed to quietly live our lives in peace and plenty. But… when you are The Protagonist… when greatness is thrust upon you… well, as a reader, I want a little more can-do attitude and a little less pouty teenage angst. You know, more along the lines of a Frodo Baggins, whose basic response on learning he’s been handed the Supreme Booby Prize i.e. a one-way suicide jaunt to Mordor AKA Hell on Middle Earth, is, “Well, sh*t, guys. (Pause.) Haven’t got a clue how to get there. But… (longer pause) … okay, I’ll do it. ‘Cause it’s gotta get done.” Yeah, that’s the attitude I want.
So suck it up, Katniss; you’re the Katalyst.
(Sorry. Awful pun. I’ll show myself out now.)