Friday, January 23, 2015

What Makes a Likable Character?

In a lot of my reviews – and a lot of reviews in general – there's a certain emphasis placed on whether or not a character is likable. As relating to a character is often extremely important in how much a certain movie or TV show resonates with you, the concept isn't exactly one that can be brushed over lightly. But what makes a character likable? What draws us back time and time again to characters that, in all actuality, are just figments of someone else's imagination?

Well, I think it's simply the level to which said characters acts like a real human being. This is a product of both the writing and the actor's performance – a sort of double-team that comes together and creates a great character. A great writer can shade and detail a character all day and night and overcome a weak acting performance. And vice versa – a mediocre writer may not craft the best character, but a great actor can really bring out the best. And in both scenarios it may not work out because of one or the others' shortcomings.

The real treat is when you get a great actor AND a great written character. That's the golden prize at the bottom of the proverbial cereal box.

Hmm, nope, there was no prize in this one...

I think a lot of people define a realistic, likable character with one that fits their own morals and values – one that is an upstanding person morally, socially, etc. who doesn't do anything wrong and doesn't make mistakes. Call it a Superman complex – they want a character with as few flaws as possible. After all, what is there NOT to like about an upstanding, nice person?

That's fine. I don't have a problem with that definition – after all, everyone's got different standards and qualities that appeal to them. However, it does sort of bother me when I see certain characters lambasted for their flaws as if those doing the lambasting have never made mistakes. I'm of course talking about Piper Chapman from Orange is the New Black and Skyler White from Breaking Bad.


I've just seen endless bitching and moaning about how unlikable and awful these characters are. I dunno, that's your prerogative – I find them both to be wonderful to watch and great additions to their shows.

Piper is a rich, preppy white girl. That's basically the core of her character. She's melodramatic, kind of selfish and often given to pretentious speeches and moralizing. That's her character. Haven't you known people like that in real life? I have. She may not be someone you want to date or hang out with, but I just don't think that's a prerequisite to a likable character. It's certainly not a prerequisite to a well-written one, I can tell you that much. I guess some people really just hate watching characters they find annoying, but I think it'd be boring if every character was someone I found completely in-line with my own views and personality.

While she has flaws and shortcomings, the difference between this and some lesser shows and movies is simple – the show actually accentuates those shortcomings and uses them for character development. There's a lot of playing around in Orange is the New Black with this – several characters will talk to each other about how awful she is and then the viewer sort of thinks “hey, they have a point; she WAS wrong there.” But the brilliance of the show is when they swing you back around to her side later. Nobody is fully wrong and nobody is fully right in every situation. I've spoken about this in another blog post in more detail, but I think the show does a great job at showing their characters' flaws in equal proportions.

Plus, the brilliant performance by Taylor Schilling just works on so many levels. She's a really great actress and communicates a kind of frailty combined with naivete that manages to bounce off the hardness of prison life quite well. Great, great stuff.

Breaking Bad is even more of a controversial one, as Skyler White received so much hate throughout almost all of this show. Actress Anna Gunn – who is brilliant and was a great asset to the show – actually received threats of physical violence over it, which is so insane that I don't even have words to describe how insane it is.

Needless to say, if you wanted to see Skyler act differently than she did on Breaking Bad, you missed the point of the show.

I'll fill in the basics for those who never saw it – basically she's protagonist Walt's wife, who remains oblivious at first about his illicit drug making activities. She figures it out fairly quickly, though, and then proceeds to try and get him out of her life for good, then later help him for her own financial gain and family necessity, and so on – the relationship is quite complex and multi-faceted. Which is why it's a shame when people boil it down to 'she's a nag who just doesn't understand what Walt is doing.'

It's bullshit, really. This is a show full of drug dealers, criminals and all other sorts of miscreants and crooks, and somehow the one most hated character is the main character's wife who reacts as any sane person would upon finding out their spouse was making drugs. Yes, he said he was doing it for his family – no, that wasn't the whole truth and no, that doesn't excuse what he was doing. You might say 'oh, well if MY husband or wife was doing that, I'D understand'...well, it's easy to say such things from an armchair when it isn't happening to you.

I guess I just don't get what people want from this character. Do they want her to act like a completely submissive wallflower of a wife, never questioning Walt's motives and never challenging him? Would that have added more drama instead of taking away from the show? I've thought about this more than I should have, and really I just can't come up with any alternatives. You don't like the character; okay. How should she have acted instead? What would you have written into the show differently? I'd actually really like to hear different opinions here that do more than just bash the character.

Everything she does is realistic. The character is portrayed as a scared housewife trying to protect her family. I guess people just find her mannerisms annoying or the way she talks, or something like that – but is that really a reason to hate a character so thoroughly? I don't know. Anna Gunn is a stellar actress and portrays the character as well as any of the others are portrayed. I wouldn't even dream of trading her role for anything else in the show.

Both of these characters are flawed, sure – nobody's saying they're perfect, and it wouldn't be realistic if they were. However, as I said – the difference is that they're written so that the story works with their flaws, rather than ignoring them. Certainly this is different from movies like Hollow Man, in which the main character just unrepentantly acts like a dick to people and, surprise, is the main villain and dies at the end. Where's the drama? It's exactly what you'd expect to happen to that character, and what you want to see happen. There's zero complexity.

It just comes down to the level of writing you put in, at the end of the day. If your script has a character acting in shitty, awful ways and the movie doesn't try and address that at all – whether condoning or satirizing or punishing them for it – then your script comes off as hackneyed and will turn people off.

You can have characters selling drugs, killing people or lying to their loved ones, and if you write it correctly, then the audience will still want to see what happens to them and may even root for them in some cases - see Walter White from the aforementioned Breaking Bad for the most popular recent example.


But if you just make them do horrible things for no reason, for no consequence or dramatic purpose? Well, nobody really wants to see that.

Hell, even a generic Superman-style boy-scout character can be good. Just look at Rick Grimes from the Walking Dead!


He's a good old country-boy sheriff from a small town thrust in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. As is expected in this kind of story, he becomes the leader. And he's another example of an unfairly maligned character. People went on and on back in the early seasons of the show about how bland and boring the guy was, but I don't see it. I think people as good-natured and somewhat naive as him can be realistic, and in a zombie apocalypse, his sort of old-world views contrasted brilliantly with the hard reality around him.

His constantly trying to help individual people and doing what he considered right, even when it seemed foolhardy to everyone around him, was a big part of the appeal of the early seasons. Watching him grow into the brutal, world-weary leader he is in the new season is the definition of character development. It's really well done.

So really, there are lots of ways to make likable characters. You'll make your own definition and maybe disagree with me on some of these points. And that's good – it's good to have that kind of discourse. Go free my children and discuss! Unless you don't agree with me, in which case I will simply ignore you.

Images copyright of their original owners; I own none of them.