They don’t all have to be heroes, but…
So one of the new shows I’m watching this year is a very soap opera-ish murder mystery that has a season-long story arc. And despite the heavy use of flashbacks, I enjoyed the premiere, so I let my Tivo keep recording it, but I didn’t watch the next several of episodes because I was busy, and I devoted what TV time I had to other shows. But I kept reading good things about the show from people I like.
I squeezed the second episode into my schedule, and I found the characters and the story still engaging, despite some quibbles with the cases-of-the-week that were being used as a means to propel the longer story and make the show appeal to people who might be less invested in big story arcs. But I didn’t watch the other episodes already on the TiVo right away.
Suddenly there seemed to be an explosion of people raving online about how much they liked where the show was going, so the next time I had a few hours, I got caught up. The story is still very intriguing, the dialog is snappy and believable, and the characters are getting fleshed out. The problem? I hate just about every one of them.
Just a handful of episodes into the first season, they have managed to make every character that is more than a walk-on extremely self-serving, detestable, or utterly loathsome.
To be fair, for decades it’s been the practice of soap opera-style shows to give every character major personality flaws and some sort of secret. But it’s a technique originally resorted to by writers who had to create episodes about the same cast of characters five times a week, fifty-two weeks a year, for dozens of years. Which means it can be most charitably described as an act of desperation.
As soon as one raises the question of likability in literary circles, someone will present the counter-argument that characters who are perfect in every way—always cheerful, and always lovable—are unrealistic and boring. The sort of reader or viewer who wants characters to be likable is characterized as unsophisticated, vapid, or even mentally deficient. But the only mental deficiency in question here is the sort of person who thinks the only alternative to making every character wholly repulsive is for characters to be unbelievably good.
In fact there is a wide spectrum between entirely abhorrent and absolutely flawless. In other words, not every character has to be a hero, but if the spotlessly pure character is unrealistic and boring, so are the characters who lack any redeeming qualities whatsoever.
Nobody is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone lets their worse instincts get the better of them sometimes. Everyone has some personality quirk or habit that at the very least annoys someone else. Every person has done something in their life of which they ought to be embarrassed or ashamed. I understand all of that, and I get that sometimes you want to tell a story about the things we hope people will regret later. I do.
Lord knows I love a good villain, and my protagonists are never what anyone would call perfect people, but at a minimum characters need to be relatable. I don’t want to despise, pity, or disdain every single character. Give me something to admire about at least one of the characters. Give me a hint that some of them might be redeemable.
Give me someone to root for.