With spoilers for: The Dark Knight
A few weeks ago, I did a short piece on Jesse Pinkman and concluded that there are many, often conflicting, ways of making a character likeable. Today, I just want to hit that point home a bit, by turning your attention to antagonists – and how they often come with characteristics which make us support them more than we probably should.
You know my powers, my dear Watson, and yet at the end of three months I was forced to confess that I had at last met an antagonist who was my intellectual equal. My horror at his crimes was lost in my admiration of his skill.
This quote follows Sherlock Holmes’ first encounter with Moriarty, and I love it because I think it perfectly encapsulates how most of us react to a good villain. Antagonists are usually the main source of conflict in a story, so it seems to follow that they should be incredibly good at what they do – incredibly good at stopping the hero from achieving his goals. However, by making them this way, writers often endow them with a level of excellence, lacking in most of the other characters, including the hero.
A good example of this is the Unstoppable Evil archetype, home to characters such as the Salamanca twins from Breaking Bad. These are the two silent, almost mechanical cartel hitmen, barely with a moment on screen where they’re not shooting someone, beheading someone or trying to find means to facilitate either of those activities. Natural to their line of work, they don’t have much going for them on a moral level – and they aren’t exactly providing the comic relief either.
With spoilers for: Game of Thrones, Seasons 1-3; Gladiator
Spoilers for Season 4 hidden; no book spoilers
A few months ago, I wrote a short piece on Jesse Pinkman and asked the question: are there any characters you hate because of their childlike nature? One commenter referred me to Joffrey Baratheon from Game of Thrones – and, yeah, fair enough.
Joffrey’s basically Commodus without the murderous desire for love. Both are the cowardly sons of kings who never really cared for them; both have lives distorted by incest; both seize the throne dishonourably, killing the men who denied it from them.
He’s also, quite appropriately, one of the most despised characters in television history, which is intriguing when you consider how small his part is. (So far, he’s been in each season for less than half an hour – in fact, Season 4 has already given him the most screentime, despite the fact that he dies on the second episode.) So what is it about Joffrey that attracts so much hatred?
With spoilers for: Breaking Bad – Season 1, Episode 1
Jesse Pinkman is not a good guy.
Pretty obvious statement really. I mean, the guy comes from a comfortable, middle-class family, goes to a fairly good school and still ends up as a drug dealer with a drug addiction. He’s the worst kind of person. Bad by choice.
And yet I can’t help but not want to write that. There’s something about his character which is so likeable it pacifies the rational, judgemental part of my brain and makes me want the best for him, makes him one of the heroes. So why is he such a likeable character?
Everything about Jesse Pinkman shouts a kind of childish insolence. His clothes are gaudy and several sizes too big. He speaks in a slang vernacular, peppered with bitches and yos. He greets his elders with smart-ass adolescent backchat – which, naturally, lacks any real venom or sincerity, as it’s just a guise to hide his underlying vulnerability.
In fact, he comes across as being half his age a number of times, either through words (“cowhouse”, “the dude that sells Starbucks his beans”, always calling Walt “Mr White”) or by actions. You can take pretty much any screenshot of Jesse from the first three episodes and it’ll be there to emphasize his childlike nature.
This all goes to help us forgive Jesse for his shameful behaviour. We appreciate that he isn’t really a bad person, just ethically short-sighted – and this moral myopia may be corrected once he realises the full impact of his actions. His naivety, in a sense, promises moral development. I mean, the prodigal son didn’t return home only to start acting like a dick again, did he?
It could be that, or it could just be that we have a natural affection for kids, puppies, kittens and the people who remind us of them. I’d ask you: are there any characters you hate because of their immaturity? I can’t currently think of any, although I might turn to this question in another post.