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The Unlikable Good Guy

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Jan. 23, 2021
likes!



Some characters are the heroes.

Some characters are the villains.

And some characters are just punchable. But not actually bad, or even antagonists- though sometimes they can be towards specific characters rather than the general plot goals.

Every time this type of character opens their mouth to say something, our hand curls in a fist or we groan, ready to scorn or scoff at him/her. Every time something happens to them, we cheer.

There are two reasons for this:

Either the effect is unintentional, and unfortunately the result of bad writing, or it's absolutely intentional, and the irritation stems from the interaction this character has with the protagonist or other characters we, as the audience, do like.

When it's unintentional, the character usually has no friction with the other ones in the story's cast. Jar Jar Binks, for example, only received amusement at his antics and was regarded as a valuable member of whatever group he was part of in Star Wars, but his effect on the audience is at least incendiary.

That happens because the punchable character breaks up the flow of the story, or the flow of interaction among the other characters, or his/her behavior or general role in the story is not only redundant but also undermining: he/she is the token comic relief and their only personality trait is to crack jokes. Or he/she is the ‘naive’ character and only knows how to ask questions, often too infantile or simple the answer to which the audience already knows. Or they are the ‘carry along’ character who is portrayed as a ‘strong independent one’ when in reality they only come across as ungrateful, troublesome, and rude. Or, they only cause trouble or put the other characters in danger, serving as a plot device generator but in the same time making the audience wonder why the others don't just ditch this character.

If the effect is intentional, it's usually not meant to last long.

The irritating character simply starts off as such as their baseline for their development arc: maybe they are a problem child that is going to slowly warm up to the other cast, and gradually change behaviors. Maybe they are someone experiencing trauma, and will come around through the healing power of support and acceptance. Or maybe they do have a nasty personality, but actively decide to work on it for one reason or another as the story progresses.

The difference is that when the effect is intentional, the other characters in the cast reflect it. They are irritated by the irritable character, need to work on tolerating them, or have to have motivation for putting up with them. The rest of the cast's emotions will coincide with the audience's emotions, which creates stronger engagement.

Have you ever written an unlikable good guy/gal?

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comment

anonymous?

Kou the Mad at 1:37AM, Jan. 24, 2021

Darth Jar Jar: My facade was too convincing it would seem. 'Evil Laugh'

bravo1102 at 1:35AM, Jan. 24, 2021

Having known so many irritating folks being in retail for so long, and being a pretty patient and tolerant person a lot of irritating characters don't bother me. What I don't like is when others who are supposedly their friends and mentors don't take them to task for it. If characters have really annoying traits at one point or another those traits and habits should come back and bite them in the bun. Behavior should have consequences.

hushicho at 3:28PM, Jan. 23, 2021

Oh my god, there are so many insufferable good guys. As marcorossi mentioned, Harry really becomes insufferable by the end of the series, but that's also due to poor writing on the part of the author. But there are so many comparably awful protagonists we're clearly supposed to find much more compelling and sympathetic than they are. Naruto comes to mind, as does Luffy. But neither is treated particularly well by even their own story! It's like the author knows they're awful, but the insufferable part is that the characters never appreciably or meaningfully change into better people, everyone around them suffers, though!

marcorossi at 5:45AM, Jan. 23, 2021

I think that in most stories there is a dramatic tension between "good" behaviours and "bad" behaviours, with the hero of the story being more or less in the middle (because "bad" behaviours only make sense if these are things we also are at least tempted to do). The unlikable good guy is someone who checks all the dots for the "good" behaviours, so according to the author he is "good", but comes off as unathentic, fake, or a break of the fourth wall that sounds too overtly preachy. In the department of actually good characters that rubbed me the wrong way, I can say that I always wanted to punch Harry Potter in the face, because his world totally turns around him but he still feels he is a poor victim: but I was already at university when I watched my first HP movie, for a kid the age HP was targeted to Harry probably seems believable.

usedbooks at 4:48AM, Jan. 23, 2021

Shut up, Wesley.

KAM at 3:38AM, Jan. 23, 2021

An unlikable good guy? Ohhhhhhh, yeahhhhhh... Years ago I was part of a round robin storytelling group called The League of Intergalactic Cosmic Champions and one guy I created/wrote was an alien hero raised by a race of conquerors that he had rebelled against, but interacting pleasantly with people was not his strong suit and I don't think any of the other writers liked him.


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