Thursday, January 22, 2009

Hateful Characters You Can Love

By Nichole Giles

Have you ever come across a character who was so well rounded that you both loved him and hated him at the same time? So well developed and multifaceted that you could create a list, filling one side with his good qualities and one with the bad, and sometimes have the bad outweigh the good? And still, you love this character because there are so many layers to him.

I’ve seen a few movies lately. It’s funny, because I don’t often get to go to movies when they’re in the theater, and since the beginning of December I’ve seen several. A few I’ve really liked, and some were just okay. But there was one movie in particular, with a character so well fleshed out, that it has stuck in my head for days afterward. That happens to me sometimes. Usually, though, it’s a romance like, The Notebook, or While You Were Sleeping, or Shakespeare in Love. But this movie, Gran Torino, is about a prejudice, bitter, disrespectful old man who has some really big issues. But even as he grumped about things and calls his neighbors offensive names, his witty statements had me laughing out loud.

Before I go any farther, I’m going to warn you. This movie has a LOT of extremely bad language in it and for that earned an R rating. So, if you can’t tolerate language, I don’t recommend it. Also, because it deals with gangs, there is obviously some violence as well. But the storyline itself is extremely well written.

Without spoiling the story for people who might chose to see it, I’ll point out that everyone who knows Walt hates—or at least severely dislikes—him, including his own family members. He’s bitter and mean to everyone around him. Until one day he inadvertently helps his two young neighbor kids when a gang decides to target them. The funny part is he didn’t even mean to help. It was just one of those bitter old man quirks. The Hmong (Vietnamese) family—a good-hearted teenage girl in particular—take Walt under their collective wing, ignoring his insults and terrible attitude, and persist to soften him into friendship. And because he was so bitter and so alone, I enjoyed watching his journey toward caring about someone other than himself. That’s good writing.

What kind of talent does it take to create a character that we’re supposed to hate and make us love him? His own children detest him, his grandchildren have no respect or admiration for him, and his neighbors consider him a complete jerk. But the audience comes to love him. Not because he’s sweet and lovable, or because he changes a whole lot. He’s old enough to be pretty well set in his ways. But in the end, I loved Walt for what he had to deal with, and what he was willing to do to help those kids. In my mind, he became absolved for all his life’s mistakes by the love he showed for them.

The story felt real, and made me think. I love when that happens. It forces me to look at my characters and figure out their strengths and flaws. Are they three-dimensional or are they completely flat? Do they have faults and flaws and things they do wrong? And at the end of my story, will they have grown or learned something? I certainly hope so.

When you can take a detestable, undesirable character and force your audience to respect him, and even maybe love him a little, that’s good writing. I hope someday my audience will be able to say the same thing about my work. It would be the ultimate compliment.


Heather B. Moore said...

I think it's important to have your "bad" character sympathetic in some way. Even if they are bad to the core, there always has to be a motivation--and that's where we can usually relate to them. Great thoughts!

Nichole Giles said...

Thanks, Heather! I agree with you. Most people love characters they can also hate. It just makes the story richer.


Dan and Wendy said...

I also like putting fundamental flaws into my protagonists. I like heroes that are tragically flawed. They constantly make mistakes that force you to scratch your head, but you know that the person's heart is in the right place and so you love them anyway.

Nichole Giles said...

Another good point, Dan. I think it's good to learn from reading other books and watching movies. Seeing how other writers portray their characters is a great experience for all of us.


Darvell Hunt said...

I LOVE to HATE Professor Umbridge from Harry Potter. She is my all-time favorite Harry Potter character. She's just so mean and heartless, but a loving grandmothery type. That's just great.

I also love to hate Gilderoy Lockhart, who is so condescending, but without just cause. "Harry, Harry, Harry, tsk tsk."

Ah, the good ol' days of Harry Potter.


Nichole Giles said...

Good point, Darvell! I guess we all love to hate someone, huh?