by Diana Black
The Perfectly Flawed Character – why we love them so
As writers we’re complicated beasties – we bring to the table not only immense creativity but attributes that sometimes work against us – empathy and compassion. The aforementioned may help us enliven a lovable hero who’s having a shit of a time, but in the end saves the day – what’s not to love about them?
But what about the character we have to create and live with – over the life of the series, who happens to be supremely flawed? The one that’s chronically: selfish, evil, cruel, violent, ditzy, stupid/dumb, greedy, petulant, superficial and/or supercilious, the loser of all losers, manipulative, sluttish, smug, murderous, arrogant, delusional, irritating beyond belief, emotionally clueless or a hopeless romantic etc.
What’s going on when we write them to be one or a combination of the aforementioned, especially the really, really diabolical ones, only to have the schmuck endear him/herself to the point where they end up over the length of a series, being… well… not nearly so bad?
For these professional manipulators, we have to struggle to maintain their original persona. And I am not talking about character growth here; these guys/gals may have got smarter or more inept at doing whatever the hell they do, but essentially their ‘spots’ have remained the same configuration.
Why do we have such a hard time with these characters? May I venture to say that it’s because we’ve allowed a vestige – no matter how small, of their humanity to peep through their insidious armor; provided of course we’ve written them to be human; albeit bad and/or naughty ones.
Empathy and compassion, on behalf of the writer – take a bow. It’s tough to “stay on target” because we’re human and part of that ‘package deal’ is kindness and compassion. The same reason a good cop’s success rate (shoot to kill) is never as high as the mass murderer – the former cares, the latter has ceased to be human and perceives his/her victims as dehumanized targets.
Looking back over the years or the new programs already with us or those looming on the horizon, the EMS is littered with ‘perfectly-flawed characters’. Our esteemed Larry Brody notes that the viewer (and the writer/s who creates them) often adores these characters. However, with respect, I would add there are degrees, if not dimensions, to that ‘affection’ – those we love to hate, those we love to be repulsed and disgusted by – violent and/or irritating etc. – so much so we come back for more voyeuristic/masochistic pleasure.
There’s the pathetic but lovable character that is a master at playing the sympathy card – we find ourselves caring about them so much we want to shake them till their brain rattles but those puppy-dog eyes get us every time. Alternatively, the ones we simply have ‘the hots’ for no matter how bad such a fantastical choice they represent.
The human, let alone the human writer, is a peculiar animal. Not only do we ‘love’ these characters – almost exclusively in relation to the ensemble, but we remember them long after the series finale. Why?
Perhaps it’s because they never truly ‘grow’ over the life of their respective television series and in spite of their flaws they prevail, which by proxy, gives us license to do the same – rather infantile of both of us. ‘Growth’ requires serious effort, yet we wish to prevail despite our faults.
There is of course a commercial reason why ‘the suits’ don’t want nothing to do with character ‘growth’. New voyeurs can be enthralled anywhere and at anytime over the life of the series. However, for the viewer, perhaps it’s something else.
As so-called, ‘intelligent’ animals, we enjoy intellectual and emotional surprise – it delights us. But our animal instinct/s also get off on predictability; it endows us with some measure of ‘power’ real or imagined, over our environment. Try not taking the regular walk with beloved canine at the predestined time – you’ll experience first-hand, the frustration associated with unpredictability and we’re not really any different.
P.S.: The really horrible, 1-D character /s without humanity, are they remembered? Nup.