You know the ones: characters who so get under your skin that you can’t stop watching week after week, characters who get talked about at the office the next day, characters so brazenly themselves that you can’t believe they just did that? But they did. How about a few examples to paint the picture?
- Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series
- Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock
- Jenny Schecter on The L Word
- Simon Cowell as himself on American Idol
Could it be that that because there’s something familiar and real about each of these characters, that they could be someone you know or have been elbowed by in the checkout line? Could it also be that there’s something hyper-real about them in the ways that they say and do the things that most of us suppress out of everyday decency? They break our social norms and we secretly (or possibly unconsciously) admire them for it. They tell off the hiney-pincher in a spectacularly clever way. They grab for themselves the prize they desire most dearly without regard for anyone else involved. Yet, when confronted by someone they trust about their hurtful behavior, these characters usually deny malicious intent.
That they truly and deeply believe that they are acting innocently, doing what’s right, or worse, doing what’s best for someone else, might just be these characters’ magic. Note that great antagonists share this self-centered view but not every character we love to hate is out to bring the hero down.
We out-and-out hate the bad guy who’s wheeling through town, taking it all for himself. That’s generally a given. But add a genuine desire to please or to do the right thing for a compelling reason — a reason with which any good-hearted, well-meaning person can identify — and you’ve got a winner. It’s more than a heart of gold; it’s a heart of gold all spiked through with a single-minded and misguided self-absorption that smashes any good intentions into oblivion.
Creating these multi-faceted characters can be a great challenge and a great joy. Certainly, to achieve their complex nature on the page is a tremendous feat. When you get there, you’ve juggled your audience’s emotions and toyed with their affections. You’ve pulled them in, pushed them away, then drawn them back again. Seems not unlike a love affair, no? Perhaps this is why these characters’ popularity rises so quickly and endures in our hearts for so long.