Sometimes, you don’t want a character who’s kind and gentle to those around them. You want a character with attitude, someone who speaks their mind at all times and doesn’t mind stepping on other people’s toes. A real jerkass, as it were. That’s what we’re talking about today because oh boy do writers love to get this wrong. We talk about when it’s appropriate for characters to be a jerkass, when it isn’t, and the damage that can happen when stories get it wrong. Plus, the Wesley discourse you’ve all been waiting for!
Generously transcribed by Suzanne. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Chris: All right, pop quiz. What is the name of this podcast? Oren you go first.
Oren: I didn’t study. [Laughter] I would like to do over, please.
Chris: What? Is it mean for me to spring a pop quiz on you?
Wes: It feels mean.
Oren: Pretty sure Wes knows the answer though, I’ll just copy off him.
Chris: Oh, just copy? But maybe that makes you the mean person. Maybe now you’re the jerkass because you’re copying off of other people’s work.
Oren: I’m a rebel. Tough and cool. I wear a baseball cap backwards and sunglasses regardless of the time of day. [Laughter] Or whether I’m inside or outside.
Chris: Well, I’m pretty sure Wes knows the answer to this question.
Wes: Yes, I do. But I don’t want to tell Oren.[Laughter]
Chris: Well, maybe it’ll just be forever unknown. It’s the unnameable podcast. Nobody wanted to take my pop quiz ‘cause I was a jerk about it.
Wes: This is the reveal that we’re all just a bunch of jerkasses.
Chris: So, welcome to “Podcast.” My name is Chris and with me is…
Chris: And today we’re talking about jerkass characters.
Oren: It’s probably our best opening bit, at least. I think we can just… if we call the podcast here… it can only go downhill, is all I’m saying.[Laughter]
Chris: So first of all, why jerkass characters? Why do we make them? Because they are pretty commonly needed. But depending on what reason you have for making them, there are some more or less problems with doing it. So first, obviously, minor antagonists, right? The annoying rival for instance, would be a jerkass character. Friction between protagonists. This is the thing where a lot of Star Trek episodes really want there to be an argument between the crew and we need to have somebody kind of be a jerk in order for that argument to start. People don’t actually have to be jerks for arguments to start, but storytellers are really bad at coming up with reasons for characters to fight where both sides are reasonable.
Oren: I’m always telling people to use their material conditions, but they’re all just like, what if one of them was a jerk instead? It’s like, well, do what you want, man. It’s your story.
Chris: Yeah. I think we also get weird things because storytellers are really afraid of neutral arguments because they want to make sure their protagonist always looks good.
Chris: Can be the other reason: Hottie love interest. The jerkass love interest is very popular, much to the chagrin of many people, but they can be done well. In addition to being done poorly.
Oren: Yeah. It’s a big risk, but it can work.
Chris: And then there are a surprising number of storytellers who want their main character to just be a surprisingly terrible person. For instance, last week we were just talking about the Green Knight.
Oren: People have bad ideas all the time, is what I’m saying.
Chris: But there are different levels of flawed main characters. Some of them are kind of borderline as to whether they’re jerkass. Then there’s the question of what is the intention there, which can be different. Maybe they weren’t supposed to be jerkass. In any case, it’s worth talking about it because a lot of people make mistakes with jerkass characters and they are often really useful, or we often want them for various reasons.
Oren: Right. And the biggest source of mistakes, at least when it comes to your protagonist, is simply that a lot of people do these things because they’ve been told they shouldn’t. I’ve been through that phase. I went through that phase myself where I rebelled against all the advice that I’d gotten. And I was like, well, actually, I’m gonna make my character a horrible person, because you all said he should be a good person. But I’ll make him bad and that’ll show you. That seems to be the motivation for a lot of writers who do this.
Chris: Yeah. Honestly with the Green Knight, it really feels like the filmmaker was like, Hey, I’m going to stick it to this 14th century anonymous author by making this super cool Gawain into pathetic and a bad person in every way. Slick. That feels kind of immature. But there are also in other circles a lot of veneration of character flaws. Right? Where character flaws are so deep and they make for real art or what have you. Just a lot of, in some writing circles, a lot of focus on character flaws to the point where writers are trying to make their work serious. They focus on the flaws a lot and don’t think about other parts of the character.
Oren: There is definitely an idea that characters need to have flaws when what they actually need is a balance of candy and spinach. Flaws are one place that spinach can come from, but they are certainly not the only place. People tend to overuse flaws because they have misidentified what it is a character needs.
Wes: And isn’t it an important thing about a jerkass character… I wouldn’t think of a jerkass character as being a flaw. I mean, they’re flawed, sure, but not in that sense because the jerkasses get comeuppance generally. A flawed character does but not in the same way. We watch these jerkass characters and we’re like, oh man, you’re going to get it. Your time is coming. Maybe it’s enjoyable waiting for that. But with a protagonist that’s just kind of flawed, you’re like, oh, come on, you’re better than that.
Chris: Right. But there are a lot of storytellers who are trying to make a flawed protagonist, and a lot of times it’s for character arc, right? Character arcs are valuable. I think most novels should have a good character arc for the main character. And a lot of times that means starting with a flaw so that they can overcome that flaw, which is why they’re useful. But if you focus so much on the flaw that you don’t think about the rest of the character, the character is all flaw, a lot of times they end up coming off jerkass. And the storyteller doesn’t understand why don’t other people inherently love my character and see past their flaws. Well, you depicted a character that was basically only flaw, and you didn’t give us any reason to care about this person. That’s how you get jerkass protagonists.
Some people do intentionally make their protagonists this way. They like this empowerment aspect of the jerkass-ness. If my character is an asshole that just feels kind of empowering, but then this person needs to be humbled a little bit and learn and grow is their intent. So certainly there’s a lot of liabilities with creating a jerkass main character. It can be done well, but people come from a lot of different places.
So let’s talk about common issues. One, the jerkass is just outright abusive. Storytellers slather on the emotional stuff on this story too thick in order to try to provoke a reaction from the audience. Definitely a lot of people have to learn to make less mean more. Right? What matters is its relevance to the story, as opposed to feeling like it’s icing or window dressing or grimdark sauce, as I call it, where we just have terrible things happening everywhere, but none of it matters.
Oren: Or if it’s a character who is a jerk as part of some empowerment scenario fantasy, then you can end up with an author who doesn’t recognize that this character is the one at fault. That happens with the character ART in the Murderbot Diaries, which I love. I’m a big fan of the Murderbot Diaries. ART is clearly supposed to be an asshole. ART’s name literally stands for Asshole Research Transport. So clearly ART is supposed to be a jerkass, but there are sequences where ART acts super entitled. In one sequence ART nearly gets Murderbot and all of Murderbot’s humans killed as a way to benefit ART and ART’s humans. And then later when Murderbot is mad, ART and also the story act like Murderbot is the unreasonable one for being mad. You can clearly see that the author likes this ART character too much and doesn’t realize that the things they’ve done are actually bad and not just funny and endearing abrasiveness.
Chris: This is a really common problem with characters that are jerks. If the character A) faces consequences for being a jerk and B) realizes that they were a jerk and works on becoming better, it’s actually really easy for audiences to forgive them generally. Unless they’ve crossed the moral event horizon. There’s tons of jerks where the storyteller almost liked them for being a jerk and didn’t actually want to address that seriously in any way. ART would be one instance. It feels like if they’re not given an appropriate level of consequences, it feels like an endorsement of their behavior. So ART gets a slap on the wrist. Right? There’s an argument between ART and Murderbot. ART had reasons for doing what it did, but it went too far. Everybody’s putting pressure on Murderbot to forgive it much too soon. So it ends up feeling like an endorsement or, you know, we’re just gonna let ART off the hook for that.
Evil Georgiou in Discovery: So this is, again, an example of a character that is just outright abusive since she basically goes around inflicting psychological violence. Right? Where she’s trying to tear people down who already have trouble with confidence. And then at the end, we have this weird sequence where she’s about to leave to be on her own show, unfortunately. And everybody’s just like, oh, we had great times. I learned things from you! The people that she was abusing are saying these things and it’s like, whoa! We’re acting like she was just kind of rude sometimes, right? Where she’s deliberately trying to find people’s emotional weak points and hit them as hard as she can.
We also watched The Vast of Night recently, where there is this guy who was one of the two main characters and he’s a jerk. And the other main character recognizes he’s a jerk and gets mad at him, but he doesn’t actually grow during the story. It’s just a thing that happens. So it also feels like, oh, he’s a jerk and that’s not good, but you know, he doesn’t need to be changed or be held responsible in a serious way. What are you going to do? That’s how it comes off.
It’s a lot easier for people to deal with a jerk character they don’t like if there are actual consequences that match what they were doing, and they learn and grow, and there’s a recognition. It’s a lot less frustrating.
Oren: Right. Usually it’s easier if it’s not the main character. One of the problems with The Vast of Night is that that character was one of the protagonists, right? We were supposed to sympathize with him and enjoy watching him go on this adventure. Whereas Georgiou is not the protagonist. Georgiou has to be way more extreme. If Georgiou was just a regular jerkass and not trying to do psychological abuse on other people, then that would be fine. Right? But because Georgiou was so extreme because everything has to be turned up to eleven, she crosses that line anyway, despite being a side character.
Another common problem is misplaced sympathy, or I should say, badly handled attempts to make a character more sympathetic, to make audiences like them after they’ve been a jerk for a while. This is one of the three things that Chris talks about in her article that makes characters likable. You’ve got selflessness, sympathy, and novelty. With sympathy, you make characters suffer from problems that are not their fault. A common problem is you will see characters reveal that they have a tragic backstory but it’s not really clear that they’re actually suffering from this problem, that this is actually an issue for them. A pretty clear example from that is a Harrow from Gideon The Ninth, who is just the worst to Gideon for most of the book. Then towards the end to make her seem more sympathetic, we reveal this tragic backstory that she has, where she’s the product of basically a mass murder experiment to create a super powerful necromancer. But then for the rest of the book, she continues to revel in these powers that she got because of those experiments. How bad do you really feel about that, Harrow?
Chris: Right. The tragic thing happened to other people, not to Harrow. There were other things that she might reasonably feel bad about, but we’ve never seen her actually suffer in the current timeline, the current story.
Chris: She doesn’t act like somebody who was undergoing that suffering. So…
Oren: She claims to feel really guilty. Right? She claims this is eating her up inside, which, okay, sure, that could be fine. But then later she’s like, aha! I knew I could do this difficult necromancy thing because I’m the best at necromancy that I got from all the children being murdered. Really? Hang on a minute. Hmm. Hang on.
Chris: Sympathy is also a good tool for redeeming a character who is a jerkass. It shouldn’t be used alone, though. It should be used with a character who also recognizes their problems and improves in some way. Sometimes they’re also like, here they’re sympathetic! Now, don’t we just forgive everything bad that they did? Well, are they going to actually make up for that? Actually do anything? But this is one of the reasons why having a character that faces consequences for being a jerkass, suffers through those consequences, and then works to be a better person, why that’s a good recipe for turning them around and getting the audience to like them better. It’s because we saw them suffer as a direct result. It was also a learning experience for them. So we have a little bit more sympathy, too, but it was meaningful sympathy.
Another one that’s really funny is people who are jerks for no good reason. In Star Trek, we call this the unreasonable alien of the week. Where we want to create conflict, so we make people just difficult, but they don’t have any actual reason to act that way. It’s like the episode in the Next Generation where Wesley accidentally runs through a fence and then they’re like, oh, he broke our one law. He has to die. Why would you have that rule?
Oren: It’s the only way to have the utopia of hot people, Chris. We can either have the modern dystopia or we can have hot people utopia, but you die if you walk through the grass at the wrong time of day. Those are your options.
Chris: I’ve definitely seen romances where a couple starts by just being mean to each other for no reason, because we’re trying to create some antagonistic chemistry, but they don’t have any reason to be jerks. And then it just goes away. So, if you want to create some antagonism, you want to do something like give them conflicting interests, right? Make them compete for something. Maybe they’re trying to get the same promotion, for instance, or the same last slice of pie, if they’re super competitive. Maybe one character got fired and the other character is their replacement, and so it’s believable that they might be frustrated and take out some of that frustration on the new person. That’s not a good thing to do, but it’s understandable. We can see why somebody would do that. Maybe they just have a professional disagreement where they have two different philosophies in regards to the profession and get into heated philosophical debates.
Oren: This is where I get back to me urging authors to use the characters’ material conditions to create these conflicts. That doesn’t mean that everyone is inherently good and only fights when it’s that or die. But it does mean that you can use their situation to show why they’re being a jerk. That way they won’t just come off as being weirdly and frustratingly unreasonable. If you have to explain why are these characters fighting with: well, one of them’s just a jerk, I can’t say that’s unreasonable, but it’s certainly not that interesting. That’s why, when I talk about how you could have fixed Enterprise, it’s to give the Vulcans and the humans something that they actually have a beef over, as opposed to where it is now where Archer and T’Pol just hate each other and Tripp gets in on it, too. Tripp also hates T’Pol for basically no reason. And T’Pol hates Archer and is really condescending to all the humans just ‘cause I guess she’s just a jerk and there’s just no reason for that. That’s how they create some conflict early in the show and it just makes everyone look bad.
Wes: The material component is interesting. I feel like you can do the same thing, too. You mentioned flaws earlier, but overly competitive is a good way to make someone a jerkass or overconfident is an easy way to make someone a jerkass, too, and just selfishness. If someone is demonstrating they are in it for themselves consistently, we can accept that that’s just part of who their character is and then when they behave in ways that are just like jerkass-y and we kind of know why without necessarily resorting to material means. I guess it depends. I’m thinking of Jayne from Firefly is in it for himself and he’s kind of a jerk until he gets his comeuppance by almost getting knocked out of the ship in orbit for basically betraying the crew members and stuff. So his consistent character trait creates his jerkassery and the consistency of that is important.
Oren: So Jane is an interesting example because Jayne doesn’t have a backstory to explain why he particularly dislikes any particular person. Right? Jayne is just an unpleasant person. He is an asshole and he is selfish. Jayne maintains being likable in a few ways. One of them is as you mentioned that he does get comeuppance for being a dick. It’s not just in the episode where Simon gives him spooks by making him think that maybe he’s been paralyzed during this operation or what have you. It happens before then, too, when Malcolm threatens to throw him out of the ship. We see other episodes, like I think in the Train Job when he’s trying to take charge and get them all to abandon Mal and Zoë, he gets knocked out and sounds real silly for a bit. And it’s like, okay, he was being a jerk, but he got what was coming to him and that helps not make him seem insufferable. As opposed to something like Archer and Tripp who are supposed to be good, nice people. We’re not supposed to be like, oh man, it’s Archer, he’s the worst. Which is clearly how the characters feel about Jayne. They keep Jayne around because he’s useful despite being an asshole. So I probably wouldn’t recommend having Jayne as your protagonist, but as a side character he works great.
Wes: I think he works well as that side character who is a jerkass and we’re not looking to really redeem them. The jerkassery is managed well through comeuppance and he’s not murdering people, you know?
Chris: I would also say that they also make Jayne really dorky.
Wes: Yeah, that helps.
Chris: There are some laughs that are at his expense. He’s also a comic relief character at the same time as being a jerkass and we’re always laughing at him. So that kind of helps.
Oren: It’s worth noting that when Jayne does actually go beyond just being rude to people, it’s because of money. Like when he decides to turn in Simon and River, it’s not just because he woke up that day and felt like it. It’s because he was offered a ton of money. Another character who does a really good job at being a jerkass is Seven of Nine from Voyager. Since, you know, I’ve been kind of hard on Star Trek recently. Seven of Nine, first of all, she has a lot of sympathy because she was horribly traumatized by the Borg and treated very badly and you know, assimilations – no fun. It also helps that she’s very high novelty. Which is another thing that makes characters likable. But beyond that, you can see that the reason Seven has so many clashes with the crew is that she is in an unusual environment where things are not done the way that she’s used to doing them. That’s what creates these fights that she has with the other characters. It isn’t just like, Hey, Torres, I want to pick a fight. It’s like, Torres, I’m doing things my way and I didn’t ask you because the way I do things, why would I? And Torres is like, excuse me, I’m the chief of engineering. You need to ask me before you do these things. You can see why they’re having an argument. It’s very nice.
Chris: That’s one of the really good arguments that happen. I do have a list post with some jerkass traits that are designed to be non-abusive: people being careless or other traits that you can use. We can link to it in the show notes if you need ideas for people being kind of abrasive, but not actually cutting each other down. In a lot of situations when you have either protagonists that are butting heads, or you want a jerkass love interest. It’s kind of where you want it to be.
Oren: Another really good jerkass character is Eva Stratt from the Hail Mary Project. I love that character. That’s definitely the best character Andy Weir has ever written. For one thing she’s just rude, right? She’s a very abrasive person. And then she does things like kidnap people to make them work on her special project. But first of all, she’s extremely likable because she’s doing all of this to save the world from a climate apocalypse. It’s like, a government official moving heaven and earth to prevent the climate apocalypse? Yes, please. Give me the wish fulfillment. She’s also a very novel character and very well-written.
But there are some parts where she messes up, where the author takes things too far with her. There’s this one scene where she basically bullies a judge in a small courtroom that by her own admission, she didn’t even need to be there. What is even the point of this scene, especially since the protagonist isn’t in that scene? Why are we seeing this?
Chris: That was very weird because these are all flashbacks under the idea that the protagonist has amnesia and he’s recovering memories. And then we have this one really random flashback where he’s not there. It’s written in a super neutral-omniscient, distant viewpoint, so that we’re trying to make it so you don’t notice that the viewpoint character is missing. It was a very strange scene. She has a gimmick where she orders people around to make them do what they need to do to save the world. But that scene just takes it too far.
Oren: Right. Especially because part of the thing that makes her character work is that she’s doing what she has to do. And by her own admission, she did not have to be there. Okay, then why are you here? That one scene didn’t work very well, but for the most part, that character is very good.
Chris: I want to loop back on protagonists for a bit because there are a lot of people who want to make a highly flawed protagonist that grows. One thing I talk about is that the two traits that are hardest to manage in a main character are arrogance and selfishness. Those tend to turn people off the most. But what is selfishness? When I talk about a selfish character, we see somebody who is harming a person who does not deserve to be harmed for their own benefit. So you have a character, for instance, who is really misguided and is working for evil corporate, or working for the evil empire, but thinks that’s their role. They’re harming people, but they feel like they have a cause. It’s not necessarily selfishness. They’re just misguided.
I think an example is Zuko on Avatar: The Last Airbender. He is an antagonist that we develop a lot of sympathy for and attachment to. Most of the time he’s not really outright selfish. I think the one time that I would say he crosses a boundary into being selfish is the episode where he and his uncle are taken in by some refugees that are really nice people and put them up and feed them and everything. Then he decides to steal their horse ostrich, their mount, the equivalent of stealing their horse. It’s just very cringe-worthy. At that point, people should already be pretty attached to Zuko and it’s the only thing he really does that’s across the line. So it doesn’t ruin him, but it does feel like a low point in his character that he’s stealing from these people who are obviously really good people who just helped him.
Oren: Yeah, you definitely wouldn’t want him to do that sort of thing all the time. That would be a problem.
Chris: Right? So it’s that kind of behavior that really makes the character unlikable. But people judge bad behavior emotionally. So, when we have Eleanor from The Good Place who is a jerkass protagonist, who is quite likable, we manage her selfish behavior by making it so that we really never feel the emotional impact of what she does. We watch her be a jerk to people who are also terrible people, so we don’t feel bad for them. We know that she was swindling seniors, but she worked at a call center. So we don’t even see the seniors that she swindled. So we don’t have a chance to be like, oh my gosh, she just cheated that poor person. So that’s the kind of thing to watch out for when you’re making a character.
You can make up for it with other traits. You can make them really sympathetic and really novel, and that will help. But generally all the characters that are really successful and have selfish behavior, there’s damage control done to lessen the impact. You can accelerate it later once you’re already attached to them. With the audience already attached to them you can get away with more, but the story will become very dark like Breaking Bad, for instance.
Oren: I would say that a one really good move if you want to make a jerkass protagonist is to have them either be played by Kristen Bell or Jameela Jamil. [Laughter] I don’t see how you could go wrong with that. People will like them.
All right. Well, now that we’ve gotten our necessary, mandatory, Good Place reference in for the end of the episode, I think we’ll go ahead and call it. Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.
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Chris: This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening and closing theme “The Princess Who Saved Herself” by Jonathan Coulton.
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