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  1. - Top - End - #1
    Ogre in the Playground
     
    The Fury's Avatar

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    Default How To Write: The Likable Jerk!

    Everyone loves a jerk! Or do they? Like so many things in writing it appears to be a matter of context and execution. So, maybe it's just out of curiousity but I've been trying to pin down why some characters are presented as unpleasant in-fiction yet are liked by the audience. Why does it work when it does, why doesn't it work when it doesn't? There's some theories surrounding why that could be:

    Audience POV: If our jerk is the audience's POV and we view the fictional world through their eyes, they come off as more sympathetic even if they've done nothing to deserve the audience's sympathy.

    They're goal-oriented: Motivated characters are more interesting to watch, even if their stated goal is horrible and mean.

    Redeemable: Sometimes our jerk is presented in a way that suggests that they might one day turn over a new leaf and stop acting so hostile.

    I'm not sure how I feel about all of these to tell the truth, and I don't think this is a complete list as to what makes audiences care about awful people. That said, what are y'all's thoughts on this?

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    Bugbear in the Playground
     
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    Default Re: How To Write: The Likable Jerk!

    There's an important one missing.

    Comical: If the character consistently says or does funny things, then being a jerk is not an impediment to likability.
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    Ettin in the Playground
     
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    Default Re: How To Write: The Likable Jerk!

    Situational: Sure, they might be a jerk while waiting in line, but if push comes to shove, they'll buckle down and do something. Your co-worker might be a pain in the butt to work with, but if they're willing to work overtime to finish a project, that says something. A lot of writing has people acting like donkey cavities in serious situations, which doesn't make them appealing or interesting.

    Standards: They're jerks, but they have standards. They might be overly blunt, but refuse to be anything but absolutely honest. They might just have a low threshold for stupidity, but are going to stand up to stupid people picking on others unlike other people. They might have overly traditional values that won't resonate with a more modern, progressive audience, but they'll be damned if they let anyone touch THEIR minority friend.

    Reason: They are just socially incompetent or have trust issues for a very good reason. Granted, this only works for a while and does feed into the whole redeemable thing, but I think it is worth mentioning this aspect of the redemption arc since it comes up a lot. A jerk character with this for too long will just seem like an idiot that refuses to improve.
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    Barbarian in the Playground
     
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    Default Re: How To Write: The Likable Jerk!

    Some things to consider:

    Smarts: A stupid jerk is 90% of the times gonna be unlikable, and while some smart jerks can come off as snotty, likable jerks often have the brain power to know when they don't have to be such a jerk. There can be villainous jerks that are likable because of how they outsmart the heroes or without ever being rude. These evil likable jerks are known as Magnificent Bastards.

    Consistency: A likable jerk doesn't wake up one day feeling like giving up their jerkiness and open a bakery. Every day of their daily lives, they're a jerk, sometimes less, sometimes more, just like other people sometimes getting off bed on the wrong foot. A jerk can have his moments where he stops being a jerk before going back to being a jerk without losing the likability. If the jerk accomplishes his goal and doing so finds a reason to stop being a jerk, then more power to them. But tick them off, and they might still jerk you around.
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    Ettin in the Playground
     
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    Default Re: How To Write: The Likable Jerk!

    Lesser of Two (or more) Evils: I think another reason people might root for a jerk is if their competition or antagonist is just plain worse. I haven't seen the show Dexter, but I assume it runs off of this principle, as do many anti-heroes who end up doing terrible things...If it is confined to terrible people who get even less sympathy, well, which one are you going to pick? Of course, it's going to need something to keep people watching or you'll wind up with the audience getting tired of everyone, so I would not be surprised if this overlapped with the Smarts idea.
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    Barbarian in the Playground
     
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    Default Re: How To Write: The Likable Jerk!

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    Pixie in the Playground
     
    BlueWizardGirl

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    Default Re: How To Write: The Likable Jerk!

    I think the Goal Oriented comment and Humor comment nailed it: if you have those two things, you can be a jerk and the audience will still like you.

    However, I'd say that the reason people might like a jerk character is the same reason they might like ANY character: that character is saying or doing something that deep down the reader WISHES they had the courage (or ability) to do.

    Think about it: Jerk characters are disagreeable. They're ACTIVELY willing to say and do things that will make people dislike them. That's huge! There's a good portion of the population (like me) that is hyper agreeable and goes out of their way to not cause problems or conflict. There are some people who can't STAND someone being mad or upset at them. So, seeing someone who is not only capable of tolerating that, but PROVOKES it makes those people envious to some degree. There's situations daily where people might wish they had a bit more courage: to honk at the person that cut them off, to return a curt but witty reply to a cynical neighbor. In some sense, they wish they could summon the power of the Jerk--maybe not as viciously, or with as much of a caustic edge, but in some way. It takes courage to be a jerk--it takes courage to say and do things that might make people upset and not like you, because there's a real risk that if you do, everyone might decide they've had enough of you, and you end up ALONE.

    So, to not be afraid of being alone, to not be afraid to speak your mind even if people dislike you, to not let other people's feelings get in the way of what you want to say, that's pretty enviable.

    You know, within reason!

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    Ogre in the Playground
     
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    Default Re: How To Write: The Likable Jerk!

    I gotta say, I'm pretty impressed with the responses I've got so far. What makes this kind of character work is weirdly fascinating to me.

    Quote Originally Posted by BeerMug Paladin View Post
    There's an important one missing.

    Comical: If the character consistently says or does funny things, then being a jerk is not an impediment to likability.
    Good point, though could that be a convention of genre? What I mean, is that if you're writing a comedy and you have a character who's a jerk, it almost goes without saying that they will do and say funny things. I mean, jerks rarely play the straight man. If you're doing some kind of melodrama with lots of intrigue, your jerk could be funny, but they could just as easily not.

    Quote Originally Posted by Mikemical View Post
    Smarts: A stupid jerk is 90% of the times gonna be unlikable, and while some smart jerks can come off as snotty, likable jerks often have the brain power to know when they don't have to be such a jerk. There can be villainous jerks that are likable because of how they outsmart the heroes or without ever being rude. These evil likable jerks are known as Magnificent Bastards.
    I'd like to call attention to this, because the opposite of this seems to be a rule in writing too. "If you're writing a character that's smart, they should also be a jerk." Why? I dunno. Maybe if they're not a jerk, no one will get that they're smart?

    Quote Originally Posted by Honest Tiefling View Post
    Lesser of Two (or more) Evils: I think another reason people might root for a jerk is if their competition or antagonist is just plain worse. I haven't seen the show Dexter, but I assume it runs off of this principle, as do many anti-heroes who end up doing terrible things...If it is confined to terrible people who get even less sympathy, well, which one are you going to pick? Of course, it's going to need something to keep people watching or you'll wind up with the audience getting tired of everyone, so I would not be surprised if this overlapped with the Smarts idea.
    I've seen a little bit of Dexter, and I'm not sure if it does run on that principle. His victims are definitely not nice people, and aside from being a serial killer, Dexter comes off as a fairly pleasant person most of the time.

  9. - Top - End - #9
    Ettin in the Playground
     
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    Default Re: How To Write: The Likable Jerk!

    Quote Originally Posted by The Fury View Post
    I've seen a little bit of Dexter, and I'm not sure if it does run on that principle. His victims are definitely not nice people, and aside from being a serial killer, Dexter comes off as a fairly pleasant person most of the time.
    Him being nice I would say only supports my point. Him running around murdering people only works because those he attacks are worse. Perhaps a better example would be people like the Punisher or Rorschach, who are only liked due to how bad their victims get. I really doubt anyone would be happy to see the Punisher take on someone like the less violent or destructive incarnations of the Riddler...
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    Troll in the Playground
     
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    Default Re: How To Write: The Likable Jerk!

    Quote Originally Posted by The Fury View Post
    I'm not sure how I feel about all of these to tell the truth, and I don't think this is a complete list as to what makes audiences care about awful people. That said, what are y'all's thoughts on this?
    One aspect is do they care about the jerk or just enjoy his or her antics.

    The best 'likable jerks' to me are elegant villains who nevertheless are amusing OR more 'mundane' jerks who just are interesting and funny. For the latter, the best example to me is Barney Stimpson from Have I Met Your Mother. He's pretty openly a horrible human being with few redeemable qualities, he isn't trying to do better, and, well, he's a jerk. But he's funny, at least decent to his friends (when they're not all being jerks to each other, as is common for sit-coms), and... well, he's funny?

    I'm not sure how to write one well, but I'd recommend thinking of how some likable jerks have been written and try to figure out how the author got you to like them.

    There'a also the archetype of folk who act like jerks but are actually good people underneath. But, with those, I tend to find the 'jerkiness' not really a likable thing but just getting in the way. So I can't really comment about that. For the villain archetype, there's something about the elegance and/or over-the-topness of showing you are better than others that has a humorous appeal.

  11. - Top - End - #11
    Dwarf in the Playground
     
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    Default Re: How To Write: The Likable Jerk!

    Quote Originally Posted by The Fury View Post
    I'd like to call attention to this, because the opposite of this seems to be a rule in writing too. "If you're writing a character that's smart, they should also be a jerk." Why? I dunno. Maybe if they're not a jerk, no one will get that they're smart?
    Yeah, that's an interesting one. I think Roy's a good counter-example - he's probably about the smartest member of OOTS in practice, and it's brought out without defining his character or requiring jerkishness. But it's rare. I guess when people write smart characters they feel they need to give them some sort of counterbalancing nerf/flaw or they stop being interesting, and being unlikeable is one of the classic options for that (alongside "smart characters are physically weak/have disabilities" and "smart characters are ugly"). I think much of the palette of options for writing complex smart characters is underused, but "make them awful to be around" is one of the really common options that gets selected from it.
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  12. - Top - End - #12
    Barbarian in the Playground
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    Default Re: How To Write: The Likable Jerk!

    Flashbacks/Backstory: Have flashbacks or expositional dialogue showing this character had a rough past and is jaded to most of humanity. Literally the second episode of Bojack Horseman has flashbacks to when he was a child and his dysfunctional family to help paint the picture he's sympathetic.

  13. - Top - End - #13
    Ogre in the Playground
     
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    Default Re: How To Write: The Likable Jerk!

    Quote Originally Posted by JeenLeen View Post
    One aspect is do they care about the jerk or just enjoy his or her antics.

    The best 'likable jerks' to me are elegant villains who nevertheless are amusing OR more 'mundane' jerks who just are interesting and funny. For the latter, the best example to me is Barney Stimpson from Have I Met Your Mother. He's pretty openly a horrible human being with few redeemable qualities, he isn't trying to do better, and, well, he's a jerk. But he's funny, at least decent to his friends (when they're not all being jerks to each other, as is common for sit-coms), and... well, he's funny?

    I'm not sure how to write one well, but I'd recommend thinking of how some likable jerks have been written and try to figure out how the author got you to like them.
    I've heard cases made for both caring and enjoying of our jerk's antics. The latter seems more prevalent in comedy, the former more so in drama. I personally don't often go for the jerk characters, but a lot of people in my family do. Why they do is kind of intriguing for me.

    Quote Originally Posted by JeenLeen View Post
    There'a also the archetype of folk who act like jerks but are actually good people underneath. But, with those, I tend to find the 'jerkiness' not really a likable thing but just getting in the way. So I can't really comment about that. For the villain archetype, there's something about the elegance and/or over-the-topness of showing you are better than others that has a humorous appeal.
    The good person underneath seems the route most often taken when our jerk is in a more serious story. I think that's part of the reason why Bakugo from My Hero Academia has his share of fans. He... is not my favorite. Though I can see that if he were able to put aside his superiority complex for a while, he might be a decent guy. Though with one that big, that's a heck of a thing to leave aside.

    Another theory I've seen floating around is that it's cathartic to watch someone be generally horrible to folks around them and get away with it. Basically it's the sort of thing we wish we could do... Yeah... I don't know about that one either.

    Quote Originally Posted by Jubal_Barca View Post
    Yeah, that's an interesting one. I think Roy's a good counter-example - he's probably about the smartest member of OOTS in practice, and it's brought out without defining his character or requiring jerkishness. But it's rare. I guess when people write smart characters they feel they need to give them some sort of counterbalancing nerf/flaw or they stop being interesting, and being unlikeable is one of the classic options for that (alongside "smart characters are physically weak/have disabilities" and "smart characters are ugly"). I think much of the palette of options for writing complex smart characters is underused, but "make them awful to be around" is one of the really common options that gets selected from it.
    Roy, and really Order of the Stick characters in general are sort of odd in that they're written with a bit more self-awareness than most characters in fiction. Roy might come off as a little rough around the edges at times, but I wouldn't call him unpleasant either.

    As for your point on introducing a character flaw... yeah, maybe? I suppose it makes as much sense as anything.

    Quote Originally Posted by Magic_Hat View Post
    Flashbacks/Backstory: Have flashbacks or expositional dialogue showing this character had a rough past and is jaded to most of humanity. Literally the second episode of Bojack Horseman has flashbacks to when he was a child and his dysfunctional family to help paint the picture he's sympathetic.
    I feel like that ties in well to the "Good Person Underneath" point from earlier. It's not 100% neccesary, but it can go a long way for selling that point.

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    Default Re: How To Write: The Likable Jerk!

    Reason:They are just socially incompetent or have trust issues for a very good reason. Granted, this only works for a while and does feed into the whole redeemable thing, but I think it is worth mentioning this aspect of the redemption arc since it comes up a lot. A jerk character with this for too long will just seem like an idiot that refuses to improve.

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    Default Re: How To Write: The Likable Jerk!

    The Mod on the Silver Mountain: The likeable jerk in question died some time back.
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