The Difference Between Likable Assholes and Unlikable Characters: A Case Study

By  · Published on July 6th, 2012

Over at Badass Digest, the astute Meredith Borders is raising an important question about unlikable lead characters and the impact they have on audiences liking the movie they’re in. After all, negating the use of unlikable characters is creatively limiting, but some movie fans simply don’t care for those movies which glorify the dastardly and dickish. In her well-intentioned pursuit, Borders brings up the crew from It’s Always Sunny, Walter White from Breaking Bad and the various man-children and woman-children that have hit theaters in the past few years.

The problem is, in trying to defend unlikable characters, all the characters she mentions are perfectly likable. They’re just assholes. The difference is an important distinction – one that plays toward how an audience responds to storytelling at a raw level.

Walter White is a great character to look at. He’s a meth maker who, over the course of several seasons, has done some truly heinous things. However, he’s not unlikable. He’s complex and difficult to understand at times, but our introduction to the man is more than enough to make him empathetic: he’s an everyman (and how can we dislike ourselves?) who works relatively hard for little recognition and has just learned that he’s developed a cancer that will end his shitty little life prematurely. His choices are questionable, but we know from the beginning that he’s not a bad guy – just a normal guy pushed to the breaking point by circumstance. Plus, he’s attractive; Walter is smart, clever, often funny, and it’s even exciting to see him get aggressive because of how terrible his passive nature has made his life. He’s not unlikable at all. He’s just an asshole. A likable asshole.

On the flipside, let’s look at a character like Martin from Human Centipede 2 contrasted with Norman Bates from Psycho. Despite both being serial killers, the first is an unlikable main character, the other is a likable asshole.

Martin is deplorable in every way. He’s physically disgusting, harms the people he’s supposed to be protecting and lacks any sort of redeeming value. He’s one reason of many that Tom Six’s F-minus of a movie is so boring to watch. He’s not compelling because of how dully unlikable he is. The closest that he comes to being interesting is in regards to his mother – who treats him like a pile of dog feces. It gives him pathos (and the final scene between the two gives something nearing satisfaction because of it), but it’s not enough to make him likable. This is the fault of the writing and the starkly flat nature of a character who attacks people, masturbates with sand paper, says nothing, and repeats that To Do list for 90% of the time we get to watch him.There’s zero reason to care about what he’s doing.

Norman Bates shares many of the same traits. He has severe mommy issues, stemming from a beastly upbringing, he takes the lives of people he’s supposed to take care of, and he’s sexually confused. However, even though he’s awkward, he’s also a handsome man who seems sweet and anxious, but not particularly dangerous. He’s even a little bit charming. It’s what makes him likable and what makes the twist of the movie work so well. Fortunately, there’s less of a weight on his shoulders to be likable (even though he is) since we don’t spend the entire movie with him.

In other words, show me a bad person doing bad stuff, and it’ll make sense; show me a bad person doing something decent, and it’ll be interesting.

It’ll also make the bad stuff they do even more interesting. For one reason, it becomes a greater curiosity, but on a deeper gut level, a good action from a bad character shows the ability to change, and the desire for a villain to find redemption can be a powerful force.

For characters like Annie Walker from Bridesmaids and the gang from The Hangover, who we do spend the entire movie with, it’s more important that they be likable. It’s the difference between having fun with their antics and constantly questioning why we should care. Fortunately, all of them are enjoyable to watch because they’re not really all that unlikable. Annie is sexy and funny despite being immature, and her misadventures are mostly shown with an irreverent tone. She’s inconsiderate and bullish, but the stakes are so low that it hardly matters. Plus, in her own way she’s trying to give her friend a great wedding experience. She does nice things during the course of the story, and so do the guys from The Hangover. Mostly they’re likable because they seem to take the craziest situations and find humor in them, not to mention the weird bond they create when they could have abandoned each other after waking up in a tiger-fueled nightmare. They are all jerks, but their redeeming qualities and the lack of truly dramatic consequences keep us in their corner.

In her introduction, Borders points out that “humans are often assholes,” and asks “why must a character be sweet and wholesome to engender audience favor?” The problem is that no one is an asshole all of the time. A character doesn’t have to be sweet and wholesome to engender audience favor, but why would an audience care to root for a character that’s completely without humanity? If the main character is our entry into the story, doesn’t it make sense that we want to identify or have even a small amount of respect for them?

All the characters Borders mentions – from Lisbeth Salander to Michael Corleone – we have respect for and identify with. They fight against their attackers, struggle with ethical dilemmas between being true to loved ones and doing the right thing, they show a sense of caring even under harsh exteriors. Even figures like Charles Foster Kane and Daniel Plainview are (at the very least) attractive because they’re powerful and commanding (and because we’re still apes that respond to that). But more than anything else, these characters are likable by necessity: a character who is 100% despicable isn’t just unlikable, he’s flat and uninteresting.

This may seem like semantics, but, especially for those writing screenplays or trying to gain a deeper understanding of why they like characters like Travis Bickle, it’s incredibly important. It’s thrilling to explore contentious characters in depth, but a failure to connect the audience with the main figure is a fatal flaw. There’s also nothing wrong with disliking movies because the main character is unlikable. It’s a perfectly natural response the same way not wanting to spend 2 hours in a car with the jack wagon who cuts in line at the bank, proceeds to talk loudly on his cell phone about his love of Creed’s music and then punches an old lady cashing her retirement check is a natural response.

As final proof, Travis Bickle himself. On the surface, he seems completely unlikable; he’s a malcontent, physically unwell-looking, unpredictably angry, and not at all bright. You might not want him at a dinner party, but he’s also the shining hero of Taxi Driver. He’s unbelievably sympathetic – a warrior who was discarded flippantly by the country and people he fought for in Vietnam, Bickle’s problems mostly arise from being at war in the first place and from finding it difficult to re-enter society without help. He is, like many of us, bothered by prostitution, the drug-dependent and crime. For many reasons (including taking a date to a porn theater) he’s an asshole, but he also risks his own life to save a 12-year-old girl from a life of sexual slavery. It’s an impossible atonement in the face of him seriously attempting to assassinate a political figure. He’s a terrible human being, but he’s not unlikable once we find ourselves cheering for him to succeed in his insane, yet ultimately ethical, rescue. Plus, mohawks are sexy.

It comes down to this – there is no successful main character that’s completely unlikable. Take even the vilest main characters in movie history (or any other media), and there will be some reasonable level of either pathos or outright attraction.

Fortunately, all the characters on Borders’ list have also found a lot of love from audiences. We seem more fascinated by lovable assholes, not less. But the reason they’ve made an impression (or survived the test of time in some cases) isn’t because or in spite of them being unlikable – it’s because there is at least one reason to love them buried oftentimes beneath a pile of reasons to hate. It can mean the difference between a character that sinks an entire narrative and a villain we want to celebrate.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.