One of the Keys to Keeping “Unlikable” Characters Tolerable

The recent box-office disappointment Rough Night drew obvious comparisons to the movie Very Bad Things given the shared premise of “accidental killing of stripper/sex worker leads to cover-up and further criminal behavior.” In speaking of Very Bad Things, several of the film’s detractors have pointed to just how vile and insufferable the characters were. Sure, it’s a dark comedy/thriller, so at least some of its characters are expected to be criminals. And it’s far, far, far from being the first or only movie whose primary characters are unsympathetic, selfish and even murderous assholes. And while there are certain people who are just never going to be on board with watching or reading a story featuring “unlikable” unsympathetic characters, there are many others (like me) who find such stories interesting, provided that the story is, well, interesting, and provided that the unlikable characters aren’t utterly insufferable.

So what is it about the characters in a movie like Very Bad Things that pushes their vileness over the top? Are their actions simply that deplorable? Does the story just fail them to such an extreme degree that they can’t be redeemed? In my opinion, the answer to the last two questions is “no.” The problem with most of the characters in Very Bad Things is that they don’t show the capacity to care for anyone at all other than themselves. The simple solution, then, is to give them at least the smallest sign that they are capable of caring. They can still be horrible, mostly hateful people, but showing that they have even an ounce of compassion for at least one other person can go a long way toward making them more palatable.

Examples of this can be found in more stories than I can hope to count. Pulp Fiction primarily follows the happenings of two homicidal hitmen who are very casual about killing innocent people, but they also seem to have a genuine friendship even early on in the movie. It makes them easier to get along with from an audience perspective, because even though they may argue, they generally get along with each other. Sticking with Tarantino, Mr. Pink and Mr. White in Reservoir Dogs develop a bond that carries them through a botched robbery, mortal injury, distrust and conflict and betrayals, right up until the final emotional revelation.

Branching out into other crime stories starring villainous protagonists, the main trio of violent asshole gangsters in Goodfellas start off with a strong bond, and the deterioration of the bond due to greed, impulsive behavior and drug abuse is a core element of the story. O-Dog in Menace II Society is a monstrous, murderous lunatic, but he legitimately cares about his friend Cain. Scarface, of course, is focused on the rise and fall of an ambitious madman, but he does love his sister (albeit to an unhealthy and potentially unsavory degree) and his friend Manny. He even has compassion for strangers, given his personal code of not killing women or children. His care for other people and his emotional immaturity related to that caring are crucial components to his eventual downfall. Harold Shand, the bulldog bastard of a crime boss in The Long Good Friday, is a cruel, vicious hothead, but manages to muster some affection and even a sincere apology for his lady, Victoria. Going back farther, even the psychotic Cody Jarrett from White Heat loved the hell out of his mother.

But those are all dramatic films. What of a dark comedy, like Very Bad Things? The best contemporary example I can think of is It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, a television show centered on a group of awful people being consistently awful to one another and to anyone else unfortunate enough to cross their paths. Granted, humor is subjective, and part of Sunny‘s success hinges on whether or not you find the show funny, but even with that in mind, the show’s writers and creators are aware of the importance of showing that even despicable people need show signs of caring for others once every blue moon. Sunny has multiple examples throughout its long run of the gang rallying to actually do something nice or to be there for one their own (“Charlie Kelly: King of the Rats”, “Dee Gives Birth”) or simply enjoying each other’s company (“A Very Sunny Christmas”, “Mac and Charlie: White Trash”).  To be sure, they are still all manipulative, selfish, horrible assholes who are frighteningly proficient at ruining lives, and none of the examples of them being temporarily decent human beings redeems them in any way, but it does make them tolerable and show that they at least have the capacity–however limited–to be selfless and, dare I say, even loving.

All of this to make one simple point: if your protagonist is a horrible person, they needn’t be thoroughly horrible. And perhaps the easiest way to keep an unlikable character from being too intolerably irritating to bother with is to simply show that there’s at least one person in their world that they care about as much as they care about themselves.

Continue Reading

Why Write Horror? Because it’s always there…

It’s not much of a stretch to surmise that most horror writers will, at some point, be asked, “Why do you write that stuff?” Depending on how it’s asked it can either be seen as valid or annoying. If asked out of genuine curiosity, it’s the former; when asked with thinly veiled derision, it’s the latter. But I think most horror writers would probably acknowledge, if they’re being honest, that they’ve asked themselves that same question at least once.

In absence of anything else to blog about, I figured I’d do a quick post hashing out why I write the stories I write; partly to answer the question for others who’ve asked me in the past, and partly to help sort out my own thoughts on the subject. For me, there isn’t one simple answer for why I write horror stories. There are a  few different factors that influence my choice of genre. For starters, I write horror because I tend to see it everywhere.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. Horror can’t be found in literally anything unless you have an extraordinarily morbid point of view, which I don’t have. If anything I have an indefatigable optimistic streak that persists in spite of my capacity for cynicism. If I a picture of a box of puppies or read a story about some famous person donating time and/or money to a worthy cause, my mind doesn’t immediately jump to gruesome worst case scenarios, or suspicions of dubious intent. My tendency is to give the world the benefit of the doubt even though I know that history dictates the world doesn’t deserve it from anyone, even the most fortunate of us.

But in all the places where you can make a reasonable argument that horror is present, I see it. Particularly in fiction. It’s not something I have no control over, but if I decide to flip my filter on, the horrifying elements present in damn near anything where it’s feasible become crystal to me. That’s because, some time ago, I developed my own very simple formula for mining horror from a situation. Throw the following elements into a pot and mix as desired: intimacy, personal perspective, tone, and fear. The last is, of course, the most vital ingredient, but everything else is important as well. And when you’re looking at a story through that filter, it’s easy to identify how you could transform the mundane or even the cheerful into the terrifying.

 

Example: Recently I was watching the movie Wreck-it-Ralph with my fam (at the behest of my nieces and nephews… no really, honest), and  the filter came on during the final moments when the bad guy gets his at the end (uh, (spoiler alert, the villain loses. And dies). To summarize as best as possible, the villain ends up out of control of his own body, and inexorably drawn against his will into a blazing pillar of light that incinerates him, all as he begs his unresponsive body to resist. Because of the film’s perspective (which is anti-villain, in the tradition of animated family films, believe it or not), because we obviously never get to know the villain very well, and because of its tone (joyful overall, and celebratory in the final moments since, you know, the good guys win), the horror wouldn’t be evident to anyone except some slightly off-center dude like myself who’s looking for it.

Think of it though. Imagine being pulled against your will–your own body betraying you–toward incineration. You’re screaming, “No!” You’re begging yourself to stop, but someone or something else is pulling your strings. You’re aware the entire time of your fate, but you try as you might, you can’t avert it. And then, in the end, you’re on fire. Flesh turning to cinders, organs roasting, eyes boiling out of your skull. Even if it only lasts a few seconds, you feel it all, and any of us who’ve ever felt any kind of pain know how it can elongate time. Time is, after all, a matter of perception. A second of pain expands in proportion to the level of agony. An instant of your skin burning off your bones is, I imagine, worth at least a minute of whatever makes you happiest. It’s a pain most of us can’t truly imagine, but any sincere attempt to imagine it should be sufficient to give us an idea of why such a moment is the definition of horrific.

The same could be said for a number of scenes from other family films most people wouldn’t come anywhere near thinking of in relation to “horror”; imagine Facilier being literally dragged to hell by spirits hungry for his soul; imagine Scar being torn apart and eaten alive by a team of angry hyenas. The fear is present in each of these scenes, but absent the intimacy, perspective and tone, none of them register as horrific to the ordinary audience member. Which is, of course, by design. These are family films, after all. So let’s take a look at something a little more serious, aimed at a more mature audience, but still presented with the same distance and tone and that makes a horrifying death in a Disney flick   come off as routine.

The Military Channel has a show called Greatest Tank Battles, which I wasn’t aware of until I watched it with my father (a history / WWII enthusiast) one day a few months ago. I don’t recall the precise details of the episode we watched together, but I know they interviewed veterans of the battles recreated through computer simulations to get their takes on what transpired. And those veterans surely have their own personal coping mechanisms for the things they witnessed. I come from a military family and have friends who have served as well, I have no illusions that war is anything less than hell. Yet, for morale purposes, or out of a sense of respect to those who lived it and wouldn’t want to relive it, or to emphasize the patriotism by glorifying the soldiers who served, the horrors of warfare are often downplayed in such television programs.

But for a guy like me, it’s all too easy to latch onto the terror and empathize with the deceased, as much as I can, anyway. When the program presents CGI reenactments of the battles as narrated by the veterans, and shows video-game-reminiscent special effects of tanks burning in the aftermath of battle, I tend to think about the men inside those burning metal vessels. For a lot of people that’s just a story or a quick history lesson; I see a little more. I see men screaming for their lives, cooked alive, dismembered. And contrary to what a lot of people may think, I take zero joy from such imagery. If anything, were my substantial ego also given to pretension and judgement, I’d castigate those who could watch such a program without imagining what it would actually have been like to die a violent death in a tank. The absolute panic, the sense of hopelessness and helplessness, the feeling of being trapped and wondering how in the hell your life had come to this moment before the agony took hold and any conscious wondering surrendered to fire and explosions, the smell of blood, burning metal, the immediacy of the end. Christ. That’s meant to be neither dramatic, shocking or indelicate, folks; that’s real.

And that’s one of the key factors that has influenced what I write, watch and read. I wouldn’t say it’s difficult for me to enjoy stories where death and murder are treated irreverently or humorously. I love the Coen brothers, for instance.  Miller’s Crossing, that’s my shit. But when death is frequently handled recklessly or carelessly in a story, tossed around just for the sake of it being there, that can take me out of the story. I write horror because it’s out there, and while there are plenty of stories unwilling to directly address or explore it, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s present. Beyond that, I also think it’s a worthwhile exploration. But I’ll save the details on that for another entry…

Continue Reading