When is the likability of a character important?

Last night I finished watching one of my favorite movies, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, again. It reminded me of one of the common criticisms of it – Ramona and Scott are both basically assholes, and there’s probably not a good future between them. My argument has always been (even before I read the comic where this was a lot more self-evident) that that was rather the point. It’s the story of two assholes who go through a journey of realizing they’re terrible people. It’s not a story about “Scott beating the evil exes for Ramona.” It’s a story about Scott not BECOMING an Evil Ex. Criticizing Scott Pilgrim for the main two for being unlikable is, to me, rather like criticizing Romeo and Juliet for acting like really stupid lovestruck teenagers.

However, I have made the “unlikable” complaint for works before, and I’ve been contemplating exactly when it’s important that the characters are likable. I can’t figure it out. The closest I can come is that it’s when it conflicts with an informed attribute. If all the characters treat and talk about the main character as if they were likable, then it’s offputting if they’re a complete douchebag (with exceptions like deliberate trickery). I can’t decide though – so what say you? When does a character’s likablility add or detract from a work for you?

Well, this is kind of specific, but I absolutely cannot stand the Thomas Covenant books because the protagonist just irks me somehow. It can’t just be that he does dispicable things, because in other stories I can get past that. But he’s just…ugh. So ugh. I’ve tried a couple few times now and just can’t get through book two, much less complete the series.

So I guess it does matter some, to me anyway.

It does matter to me. If the protagonist has more bad qualities than good (or a quality that is SO bad that it overshadows their other good qualities), I kind of check out of the story, emotionally.

But is that always true for you? To use English Class terminology, if you’re reading a work that’s essentially person vs self, where the person is learning to overcome their own assholitude is it still as bad as a Mary Sue that acts like an asshole, but nobody really seems to notice?

People have different tastes, I’m not saying it’s wrong to feel either way, I’m just asking out of curiosity.

To me personally, there’s a difference between Bella Swan, who’s pretty much a closet asshole, but everybody acts like she’s the bestest person ever, and Scott Pilgrim who is an asshole, but everyone treats him like one. Except Ramona, but the best she can really say about him is that he’s the nicest person she ever dated which speaks more about the quality of men she’s dated than it does nice things about Scott. And Knives, I guess, but that’s more because she’s really naive than anything.

I don’t like to spend my time around assoles in real life. Why would I want to do so in fiction? (unless they’re interesting assholes. in which case anything goes :slight_smile: )

In my OP I was thinking about excluding the sort of “delightfully psychotic” character, where objectively they’re assholes (often of the “I slaughter entire villages” type), but they’re SO HORRIBLY psychotic it’s actually funny when it’s fictional.

I’m more referring to characters that are assholes, but not assholes in a way so over the top that it’s specifically played for laughs.

I think this is the case - like, the eponymous Sherlock, of the new series, is called on his assholery all the time, so it’s kind of* OK* to still like him, if Watson think’s he’s an asshole and still likes him.

I have limited tolerance for the Idiot Plot, and it’s intimately tied up with my dislike for people who don’t talk things out.

Although I don’t see it in terms of the OP - I found both the leads eminently likeable.

Because personally, I need a reason to give a shit.

With the movie at hand, I guess that’s what bothered me the most. Sure, they may be emotionally damaged and/or naive, but they seemed intelligent enough to realize that Scott was about as sexually attractive as a puddle of dried vomit. I don’t care how low their standards were - they couldn’t have been *that *low. It just didn’t make sense that not one but *two *hot, capable girls would be atttracted to that.

With Knives – she really had no way of knowing. Their relationship was all of a couple months old, tops (and I’m fairly sure it was actually weeks old). The extent of their conversations were Knives talking at Scott with him responding “mmhmm” and Scott parroting useless trivia. Scott never mentioned a job or lackthereof, and she never met any of his friends or saw his place of residence until really close to when he dumped her. When that happened, she became a little too psychotic to really notice any flaws after that (in the movie – in the comics she realizes that Scott isn’t very good around the same time she stops liking Sex Bob-omb, they heavily joke that “oh no, she’s developing a sense of taste!”)

With Ramona – she didn’t really CARE. I don’t recall if they mentioned it in the movie, but in the comic, she basically only went out on the first date because she felt bad – going through his dreams made him obsessed with her (which in the comics is an important side effect of subspace). Either (even if in the movie she was just forced into it), she didn’t really care about him. She was basically just using him to run away from Gideon. She was using him to get back at her old boyfriend, and then later to train herself not to be a bitch when she’s actually ready for a serious relationship. Not until the very, very end does she afford him any words of affection stronger than “you’re what I need right now.” She knows damn well that he’s not, er… the finest catch. If I read into it more than what was written, I’d be inclined to guess that she went with Scott specifically because self loathing told her she didn’t deserve better.

The comic must have conveyed all that better than the movie, then.

For me it’s about whether the characters are supposed to be likeable. Lots of works have characters that are unlikeable to make a point, or are supposed to assholes for the purposes of humor. My annoyance is when characters I’m obviously supposed to like or at least sympathies with are unlikable.

It helps that in the comics, Scott isn’t played by Michael Cera. I mean, I love “Arrested Development” and all, but Cera’s performance took what likeability there was in the comic character (and despite his assholishness, comic Scott is actually fairly likeable) and drained it away.

Seinfeld, for example.

Generally I require one of four things of a story:

  1. A protagonist whom I find sympathetic throughout (or for the majority of the story) and whom I wish to succeed in his or her aims.

  2. A protagonist whom I find unsympathetic throughout whom I wish to see comically frustrated.

  3. A protagonist whom I find unsympathetic throughout but who is clever and amusing and amusing to see in action.

  4. A protagonist whom I find initially unsympathetic but who grows as a character and by the end of story has become likable.

ETA: This obviously requires that there be a clear protagonist in the first place. I need that two, but I’m too lazy to go back and change the rest of the post.

Yeah, Skald’s guidelines work for me. Examples:

  1. Indiana Jones
  2. Hmm, can’t actually think of anyone who fits this
  3. Francis Urquhart, the amorally ambitious British politico in House of Cards
  4. Eddie Morra, the struggling writer in Limitless

Regarding 2: Do you like Seinfield? Scrubs? How I Met Your Mother? Mad Men?

I suppose it depends on whether they want me invested in the character. I won’t get invested in someone who is just a bad person (or who you can’t explain part of why he or she is so flawed).

For some things, this is fine. I’m never invested in the characters in Seinfeld but I don’t have to be because the humor doesn’t rely on me caring about George’s feelings or Elaine’s motivations beyond advancing to the next joke. It can work in a movie as well – I don’t care about Harold & Kumar beyond getting to the next gag. But anything beyond that (romance, drama, horror, action) I need to feel some investment or else I just don’t care if the relationship works or Nazis find their hiding place or the girl is eaten by ghosts or the guy survives jumping down the flaming elevator shaft.

Action is actually sort of on the cusp. You can have an eye-candy explosion fest but it’s rarely as satisfying as a film where you care on some level about the people.

Anyway, I didn’t care about anyone in Scott Pilgrim and so the rest of the plot sort of meandered past. I got many of the symbols and references and stuff, it just wasn’t fulfilling when I didn’t care about the people.

In an interview about the first season of “Girls,” producer Jenni Konner said:

I think she, and Neil LeBute, have a really good point about that. I do enjoy liking the characters I watch or read about but I can be just as entertained by characters I despise.

Often, the way fiction works is that we, the readers/viewers, identify with one or more of the main characters. If the protagonist is seriously unsympathetic, it makes it either more difficult or more disturbing to identify with him or her.

Wile E. Coyote? The main characters of a show like Seinfeld or It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia?

I can and do enjoy shows like these, but in order to do so, I have to realize that I’m watching the kind of show where I’m not supposed to like the main characters or root for them to succeed (which is sort of the default approach to fiction).