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Home » Archives » January 2007 » That's "jack-assity," not Jack Cassidy
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01/07/2007: That's "jack-assity," not Jack Cassidy

I was on a plane again today. There was a delightful boor on board. A boor, I tell you! He was braying into his cell phone right up 'til they practically had to swat it out of his hand -- swearing loudly about travel delays, boasting unappealingly about his Vegas winnings, bullying his friends into picking him up at the airport. And here's the best part... no one would. He couldn't get any of his friends to come pick him up. Hee! It was so satisfying.

And it made me think, a bit, about "likeability." People will tell you that you have to make your main character "likeable." But it's not really true. You have to make them "understandable." "Likeable" is just a poorly-chosen word that people use to mean that.

Do you really LIKE Gregory House? Or Starbuck? Or Michael Scott of The Office? Would you want them in your home? You're actually more likely to love them, I think, than like them. Loving allows for jack-assity more than liking does. Those characters are all damaged people who can be cruel, thoughtless, self-centered... these aren't likeable traits. But we forgive them because we understand them. We either have some notion of *why* they act they way they do, in the case of House and Starbuck, or we can see that they're *trying* to exhibit more care and humanity than they manage, in the case of Michael, and, I think again, Starbuck. In other words, we understand them.

There's some French saying, I believe, that translates as, "Everything understood is everything forgiven." Which is probably not true in real life, but is a pretty great rule in fiction. Let's imagine that the airplane boor was a character in a television show. Now imagine that we get to see the scene in which he ends up crying in the cab on the way home, confessing to the back of the head of the anonymous driver that he wasn't in Vegas to gamble at all, but to get married, but the bride never showed and now he's trying desperately to seem uninjured despite his broken heart. There. Suddenly he's "likeable" without my having to make a single change to the scene on the airplane.

So when you get a note from someone reading your spec about a character's "likeability," don't assume that means you have to soften them, take the edges off them, rewrite their airplane scene. And don't even assume you have to spell out everything about why they are the way they are. Just give us a hint that there *is* an explanation, and people will jump on it. We *want* to like characters, and we only need the slightest encouragement to forgive them, to try to understand them.

So go write some bastards, won't you?

Lunch: "Cravings" buffet at The Mirage in Las Vegas. One bite each of: bao, sushi, sausage, banana-leaf wrapped rice, crab legs, ceviche, seaweed salad, noodles, hot and sour soup, shrimp cocktail, beef stir-fry, key lime pie, egg custard, bread pudding and chocolate pie. I loved it!


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