By Caitlin Kelly
Have any of you seen the new film “Gone Girl”?
Or read that best-selling book by Gillian Flynn?
Some readers loathed “Gone Girl” once they realize what appalling people Nick and Amy really are. We discussed it in our small book club and I was the only person to have any feeling for these two, and only really because both are such deeply damaged people.
But I came home from the film, which is 2.5 hours, worn out from how terrifyingly toxic Amy became on screen, played by Rosamund Pike, a British actress who usually plays gorgeous, flirty ingenues (as in “An Education.”) Not here!
Have you watched the Emmy-nominated Netflix series “House of Cards”? It stars Robin Wright, as a tall, lean, stiletto-strutting, icy, power-mad NGO director, Claire Underwood. She lives in a red brick townhouse in D.C. with her husband, Francis, whose own ambitions are jaw-dropping, and which — over the first two seasons — ultimately prove successful.
I watched House of Cards again recently, after binge-watching it in one bleary-eyed weekend a few months ago. It’s a real struggle to find even one character you’d choose to spend five minutes with, let alone marry, have an affair with, promote or manage. I can think of only two, really: Adam Galloway, a talented New York-based photographer and Freddy, whose hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint is Frank’s secret escape hatch. Both are used whenever helpful to Claire and Frank, and their essential humanity and warmth offer a needed counterpoint to their nastiness.
So, what’s the appeal? Some people like to hate-watch, eagerly awaiting the downfall, literally, of that scheming, ruthless young reporter, Zoe Barnes, or the drunk young congressman, Pete Russo, or the naive NGO director Claire hires, then soon screws over.
I can’t think of many books I’ve read where I’ve been able to sympathize with or remain compelled by a difficult, nasty, ruthless character — and there are plenty out there!
Oddly, perhaps, one of my husband’s favorite books, and mine, is non-fiction, “My War Gone By, I Miss it So,” by British journalist Anthony Loyd, who spends much of his time in that narrative addicted to heroin — but the rest of it covering war, and doing so brilliantly.
I also loved, (and these are very dark books!), the Patrick Melrose novels, whose characters are almost all truly horrible. They’re written by Edward St. Aubyn, also British, and offer some of the most powerful and best writing I’ve read in ages. He, too, was addicted to heroin, and one book in the series — impossibly grim — details his life in those years.
Can you read or watch — or enjoy — fictional or non-fictional characters who disgust and repel you?
42 thoughts on “But what if you hate the characters — a la “Gone Girl”?”
Normally, I can. Because if all characters were likable and good, where would the conflict come from to drive the story? The only book that so totally repulsed me to the point where I almost couldn’t finish it (although I did) was “Filth” by Irvine Welsh. I felt like I needed a shower and some disinfectant every time I picked that book up. But still, I had to read to the end just to see what happened.
Great point…I agree.
The book like that for me was “Naked Lunch”…funny thing (not!) — I was attacked while reading it. Brrrr.
I’m terrible at this! Halfway through the book, I realized the premise and barely skimmed the rest. The only books I’ve ever stopped reading are those in which I loathe the characters. Don’t know if this is a character flaw:). Had easier time with the movie b/c they brought a bit of maudlin humor into it at the end. But, oy vey.
Interesting. That movie was too much for me!
I love evil, wicked characters in fiction, especially Frank and Claire from House of Cards. It’s always fascinating to try and understand where such characters come from. Super complex and disturbingly human. It keeps the devil on my shoulder safely entertained!
Hmmmmm. Frank and Claire are really terrifying to me, but I have no doubt there are people like them in the world. What do you suppose drives them?
Oh super terrifying indeed. It’s hard for me to tell if Frank has rubbed off on Claire all these years, or if he just happened to find someone as determined to be as wickedly in control as he is. I think what began as a lust for power and success manifested into a fetish. They seem to get off on manipulating the people around them in order to get what they want. They can’t resist the urges, and thus it has become who they are: consumed by a powerful addiction that dictates all aspects of their lives. In the beginning (of their journey, not the show), I think it was very well an obsessive, but honest, drive to succeed. You’re making me want to binge watch it again! haha
I’m doing that, too! I enjoy re-watching films and shows to capture details I missed the first time.
Absolutely! It’s surprising how much you missed or at least didn’t stick with you he first time around.
I love the color palette in HOC….have you noticed how incredibly restrained it it: black, white, grey, brown, beige? No bright/happy colors in rooms or clothing; no prints. And how dark their home is inside!
Such a good observation. Totally fits. I’m going to pay more attention to that next time around.
Make a color scorecard — watch a few episodes and count each instance of each color.
Doing it! haha
We should compare…I’m in the middle of watching episode 7 right now.
Okay I just finished season 2 on Monday. I’ll start wherever you are after tomorrow night. ( I have a presentation for a class I have to get done :))
I’m swamped prepping/grading the two classes I teach.
Nope. Shut the book. Flick the remote to off. And it’s worse when the actors are usually ones you have adored in other roles–Pride and Prejudice for Rosie and Princess Bride for Robin.
Interesting! Rosie was gorgeous in P and P….this is a HUGE step for her career, certainly. I’d love to know who else was considered for the role.
It’s certainly a difficulty. I’ve given up on one or two series in my time because I found the characters annoying or unsympathetic. It’s something I try to avoid in the stories I write. For instance, I gave the main character in my latest project–which also happens to be my senior thesis–a bit of a dark, tragic back story, or else she would’ve been a bit too clean and perfect, and maybe a bit boring. Through the events of the story though, she learns to deal with her past as well as her present. I hope it makes for an interesting character and some interesting reading as well.
In GG, I found the characters’ back story somewhat interesting, but too weird, really.
I haven’t read or seen it yet, but I’ll take your word on it.
I love watching/reading about despicable characters and Game of Thrones immediately springs to mind. I’m up to Book 4 (and all caught up on the series) and relish how wonderfully despicable George R R Martin has painted many of them. I find that characters I didn’t like to start with (e.g. The Hound and Jaime Lannister, for example) I am drawn to and admire because I I realise how honourable they actually are. And I adore Petyr Baelish and Varys… two of the slimier characters, just because they are so clever and, well, slimy. Of course, I love the “good” characters (Arya, Jon Snow, Ygritte, Daenerys, Khal Drogo), but the best thing about these books is that good people are capable of doing bad deeds, just as bad people are capable of doing good (unless you are Joffrey, who was just a psychopath). I think that’s the hallmark of a good story and building solid characters: that play of light and shade. For the record, I also love Sons of Anarchy, Boardwalk Empire, Hell on Wheels, True Blood and The Walking Dead for EXACTLY this reason.
I’ve been watching GOT on television here. The violence is exhausting to me, but it’s visually gorgeous.
The shows you name are all shows I can’t stomach because of the violence. I’m all for difficult characters, but endless gore/shootings is too much for me. I suspect this is a holdover from researching my first book (about women and guns) in which I was steeped in real violence/horror for 2+ years.
I used to watch a TV series about a serial killer (centered on his life). I couldn’t find many episodes available and I can’t remember the title, but I suppose everyone else involved was likeable. But for me the appeal was probably that it seemed sort of normal to me. Only serial killers and homicide squads spend that much time with evil or understand it.
Dexter? Never watched it.
The only people who understood my ordeal with a con man are police, for the reasons you say here — they deal with sociopathic behavior routinely while (if we’re lucky!) we see it rarely, if ever.
Nope. Pretty sure Dexter is dreadful. Something from the UK and quite watchable.
I read Gone Girl and just watched the movie. My novel that’s almost out has a protagonist that is difficult to like. I think that people are complicated, so characters must be, too. Pure evil or pure goodness are fake and I can’t “buy in” to those characters. For me to enjoy a book, a character has to be multidimensional–maybe they are mostly vile, but you must see glimpses of their humanity. Otherwise, you might as well write fantasy novels or science fiction!
Nope for me too. I have to agree with cricketmuse. I have to turn it off, tune it out, or put it back on the shelf when I realize the amount of violence toward others or amoral characters populating a work.
Life is about balance for me- if I had a career that was dealing sweetness and cuddly puppies I might seek something jarring to watch and discuss with my husband.
But given the work life in DC, seeing way too many people as ruthless and self absorbed as Frank and Claire, it’s too much to come home and dive into more disgusting behavior- you have to mentally wash yourself.
Joe, as a retired law enforcement officer has a tolerance for Sons of Anarchy, True Blood, Hell on Wheels type programming that I don’t. I get frustrated that people perpetuate and perhaps even venerate, the worst parts of our human existence. And for what? … I get worked up just thinking about it!
Thanks for saving us $19.50 on GG! I would have felt used.
Thanks for your thoughts on this….I can’t fathom (hence the value of convo about it!) why anyone would choose to immerse themselves in darkness and violence for “entertainment”…because their life is (?) otherwise placid, sunny and stress-free? I’ve survived enough scary stuff in my own life that I have zero appetite for horror/gore/violence.
In non-fiction, yes….that’s the world and we need to face it and deal with it. But fiction?
But this does raise an interesting point….which is that sunny/perky/all shiny-all-the-time is not true to our human nature either. Much of Shakespeare would be pointless without well-known villains of both genders, no?
Exactly. .. which is why I say we need a balance. How we choose to add lightness or darkness, sharing happiness or another’s pain, is a careful choice. I can add realism via the newspaper and levity through films. Joe can watch stuff like GG and not be moved- he’s seen it all in 35 years of homicide, vice/narcotics, investigating domestic violence, gang felonies. He knows what’s real and can handle it. I can’t. I watched an episode of The Bridge and woke up with night terrors.
You’re right that it takes a good villain to bring counterpoint to a story- Jon Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons comes to mind- but a clever antagonist is rarely what we get these days. (Sigh)
It’s interesting how much this stuff can really haunt us! When my first husband and I saw “Silence of the Lambs” we came home and watched C-Span for hours to calm ourselves down and put ourselves to sleep. 🙂
I came home GG quite rattled. Not worth it.
😉 Never thought of C-Span as a horror antidote, but it’s a Good sleep aid so I guess that makes sense.
Joe laughs at me whenever he picks out “a nice Chianti” for dinner, always referencing fava beans. For a long time, I had no idea what that meant as I have never seen SOL… (yeah, I know. Same with Jaws, Aliens, and so on.) Am I too sheltered, or just in favor of peaceful sleep?
I actually really enjoy Jaws (the shark is clearly not real) and love the Aliens series because Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is totally bad ass in all of them. It’s also interesting to watch Ridley Scott’s esthetic (director) — David Fincher (who did Gone Girl and the Social Network and many of the HOC episodes) is also someone with a very specific POV visually. After the first few viewings, you know what’s going to happen.
But there are still many films I have chosen not to see, like The Shining.
it doesn’t stop me, in either books or movies, but i tend not to choose something to see or read, if i’m aware that the characters are so dark and heavy. it feels like it takes a while after to cleanse onself again
Interesting. And yet…what a testament to the writer’s power.
I read Gone Girl and one of her other works, Dark Places. Neither book has particularly likeable characters, however I still enjoyed the books. They were great discussion books in the book club I attended and the movie sparked a lot of conversation too.
The book club I attended got stuck on “I don’t like them”, which wasn’t a very deep or interesting analysis.
I like some depressing-dark things, but not evil-dark. I am drawn to characters with goodness. There can be goodness overcoming evil…
I am not very good at watching characters that repel me in fact I stopped watching house of cards. That was also because the characters were ‘too flat’, ‘too constrained’ in their defining traits and the basic lack of any contender or opposer to the main chatacter ; ). However I think in general I could stand possibly stand horrible characters if it let me understand how these people function , well, let’ s say maybe…
Good point. I agree about HOC…I keep wanting some sort of backstory on Claire and Frank to explain why they are such heartless monsters to everyone. Simply wanting power is, for me too, not enough.
I relate. I loved watching Criminal Minds (have binge watched 7 seasons) because their analyses on the minds of psychopaths is absolutely fascinating (ok I thought the investigative team were cool, but they would not have been without the murderous subjects). I worked for many years in banking, an environment with people who made you feel ill just being in the same room, without interacting with. I’ve often wondered how these people have friends, nevermind spouses and families who think well of them etc.
But I suppose that’s the multifaceted madness that is humanity. These characters are truly fascinating to me though, despite the distinct lack of appeal!
The housemate we are sharing a room with is watching House of Cards on Netflix as I type this. After reading this post I am intrigued!
I’ve been chatting via Twitter with the man who composed HOC’s amazing theme music.
Bankers. Brrrrrr. 🙂