Why do we dislike some characters in particular?
It’s fairly easy to see why some characters are instantly taken to our collective comedy bosom; but what makes a character unlikeable or even unwatchable? I asked this question on Twitter and had some brilliant responses; some even relating to the question…Which led me to three possible scenarios.
Firstly, that the character isn’t a good “fit” with the rest of the cast or setting. A good example of this is when Female Type People were introduced as main characters in Only Fools and Horses (OFAH). There was a definite shift in emphasis for the existing main characters, Del and Rodney.
For years they had been portrayed as chaotic, unlucky in relationships and love, Del in particular a bit of a “player”. Then along comes Raquel and Del transforms into Mr Sensible, comparatively speaking.
Rodney marries Cassandra, which made for some extremely touching scenes between the brothers both at Rodney’s wedding party and when Cassandra suffers a miscarriage. But therein lies the problem. These scenes were between the existing characters; it was disappointing that the women in this programme seemed little more than to set up scenarios for the rest of the cast. If they had been gifted stronger storylines in their own right, perhaps they would have been more warmly received.
Did the characters need a new direction? Yes, probably; people do change. But this is dangerous territory; as I discussed in my previous blog, people like familiarity. It is incredibly tough to come late to a party and be accepted.
Some characters feel as though they have been crowbarred in which can really jar and potentially ruin a good show. As with OFAH, writers will want to take their characters in a different direction but this needs to be done with a great deal of thought and not just on a whim.
I personally really enjoyed the series Motherland but when Meg was brought in in the second series I just couldn’t see where she fitted in. There was already a strong cast with clearly defined roles; such a shame as if she had been there from the off this would have made for an interesting dynamic. As it was I feel they just didn’t know what to do with her so I found myself becoming quite exasperated by her.
It takes time to build up chemistry within a group of actors and it needs a very strong character who can come in and make a positive impact whilst balancing this with not taking over; it’s a fine line.
One Twitter friend mentioned the next door neighbour in Friday Night Dinner, Jim, saying they felt he just didn’t feel like part of the same show. I am inclined to agree here; it’s another of my best-loved shows but Jim did make for uncomfortable viewing at times. I wonder if writers are sometimes almost too set on creating a quirky character that the cohesiveness of the overall show gets overlooked.
Secondly, many introduce a deliberately unlikeable character. We need to have the odd unappealing one in any programme to give contrast, a bit of light and shade, for added comedic effect and for a semblance of believability. Of course, sitcoms do not have to reflect real life; they are, after all fiction (sorry if that was a Father Christmas moment for any of you) but we like to feel we know and like the people we are spending time watching.
Some are clearly intentionally written as irritants, but who occasionally have the odd hint of humanity about them, a vulnerability. Even in comedy we like to think that everyone has at least one redeeming quality.
The annoying characters are often those who set up the best lines; we love a bit of frustration and consternation in our viewing. Gordon Brittas is a prime example. We are not meant to like him; the whole point of characters such as his is to create brilliantly awful situations where we want to shout at the television, thus creating another sense of involvement.
Of course, the danger is that these characters can be too annoying. A few respondents cited possibly the most baffling and irritating characters in any sitcom: Daphne’s brothers in Frasier. Pick an accent. Any accent. Somebody. Signed. This. Off. Absolutely unbelievable and hilarious for all of the WRONG reasons. It’s actually incredibly disrespectful to fans of the show to think they would just accept this without question.
A few people thought that anyone who made them uncomfortable was their reason for not taking to certain characters. Julia Davis writes and performs in some of the darkest comedy; this is right up my street. She is the Queen of Cringe, from Nighty Night to Camping, her characters often make one squirm in one’s seat. But this certainly is not to everyone’s taste.
Fleabag was mentioned by many; it is a very well written show, one which I enjoyed, but I can definitely understand the dislike for the main character. But again, are we meant to like her? Isn’t this part of the premise that because she despises herself for her actions, we are also meant to?
I wonder if this could also be age dependent. Characters we liked when we were younger we just may not have tolerance for as we rewatch as adults, and vice versa, of course.
Some contributors mentioned The Good Life. We were introduced to two contrasting couples; the exciting, adventurous “breath of fresh air” pairing of Tom and Barbara, who we were meant to warm to and their neighbours, Margo and Jerry; the pedestrian executive and his aloof, social climbing wife. And yet most today will express their dislike for Tom, who can come across as quite manipulative, coercive and sometimes downright creepy, plumping instead for the comedic excellence of Margo and her magnificent deliveries, her scathing responses but underneath it all someone who clearly cares a great deal for her unconventional neighbours.
Thirdly, it seems that the actor can be the main reason for a character being unappealing to the viewer. There appears to be a human Marmite situation, with some of the most popular or prevalent actors being referenced in particular. David Jason, Miranda Hart, Ricky Gervais, Steve Coogan; these are all very successful and yet also had the most mentions.
The law of averages would suggest that the more people like you, the more people who will take the opposing view; but it is curious that viewers are unable to appreciate their talents as actors and leave aside their preconceptions. Those who joined in the Twitter chat did have very strong views on this; with one lovely chum who described a certain Mr Corden as “a bumptious twat”. I suspect the gentleman’s not for turning.
So, should writers play it safe, never introduce new characters or try to evolve storylines? Of course not; there will always be characters we love to hate. And that’s exactly as it ought to be.