What Makes a Character Unsympathetic?

Gosh, I need to apologize for going so long without posting anything here! I caught a nasty flu over the holidays that derailed my workflow and has set me behind on everything. I have several big posts that I was working on for The Granite Notebook before the holidays and will try to get those finished soon.

But today I wanted to write something that is a little bit more extemporaneous.

This weekend my wife and I happened to watch the movie Arthur (1981), which we had never seen before. In fact, although it was a hit (the fourth highest grossing film of 1981), I’m not sure I had ever heard of it before this weekend. Arthur is a romantic comedy starring Dudley Moore (Arthur) and Liza Minnelli in which Moore plays a wealthy man-child whose only aspirations in life are to stay perpetually drunk and party.

Anyway, the movie was great; it had many laugh-out-loud lines and situations (“You’re a prostitute? Oh my god, I forgot! I thought I was just doing well tonight!”), as well as a sweetness in spirit that managed not to become cloying. It always helps, of course, to be going in with low expectations.

Arthur (1981) also introduced the world to this amazing Christopher Cross song.

And even though the movie was quite good, I can understand why I had never heard of it before — it occupies an awkward commercial space between ‘family friendly’ and ‘inappropriate for children’ (the protagonist is drunk throughout the film, including during the happy ending, for example). There’s not a lot they could have done with this film on TV in the 1980s, and it is re-runs on TV that cemented the legacy of many of what we think of as classic 80s movies (like The Breakfast Club).

W A R N I N G —– Spoilers ahead!!!! —– W A R N I N G

What I wanted to talk about in this post, though, was something that happened at the end of the movie. There is a character named Susan (played by Jill Eikenberry) who wants to marry Arthur. His family tries to force him to marry her, and he finally agrees to their demands and proposes before, at the last minute, he comically jilts Susan at the altar. Basically, the movie stomps all over Susan.

The problem is, Susan is depicted as someone who genuinely loves Arthur, who has known him for many years, who is sweet natured and kind, who is rich (she doesn’t need his money), and also beautiful. We, as the audience, are supposed to take pleasure in Arthur’s poor treatment of her, but we are given little or no reason to dislike her.

What is supposed to make her unsympathetic?

This character and her treatment in the film give us a good opportunity to think about some of the ways in which character portrayal and audience emotions intersect. Because what happens with the Susan character sort of works, but maybe not quite as much as we in the audience would like.

The main reason the audience has for being ‘against’ Susan is that she is trying to pressure the protagonist to marry her. Is that by itself enough to make her unsympathetic? It seems to be clear in the movie that she does love Arthur. She also is not trying to change him, as far as we can tell, in fact she tells him that he can continue to drink and carouse as much as he wants, as long as he keeps her in his life and lets her take care of him. Or is that why we should hate her, because she is happy to enable his bad behavior? She does seem to want to encourage healthy behavior on his part, though…

Assuming an audience that is sympathetic to your protagonist: Is merely trying to pressure your protagonist to do something they don’t want to do enough to make a character unsympathetic? Should it be?

Susan is contrasted with Linda (Liza Minnelli), who also loves Arthur. Linda is working class, significantly less beautiful than Susan, and less willing to tolerate Arthur’s antics. In fact she inspires Arthur to want to behave like a reasonable human being, and he falls in love with her.

There is no question that we, in the audience, will root for Arthur and Linda’s relationship. We are inspired to care about them, they both make each other better and happier, and they both want to be together.

But because we are rooting for Arthur and Linda does that make it ok for the writers to step all over Susan? If we are for them, does it necessarily mean we are against her?

I think this is something that Hollywood movies often get wrong — they cast characters as minor villains without giving us a legitimate reason to dislike or be unsympathetic to those characters. Part of the problem, of course, is the compressed storytelling that is necessary in a movie. But, as an audience member, I feel insulted when I am supposed to accept a head-fake or two (such as sour music when the character appears) as proof sufficient that a character is bad, and am expected to dislike them regardless of the content of their actual words and deeds in the story.

Give the audience some emotional motivation!

For me, this phenomenon gives the ending of Arthur a sour note. Even though I am rooting for Arthur and Linda and want to see things work out for them, it doesn’t mean I wish ill for Susan! Why do the protagonists have to be so mean and uncaring to her? That makes me less sympathetic to the protagonists, which, coming at the very end of a story, is unpleasant.

Or is it enough for a sympathetic protagonist to merely dislike a character? If Sherlock Holmes says ‘That man is irritating.”, is that enough to make him irritating to the audience, or does he have to actually do something irritating in the story? I don’t think it’s enough. The protagonist is not God, they aren’t necessarily always right about everything. At least, in the vast majority of cases they shouldn’t be.

On the other hand, you could argue that if the storyteller has gotten the audience to identify strongly enough with their protagonist, then merely expressing the protagonist’s distaste for a character will be enough to inspire the audience to reflect that distaste too. The audience’s imagination will conjure a reason to dislike the character they are supposed to dislike.

That last bit is true, but requires a pretty unusual degree of audience investment in the protagonist. And even then it is artificial; in some sense, a cheap trick.

In the case of Arthur, if the mere reflection of the protagonist’s distaste is not enough to justify audience distaste of Susan, we start to run up against an ethical or philosophical question: Because Susan is sweet, rich, beautiful, and seems to have a dream life, does that make it ok for bad things to happen to her? Should we in the audience take satisfaction from it, because she deserves some bad along with all that good?

It’s amazing how the ethics and values of the storyteller bleed through into a story. In Hollywood movies, particularly, what is revealed is often appalling. As a storyteller it is important to be conscious of that and to contemplate what kind of values your story is conveying and what kind of values you want it to convey.

Does someone deserve bad things to happen to them because they have a great life? In many Hollywood movies that seems to be a functioning logic, even though the creators of those movies usually live ‘fantasy’ like lives of wealth and privilege. Are they enacting some sort of freudian vengeance upon themselves, or is the story logic simply a function of what they consider to be the low instincts of their audience?

When we start to ask ourselves what makes a character sympathetic or unsympathetic, it quickly leads to the question: what makes another person sympathetic or unsympathetic? In fact, human beings don’t seem to instinctively hate those others among us who have had fantasy lives, such as Steve Jobs, or Princess Diana, or Bruce Springsteen. By and large, we seem to admire people like that.

There isn’t one answer, or set of answers, for why we like or dislike a character. It varies from individual to individual in the audience. But almost all of us need a reason. We don’t just hate someone because they are named ‘George’, or because they are a policeman or a chess player, or because every time they appear the film plays grating music and features irritating camera effects. Well, that last might make us hate the appearance of the character, but it doesn’t make us dislike them as a person.

And I think we need to dislike a character if we are to experience no remorse when bad things happen to them. If we don’t need to, we should.

Maybe in Arthur we aren’t supposed to dislike Susan or be unsympathetic to her. I think we are, but it is also possible we are simply supposed to be indifferent. Something bad happens to her, she has her heart broken and is humiliated in front of all her family and friends, but her life is great, she’ll bounce back soon — it’s not a big deal. Maybe.

I still don’t think that’s enough.