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Unlikable Characters: A Case Study

David Corbett offers a case study of the concept of pathos, a moral argument in which an everyman employs immoral means to pursue something he considers invaluable in the face of an overwhelmingly powerful person or system.
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The “bad vs. worse” set-up discussed in the article "No More Mr. Nice Guys" in the September 2018 issue of Writer's Digest—all about unlikable but fascinating protagonists—lies at the heart of a form of moral argument known as Pathos.

Pathos—an Entire Moral Argument Based on “Bad vs. Worse”

In this kind of story structure, an everyman with outsized ambitions employs immoral means to pursue something he considers invaluable. He does this in the face of an overwhelmingly powerful person or system, which may or may not be intrinsically evil.

Even though we know the protagonist is doomed to fail, we root for him because we identify with the little guy swinging for the fences, and we all understand that the world isn’t fair. We also, as discussed in the article, all have a little larceny in our hearts, and understand the allure of transgression.

Follow David Corbett's blueprint for flawed-yet-relatable heroes who can still provoke empathy in the September 2018 issue of Writer's Digest.

This form of moral argument animates not just the crime genre known as noir, but a great many plays, films and novels written in the shadow of the Great Depression and World War II, from The Postman Always Rings Twice to The Death of a Salesman. One saw a resurgence in the late 1960s and early 1970s with such films as Cool Hand Luke, Dog Day Afternoon, and Chinatown, and again in the mid-1990s and early 2000s with novels such as Mystic River.

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An Extreme Case: Bending the Rules

If ever there was a character designed to repel the reader, it was Frank Friedmaier from Georges Simenon’s 1946 novel Dirty Snow. Frank is a petty criminal in occupied Belgium during World War II, living with his corrupt mother in her brothel. He murders a German soldier, robs a helpless old woman, and commits a number of other crimes, and never suffers a transformative insight or a turn toward the good. And yet his story is mesmerizing.

How does Simenon pull that off? Notice the innovative way he employs three of the techniques discussed in "No More Mr. Nice Guys" about how to form an unlikable but fascinating protagonist:

  • Bad vs. Worse: We suspect that as bad as Frank may be, the occupiers are far worse—and yet Simenon makes the Germans faceless bureaucrats rather than a menace. Rather, it is his gangster friends that are even more manipulative, dishonest, and self-serving than he is—even as he struggles to win their respect.
  • A Kid or a Dog: Though Frank himself cannot bring himself to admit it, he is smitten with Sissy, the teenage girl who lives across the hall. He thinks she is obsessed with him, not the other way around, which is one more way he armors himself against any admission of affection for anyone, which he rejects as weakness.
  • The Intimacy of Insight: We are invited into Frank’s thoughts throughout the book, a mixed blessing because he is largely unconscious of or unwilling to accept his finer qualities, especially as they relate to his preoccupation with Sissy and her quietly noble father. Frank is blinded to his obsession with them by his guilt, his self-loathing, and the arrogant cynicism he hides behind. His understanding of himself, his world, and other people remains conspicuously wrong-headed right to the end. But that habitual error in interpretation itself becomes fascinating, because we the reader understand, even if Frank does not, that his unconscious fixation on Sissy reveals a longing for something pure, something innocent, even if he himself refuses to concede that fact.

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