Q&A: Assholes

I got a character who might be a “deadpan snarker”. She loves the have the last word, troll people with words, taunts those she dislike, makes snide and sarcastic remarks about flaws or situation, and can be very abrasive and rude when she is angry or demanding. Does this makes her an asshole? Do likeable assholes exist? She can and will be nice to the people she loves and conform them, but she still trolls them for fun occasionally. She is not a bully, nor has low self esteem, just a big ego.

Yeah, sounds like you might have an asshole there, not just someone with a dry sense of humor and a never ending store of sarcasm.

Can an asshole be likable? Yes… with some reservations.

It’s a lot easier to like an asshole, if you never have to interact with them. This might sound counter-intuitive: if you never interact with them, how would you know they’re an asshole, or why would you care? Thing is, the momentary actions from an asshole, the snide comments, the sarcasm, even the egregious behavior, can be pretty funny, if you’re never the target of it.

If you’re watching a show, where a character is tearing the guts out of everyone around them, and you’re not interacting, that can be funny. You can like that asshole, secure in the knowledge that they’ll never direct one of their rants at you in particular. The same thought process carries over into other forms of entertainment.

You can center a story on someone who is a horrible human being, and still entertain your audience. The inveterate asshole protagonist is a staple for sitcoms as a genre. They’re not mandatory, but they can be incredibly entertaining and cathartic. Even in a non-comedy setting, an asshole protagonist can (sometimes) be compelling in their human misery.

It’s easier to like an asshole if they’re selective. Alternately, you can call this filtering if you want. A selective asshole picks who they go after. It could be certain groups of individuals, like people who dress a certain way, fans of some pop group, people who own small dogs, or some wide reaching collection of groups. If you’re not one of the people they target, it’s a lot easier to laugh it off. It becomes harder to stomach when they’re going after you.

Depending on who an asshole targets, you might even empathize or agree with them. It’s entirely possible to have a character who goes off on some group you hold in singular contempt. It doesn’t make their behavior appropriate, but if it’s something you would do or wished you could do, then that can certainly be engaging to you.

Unfiltered assholes are very unpleasant people. They lash out at anyone who gets within easy reach. No one is safe; nothing is sacred. The only people who stay in their lives are ones who don’t have a choice, or refuse to give up on some idealized version of them. I could probably write an article on people having an image of someone else that has no relation to reality, but the short version is that this exists.

Again, if you’re outside of their life, looking in, an unfiltered asshole can be hilarious. You never know quite where they’re going to go next, or what will cause them to flip out. Note: I said, “can be hilarious.” It’s entirely possible for them to simply be temperamental human wreckage with no redeeming value. The fine line between these two states is if the writer (and or actor) can land the jokes.

Comedy is a defense mechanism. No, really. Humor doesn’t all come from the same place, but the kind of vicious comedy you’re describing is, very specifically, a defense mechanism. It’s your character either trying to drive everyone around them out of their life, and create a safe space to inhabit, and/or it’s an attempt to invalidate their own insecurity by taking the people around them down a notch.

You’ll run across a concept from time to time stating that: In order to be a good writer, you need to have had a messed up childhood. I don’t think this is really true. It is possible to become a good writer, through hard work, study and effort. The inverse is not true, having a messed up childhood does not automatically make you a good writer, as anyone who has taught creative writing can confirm.

A messed up childhood will make you hypersensitive to your environment. This doesn’t mean you’ll break down on a whim, but it does mean you are far more likely to pick up on small changes in your surroundings, or in someone’s behavior. With a background like that, you’re wired to pay far more attention to exactly how other people in your environment behave. For writing this is an important skill. For comedy, this is absolutely vital.

It doesn’t matter if you’re making benign jokes, or taking someone out at the knees, comedy requires you’ve gotten into a fairly messed up place, and hung out long enough to get familiar with the mindset. So, when I say, comedy is a defense mechanism, it really is. More accurately, it’s the third stage of a self-defense system for someone who’s been through some serious psychological trauma.

The first stage is that hypersensitivity. Now, this can be acquired through benign causes. It can also build up as an adult.

“What are you talking about? You haven’t been through anything fucked up, I’d know.”

“No, you don’t understand; I’ve worked retail.”

To be fair, if you start developing this awareness as a child, it will be far more refined by the time you’re old enough to drink.

The second stage is learning to operationalize what you see. It’s looking for irregularities, and then connecting the pieces. Usually, when something doesn’t fit, you’ll pick up on it much sooner than a happy, well adjusted, individual would.

Again, if you’re living in a situation where knowing things are about to go pear-shaped is critical to your safety, you’re going to cultivate that skill because your life depends on it. This is also where comedy starts.

A lot of humor begins when you start realizing that something doesn’t quite make sense, then finding a way to articulate that to people who haven’t quite gotten there. Stuff your brain picked out, you noticed it didn’t quite add up, now you’re looking for a way to put that out there.

The trick to being funny is getting there before anyone else did. Jokes don’t play as well on repeat because you’ve already pointed out the idiosyncrasy or weirdness. Your audience knows. Time to find something new. (In fairness, there are concepts about repetition to land a longer joke. Sometimes telling the same joke again so you can flip it around later is a thing. As with any other kind of writing, humor has a large collection of malleable rules.)

The third stage is affecting your environment. This is where you take a joke and actually use it. There’s a lot of ways these can play, and it’s entirely dependent on the jokes themselves, but let’s focus on two approaches for the moment.

You can tell jokes to get attention. Get people to look at you and say, “hey, I like that strange being.” If you’ve been neglected, or just isolated, this is probably your goal. The humor will take the tone of the group you’re trying to ingratiate yourself with. I actually typed, “inoffensive,” but these can actually get pretty messed up; the important part is that the humor helps you blend into the community you want to be a part of.

You can tell jokes to get people to go away. This is the, “fuck you,” of an asshole who has been the subject of direct abuse, and just wants to shove people in their environment out.

Depending on context, there’s a real possibility of the exact same joke switching between these states. (Also, as I said, there is a lot more you can do with humor, but, for the purposes of this specific example, I’m trying to keep things simple.)

Why your character cracks jokes will affect how they use their humor. Someone who’s using it as a weapon is more in the range of trying to push people out. Someone who’s attention seeking is going to try to find an in. Normally, the former would be an asshole, and the latter would not. This isn’t 100%, because context is king here, but the behavior you’re describing is solidly in the asshole camp.

Someone who’s dryly sarcastic can end up in either group. It’s a flavor of delivery, and somewhat agnostic for what you’re doing.

Similarly, deadpan is just a comedic delivery. Literally, the term simply means, “dead faced.” “Pan” was slang for one’s face in the 1920’s. For reference, that was also when the term was coined. You stand up, deliver your joke, but show no emotion or response. It’s almost entirely agnostic to the jokes.

So, this is a long road to get to saying, “yes, your character’s an asshole.” She might also be funny. I haven’t read what you’ve written with her. I’d also question the idea that she’s doesn’t have self-esteem issues, and isn’t a bully.

Now, I’m just going to step back and say, this isn’t automatically a bad thing. Like I’ve said before, your characters don’t need to be good people. They can be walking dumpster fires.

However, you need to be honest with yourself about your characters. They can lie to themselves about who they are. That’s fine, it’s a little messed up, but still it is fine. You can lie to your audience about who your character is. That’s also fine, a little tricky, but still fine. But, you need to remember who your characters really are, under the surface, flaws and all. Also, remember that your character is fictional. You do not need to advocate for them, that’s their problem, your job is to make their story interesting and compelling.

The behavior you’re describing sounds a lot like a bully. Not, the kind of schoolyard kid, who roughs up others. An adult with serious self-esteem issues who looks around, and seeks opportunities to bring others down a peg in order to feel better about themselves. The methods change, but the ultimate goal remains. Someone who looks at the world, and lashes out at the people in it in a desperate bid to feel better about themselves. Internally they may couch this as justified behavior, that their vindictive behavior is justified by prior actions. It’s not. But, they can tell themselves that if they want, and many real people do.

Normal assholes. The kinds who try to keep people out of their lives, can, and do, filter. Well, some of them can anyway. In those cases, it’s entirely possible for someone to have hard lines between people who they’ll go to bat for, and people they’ll take the tar out of.

This kind of approach is incredibly common among people who’ve had abusive childhoods, or engage with human misery on a regular basis, especially as part of their job. Cops, social workers, EMS, people who work retail on Black Friday. In each case, there are subtle differences to how they approach things. Occupational hazard. Because you really don’t want to talk about the drunk boating accident where the underside of the DUI’s hull was smeared into the faces of a dead family. It’s not funny. It’s just fucked up. “How was your day?”

The important thing to keep in mind, when you’re writing this kind of an asshole, is that their aggression needs to be laser focused. They have certain things that will set them off. Everything else can kinda slide. Someone who is this kind of a selective asshole may be an otherwise normal-ish person. It’s not the character you’re describing, but people like this do exist. Some of them will be reading this post.

Someone who started with a finely filtered flavor of asshole who’s letting their focus slip will likely see their life fall apart. People who used to be safe will be getting driven away. Their behavior may become erratic. And, yes, this can happen. Sometimes the strain of the job can lead someone to deteriorate.

At that point, the smart choice is to cut them loose before they snap and make the evening news. Of course, if this was your friend, or someone who’s turned out decent results for years, you might be inclined to turn a blind eye, or try to get them to come back. This can lead to an entirely realistic situation where someone has deteriorated into a complete asshole, but has yet to drive everyone out of their life.

Again, having a character who’s going through this kind of a breakdown, can be an element of a good story. So long as you remember that’s what’s happening, and are keeping track of the bridges your character burns. Having a character who’s at risk of alienating the people they need to do their job, is one way to create tension. Particularly if they started the fires before they realized they’d need them.

-Starke

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