I've been contemplating character a lot lately. I've noticed in movies and books the way characters affect me and how that transforms my opinion of the story being told. I'd like to compare House of Cards with Toy Story. Seems like apples and oranges I know, but bear with me.
Woody starts out as a character we can like, he's a leader, shows a level of compassion and intelligence that immediately draws us in. However, it does not take long before he starts acting like a jerk. When he does this, we cringe but we sympathise with his plight. The poor guy lost his standing. This push pull on our emotions works to solidify our need to cheer for the guy in spite of ourselves and it makes for interesting story. I think underneath it all, we're hoping that he will stop being a jerk and things will work out. Which is exactly what happens and thus we have character curve - the path a character takes to become a different person, or toy in this instance. We are rewarded for our emotional investment.
In House of Cards we meet Francis Underwood and right away we get the feeling he's not such a great guy. We are nevertheless, drawn into his character because he's smart, calculating and we think there's so much more going on with this guy. Plus, he talks directly to us, making us his accomplices, which makes us feel 'in the know'. As the story progresses, we find ourselves hoping he will have a curve toward being a better person. We think he could be doing all this chess playing for something better, to become better. I have not finished watching the series because his character plummets so far into darkness I just couldn't like him or hope for him anymore, especially since that darkness seems to be where he intended to go in the first place. In other words, he doesn't seem to have a curve, he started evil, he remains evil. I'm not saying I want Pollyana characters. However, if the characters I care about either die too early or become unbearably evil, I lose interest. My emotional investment didn't pay off and it drains me of my will to watch.
In these two examples, the path of the characters appear to be paths thought out from the beginning. What I find worse than drawing me into a character that I'm going to hate, is drawing me into a character, making me love that character and then without warning changing who that character is, making him unwatchable. Cue West Wing. I started watching West Wing. I love this show - for the first three seasons. These were smart, savvy characters with a desire to do good things. They faltered at times, they fought difficult odds, but they always rallied around each other and sought what means they could to do the right thing. Then season four comes along and suddenly, there are no good resolutions. Every fight ends in disaster or a turning away from doing what's right. By season five, they begin turning against each other. Now my emotional investment doesn't just become a loss, it has turned on me. I am now practically feeling complicit in the demise of these characters and disgusted with the show. But I kept watching thinking this will turn around. By the end of season five, I gave up. These were not characters I could get behind or hope for and without that, screw it.
There are characters we love to hate. Take Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation. He's despicable and always wreaking the worst kind of havoc, and yet we love his misbehaving because there's something about it that is so compelling, as though he were doing all the wrong things for a good reason even if we can't decipher it right away. This is great writing when you can do that and hold me in that state. However, it is rare. I watch entertainment for fun. If I wanted to be down or mad or frustrated I'd watch the news. If I wanted to see politicians being ruthless and political without regard for decency or trying to make this place a better world, I'd only have to turn to real politicians. So, if you want my investment in something that is difficult to root for, you'd have to convince me by some factor, characters I can love, a story so important or riveting I feel compelled to stay. But you set me up to love a character and then make that character a despicable person without any redemption or any draw to see what he'll do, I'm going to leave.