21st Century Brontë #7 by Brontë Betterncourt
The Unlikeable, Likeable Character
Late last year I started a Dungeon & Dragons 5e campaign. The decision occurred around 2:30-3:00 A.M.
Previously, my D&D experience ranged from on and off participation in my friend 3.5th edition, and the inkling of participation in my other friend’s Pathfinder edition. Both campaigns had separate rules and overarching stories. One was successful enough to last two years (and still running), while the other ended five months or so after launch, when an arrow impaled a bird crucial to the plot of our entire story, leaving our Dungeon Master speaking in tongues.
Learning an entirely new edition of game mechanics, lore, and creatures, and compiling them into my own homebrew campaign sounded like a totally sane thing to do.
So far, nothing has exploded. I’ve had the mass slaughter of innocent carnies and ceilings collapse onto unsuspecting players. One character nearly drowned in sewer water. There was also a debate involving the consumption of sentient beings and malicious rats.
I can only take credit for the first one.
I hope that my players’ characters make it to the end of the campaign. If played well, they’ll develop within the chaotic world of my fictional continent and its accompanying realms. But as it stands, a few of the players have considered abandoning one of their own. The character is only 13 years old, but has already attempted to steal, lie, and cook the corpses of those slain in battle. She also killed a highwayman after he gave up fighting due to being too injured.
I applaud my players for staying true to their characters, but they must also adhere to the rules of the game. For me, the DM acts as a referee. I believe our job is to stand back and allow the players to interact with the surrounding world, intervening only to roleplay and set scenes. My enjoyment results from their interaction with the story I’ve created.
But what do you do about a character who may not cooperate with the others? Is there merit to keeping a morally corrupted character around, and what does that add to everyone else’s experience?
Can an unlikeable, likeable character persist in Dungeons & Dragons?
It’s a mouthful to say, but the phrase stands for characters that we find fascinating in their universe, but would not associate with in real life. Think Eric Cartman from South Park: an overall fucked up kid. In just one episode he coerces the town to take down the Jews, leading droves of citizens down the street Third Reich style. He’s clad in the signature Hitler-stache and uniform, shouting broken commands in German, which the citizens blindly parrot. This scene is so outrageous that I find it hysterical. If I knew this kid in real life, I’d consider throwing him into oncoming traffic.
The problem then rests in the fact that an unlikeable likeable character in art works in a realm separate from our own. With D&D, we aren’t given that separation, nor a window into that character’s thought processes (otherwise that would be meta-gaming, which is highly frowned upon). We have to directly interact with this character’s socially unacceptable traits, hampering our ability to appreciate this character’s nuances and motivations through mere observation. Considering that the other players know basic ethics, I doubt they’d laugh at an unlikeable likeable character forming a racist-fueled regime in the forests.
Well, the character in question is still young. Though her actions aren’t acceptable, they could be excusable to an extent. What is unlikeable now may change through a pivotal event in the campaign that she could ultimately grow and change from. The easiest fix would be a redemption arc.
Or what if the character didn’t follow this predictable arc?
Maybe the character could balance her questionable morals, remaining good enough to remain with the party, while engaging in shady dealings with demons or devils? If done well, she wouldn’t need to apologize. Instead, she ends up betraying the party, and one of the final battles consist of everyone fighting her?
But this brings us back to my original concern: Does it matter if a character is complex if we don’t like that character enough to follow her thought-processes? Can likeability be forsaken for writing an unapologetic character?
One of the reasons why I find an unlikeable-likeable character appealing is how unrelenting they are. Eric Cartman is still capable of coincidental good if there is personal gain for him. But the character is unapologetic in how outrageous his actions are, and if his character were to suddenly become good, I would feel cheated.
On the opposite end of the spectrum we have a character whose actions are deemed good, but her personality is not one that people would gravitate to. In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen is sent into a walled off micro ecosystem where only one person can leave alive. We automatically root for her because she’s the narrator, but her personality isn’t an easy one to like. She’s sacrifices herself to keep her sister from entering the Games, but toward others she is emotionally walled off. The gifts sent from sponsors are attributed to the more likeable personalities working behind the scenes on her behalf, not because she’s charismatic. And sometimes her bluntness beckons a laugh from the reader.
Katniss doesn’t kill many people, and she doesn’t take pleasure in the act. But murder is made redeemable due to her dire circumstances and the psychological trauma that she never fully recovers from. I can see why she’s likeable, or at the very least respected. But what if The Hunger Games was written in a point of view from one of the wealthier districts? We see the nature of the tributes from District 1 and 2 taking glee in murdering others, but we can attribute that behavior from how they were raised. They were brought up to fight, to see the Games like the Romans do gladiatorial combat, and returning home victorious bestows a great honor on the family.
We wouldn’t even know anything about Katniss if we followed their narration, instead seeing her as a chick who’s good with a bow and arrow, standing between them and glory.
Would we root for this point of view? Quite possibly.
Humans in general are curious. We can’t ignore a car collision; it’s more eerie to not see any bystanders ogling at public tragedy. Some may walk away, and maybe those individuals wouldn’t be interested in reading about morally ambiguous characters. But through these incidents, and through these characters we’re able to spectate these grey areas without clouding our own values. We don’t have to feel guilty since we have that safe distance between Cartman spewing profanities, or teenage carnage. Instead, we can gain a better understanding on how the minds of these characters work. That doesn’t mean we agree with their actions, but we can further understand the inner workings of the mind, and how others can possibly believe that what they’re doing is right.
Let’s go old school for a moment: Shakespeare’s Othello. If we’re discussing characters that we would hate to know in real life but enjoy witnessing from a distance, Iago definitely fits this description. He is the driving force of this story, manipulating and killing to undo Othello’s life. To Iago, everyone else is … collateral damage. Speculations of Iago’s motives span from the bitterness of not receiving a promotion, to fears he has been cuckolded, to even homoerotic desires, but by the end of the play, nothing has been confirmed. The lack of an answer for why he’s so hell-bent on ruining Othello’s life is mind-boggling. We want to ask, why would any sane person do such a thing?
Why do we need an explanation?
I believe the problem rests in the fact that Iago is an extremely likeable character, one who makes us uncomfortable for liking him. The stage or screen lights up every time he appears, and he played the parts of friend, of confidant so well that I forgot about his treachery until his soliloquies reminded me that he is evil. It’s like he’s the director of the play, reminding us of what is really happening because he knows he’s that damn good as an actor that he might fool us along with everyone else in Othello’s coterie.
I find him the most interesting character of this play. Everyone else is clear cut with their emotions and motivations, but Iago exists outside of our comprehension. Even at the very end when Othello asks him why he would do such despicable things, Iago refuses to speak.
A personality so unapologetic could definitely work in a medium such as D&D. Unless such players verbalize their thoughts in roleplay, we don’t know their intentions. Players who are ready to trust everyone unless proven otherwise are in for a rude awakening if they come across a man like Iago, and the pain of his betrayal would continue to sting long after the wounds were inflicted. Which, if we’re considering a D&D Homebrew campaign as an art medium, sends a powerful message of smearing good and evil boundaries. The blow would be more direct since the players are directly interacting with said character, instead of viewing them from a distance.
So I’ll have to see what the character in question will do, though I might not rely on her for a performance of Iago’s magnitude.
I may just draw that inspiration for myself.
Brontë Bettencourt (Episode 34) graduated from the University of Central Florida with a Bachelors in English Creative Writing. When she’s not writing or working, she is a full time Dungeon Master and Youtube connoisseur.
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