Thursday, August 18, 2011

In praise of unlikable characters: Pete Campbell

So I blew through the fourth season of Mad Men on Netflix, and made a surprising discovery: Pete Campbell is my favorite character.

This discovery interests me because I have been harping off and on about the issue of likable characters in fiction. In fact I created a class around the topic at Stanford a few years ago. To recap, it always bugged me in fiction workshops when people would say something to the effect of, "I just don't like this character," meaning...well, I wasn't sure, exactly. The story wasn't working for these people, but was it because they felt the character was immoral? Or they couldn't "relate" to the character, meaning he/she didn't evoke sympathy in the reader? Do all characters have to be someone we would want to be friends with in real life? I thought not. But characters to have to engage us, and I have been at pains over the years to figure out how.

In the first few seasons of Mad Men, Pete was the character I loved to hate. I hated his pinched expression, his sense of entitlement, and his peevishness when that sense ran up against some real-world obstacle. (Also he was a jerk to Peggy, and his wife, and all women, but that of course doesn't make him anything special in the MM world.) He was like a little boy entering the grown-up world a little too soon, and finding out that it was not at all what he'd expected.

But who can't relate to that? Who hasn't felt, after a long day at some office, that "I was led to believe there would be cake" feeling, and wanting to whine about it? Where is the damn cake? And the freedom, and the knowledge, and the power that all adults were supposed to have, all of which I was supposed to have, too, once I grew up? It's all a big ruse, this adult thing? Now what am I supposed to do?

Also in this past season, I've noticed another quality in Pete that I admire: his commitment. Even as he sees (and complains about) the Don Drapers of the world trampling on the less handsome and less lucky and (so far) getting away with it, he still puts on his suit and shows up at work and does his god-damnedest to haul in new clients. We may not think much of the value of the work he does, but he does it extremely well. Despite all the problems he sees, Pete is not yet ready to give up on his dream. He signed up to be an ad man, and that's what he's going to do.

Lots of credit, of course, must go to the actor, Vincent Kartheiser, who plays Pete without a trace of vanity. He never winks at the audience, inviting us to mock Pete or to remind us that he isn't "really" this guy. The commitment we sense in Pete is the actor's commitment.

So what does this all mean for writers trying to create interesting characters? By which I mean, characters who are complex and engaging and challenging--not simply mirrors held up to flatter readers' (and our own) moral vanity? Well, the creator of characters must understand them. I may not like or admire Pete's peevishness, but I know where it comes from; I've felt it, too. In other words, Pete feels like a creation from within. He's not a cartoon, observed and imitated from outside, but grown out of common, if embarrassing, emotions.

All of which suggests that a great character might start out as some complex twinge in the heart, rather than as an image, or a type, or a role you need played in your story. And you need to commit to that twinge, not wish it away, or wink at it.

1 comment:

Fran09cis said...

Like you I am also now watching Mad Men on netflix. Just finished season 2. Found your post by searching "unlikable characters mad men" because I'd be really hard pressed to name more than maybe one or two characters on Mad Men I do like. I agree that Pete Campbell is a smug little priss that I'd mostly like to slap in the face, but as you note, he's not just that, he has been developed, thankfully, and displays a more complex make up, good and bad, like real people. I have been watching Mad Men not because I particularly like the story lines and really not because I like the characters, few of them are likable. But because the characters are multifaceted.And to the extent it's an accurate depiction of the time period (and I do remember some of this as a child and later the remnants)it's a fascinating historical study.