Do the main characters in a book or movie or TV show need to be sympathetic?
Of course not.
But I think it is important that all your characters be interesting. The main characters on Breaking Bad or Girls or Game of Thrones aren’t necessarily sympathetic — they’re mostly all horrible to each other — but they’re usually pretty interesting, right?
I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been seeing a whole lot of gay characters lately that I don’t find sympathetic or interesting.
Take the new TV shows The New Normal and Partners.
It turns out that the trend this year is gay couples where one half is uptight and fussy, and the other is “flamboyant.” I don’t know any actual couples like this, and maybe they’re just ripping off Modern Family (which at least frequently subverts both these hackneyed gay stereotypes). Anyway, I can see how this dynamic could make for good comedy.
What I don’t get is how incredibly annoying the “flamboyant” half of the gay couples on Partners and The New Normal are. Both guys are played by appealing actors (Michael Urie and Andrew Rannells), but the characters are written as completely superficial, frequently bitchy, and almost pathologically self-centered.
Since when is behavior like this charming, even on a sitcom?
Or maybe it’s just that the writing is sub-par. Will & Grace included a couple of incredibly self-absorbed characters, Jack and Karen, that were hilarious (at least until they got all warm and fuzzy in later seasons). I think the difference is we weren’t supposed to actually like Jack and Karen as people. They were objects of satire — pretty vicious satire at that.
We were laughing at them, not with them (at least I was). But it sure seems to me like we’re supposed to think the gay characters on Partners and The New Normal are somehow adorable.
It’s not that these characters are effeminate that makes them annoying to me. In fact, if I were effeminate, I’d actually be annoyed the way this type of character is portrayed on so many shows. (Don’t get me started on reality shows like The A-List, which seem to push people to be as bitchy as possible because it supposedly “makes good TV.”)
And sure enough, there are plenty of non-effeminate gay characters that seem just as pathologically self-centered these days. The “selling point” of the new Logo web series The Hunting Season is that the characters get naked and have sex a lot, so it’s probably review-proof. (They sell an “uncensored” version of each episode, which I admit is a pretty brilliant marketing gimmick.)
But despite the eye candy, the show depresses me every time I watch it with how incredibly superficial and self-centered the main gay characters all are — even the main character, who is only slightly less jerky than the others. (Truth is, I never really warmed to Queer as Folk either, for all the same reasons. I’m told the characters all mellowed in later seasons, but I never got that far.)
This all takes me back to The Russel Middlebrook Series and the reason I wrote Geography Club in the first place.
I was a book reviewer back then, in the 1990s, and I was being sent all these gay literary novels that had basically the same story: sensitive, young misfit is tormented as a kid and teen, and then moves to the big city to be openly gay, but rather than finding peace and happiness, he instead turns into a selfish, jaded, self-centered jerk who shits all over all his friends. Basically, the main character ends up treating the whole world the way he was treated, but he doesn’t have enough self-insight to ever realize that.
My partner and I used to call the whole genre “asshole gay fiction,” because the gay characters all seemed like assholes.
In fairness, this was a very trendy literary style at the time — in literary fiction in general, not just gay books. It had been very trendy ever since the 1960s and the rise of the master of uber-asshole fiction, John Updike. I think the idea was that for fiction to be truthful, it had to include even the main characters’ most negative traits and behaviors.
And I get it, I really do. And on some level, I even agree with the “warts and all” idea of writing.
The thing is, these gay characters didn’t seem like anyone I knew. My friends weren’t perfect, but they weren’t that wounded. They were mostly nice guys and girls generally trying to do the right thing. The few people who were negative and bitchy and self-centered? I chose not to be friends with them.
So all these books I was reading actually didn’t seem truthful to me: they seemed like writing exercises, designed to push the envelope and shock the reader.
Needless to say, these characters also weren’t very interesting to me. This is part of the reason why I am so drawn to YA literature (and I think so many readers are drawn to YA): sympathetic characters are still encouraged. Literary fiction is supposedly more “important,” but it’s not very fun to read.
Anyway, I wrote Russel Middlebrook and his friends: gay, bi, and straight. They’re definitely all flawed, but it was really, really important to me that when they make mistakes, they feel bad about it. And when they screw up, they try to make things right.
You know: they’re not assholes.
I didn’t think that was anything very radical. But maybe it is.
P.S. For an outstanding gay web series, try The Outs, which I think manages to pull off the difficult balancing act of gay characters who are really flawed, but are still not completely self-centered jerks.