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likeability factor (Mad Men)

Posted: July 26th, 2010, 8:52 am
by SeeSee
I joined the forums specifically to ask this question.

I love Mad Men mostly because everyone is despicable on some level -- morally, ethically, in actions, or complete hypocritical selfishness, etc.. (dragging Betty out of bed, twisting her nightgown and calling her a whore after you've screwed everything that moves for three season comes to mind)

Why does is work so well on that show, yet in books agents and editors need MC to be "likeable?" I recently got a very nice rejection from a really great agent that praised my MC for being "intensely likable despite his many flaws..." That's a compliment, but I like Mad Men for the exact opposite reason. Why is likeability a requirement for books when the opposite is so effective?

Re: likeability factor (Mad Men)

Posted: July 26th, 2010, 11:14 am
by sbs_mjc1
I don't think it's a requirement for books. However, literature (especially if you have a first-person narrator), gives the reader a level of intimacy with the character which one doesn't have in a TV show. So even if your character is deeply flawed, they need to be able to engage the reader and connect with them emotionally, otherwise the reader will shut the book in disgust. However, there are a number of fictional characters who are not at all "likable", but are so overwhelmingly twisted and crazy they are fascinating in that train-wreck sort of way.

Re: likeability factor (Mad Men)

Posted: July 26th, 2010, 11:45 am
by Margo
Visual media is (of course) entirely visual. We may cheer for or against a character, but we do so from a certain distance.

A book, however, is a guided meditation aimed at a certain level of sensory immersion. The idea is for the reader to identify with the hero or protagonist. Some books are designed to let the reader step into the hero's role. Humanizing flaws are important (especially for a hero, less so for a protagonist but still important), but they need to be forgivable flaws and there needs to be some evolution of character in regards to those flaws, because few (if any) readers want to experience what it's like to be an unmitigated a-hole for 400 pages.

Re: likeability factor (Mad Men)

Posted: July 26th, 2010, 11:31 pm
by Nathan Bransford

Re: likeability factor (Mad Men)

Posted: July 27th, 2010, 9:35 am
by SeeSee
Good thoughts, Nathan. I don't neccesarily think Don Draper is charismatic or hilarious, etc... but I do think he's a badass, for sure. Maybe that's why I'm willing to tune in every week.

I agree with Margo and sbs, though, too. I think it does make a huge difference when it's on TV, much, much harder to do in a book. I imagine voice would come into play to override the character's actions and keep the reader on his side.

Re: likeability factor (Mad Men)

Posted: July 28th, 2010, 2:32 pm
by polymath
I didn't much care for the Seinfeld situation comedy when it first aired. I did wonder what all the hoopla was about and had to find out for myself. I didn't get into it until I understood what was going on beneath the surface. I didn't find any of the central, supporting, or extras characters especially attractive or appealing. I found Cosmo Kramer most likeable for his unapologetic self-awareness of his eccentric personality traits. The setting didn't stand out to me, a cosmopolitan megatropolis. The idea, well, it's purportedly about nothing. The event(s) don't on first blush have a lot of unifying commonality.

That leaves some aspect of plot for audience appeal and rapport's sake; high or low concept premises of the installments and overall storyline arc ought to be unified by plot. A mainstay of plot's main benchmarks is a dramatic complication incitement, efforts to address it, and a denoument outcome: beginning, middle, and ending. The larger complication I located is four self-absorbed characters coping with the fallout of their self-serving ways. Self-indulgent, self-absorbed, self-centered, self-serving, selfish. No wonder the series ends with all four in jail for their misdeeds. Poetic justice; social commentary revealed. I suspect the exit strategy had been contemplated from the beginning.

I feel about the same way about The Sopranos, only it has more adult situations, drama, violence, and language. For that matter, The Honeymooners, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, The Simpsons, Family Guy, American Dad, My Name is Earl, Malcolm in the Middle, etc., follow the same formula of coping with fallout from self-serving motivations. I haven't investigated Mad Men yet. I imagine it too follows the same plot and storyline arc formulas for the purpose of building audience rapport.

SPICE; Setting, Plot, Idea, Character, Event.

Re: likeability factor (Mad Men)

Posted: July 30th, 2010, 8:44 am
by SeeSee
QUOTE: "...The larger complication I located is four self-absorbed characters coping with the fallout of their self-serving ways. Self-indulgent, self-absorbed, self-centered, self-serving, selfish..."

Um, yeah, you just described Man Men perfectly, and it does it with such style that you're taken aback. And using that quote as a guide, you just described The Jersey Shore, too, which unfortunately I had an opportunity to view last night. Oh my. :) At least now I understand what everyone is talking about.

Really interesting points.

Re: likeability factor (Mad Men)

Posted: July 30th, 2010, 12:36 pm
by katya152
Just a few weeks ago I stumbled on an article from last year about the anti-hero on TV. Basically, it claims the trend will die because series can only take the narrative so far. They have to keep ratcheting up the plot until they hit the ceiling. ... thing.html

It's true when you think about it: Tony Soprano, Walter White, Tommy Gavin, Don Draper, Dexter, King Henry, etc. We're on an anti-hero binge right now. But I'm a real sucker for the anti-hero.

I don't know if there's really a difference between TV and books as far as "bad" protags are concerned. They still have something about them that makes you root for them. Tony Soprano is a murderous sociopath, but he loves his family and children. And ducks. Same goes for Walter White (Breaking Bad). Tommy Gavin (Rescue Me) is traumatized and brave but personally destructive and selfish.

Don Draper is a rake, but we know he has a tragic past. And, we get sucked into his moments of sheer genius. Plus, he's hot.

Re: likeability factor (Mad Men)

Posted: July 30th, 2010, 1:25 pm
by polymath
I believe the antihero trend has been around for quite some time, swinging back and forth between wholesome heroes and flawed heroes. Homer's Iliad is more historical narrative than fictional myth and without a central protagonist, per se. Agamemnon, Achilles, Patroclus, Nestor, Priam, Helen, Odysseus, Paris, Menelaus, etc., and a pantheon of gods, each heroes in their own right and light, nonetheless with self-serving, flawed motivations by contemporary cultural standards.

The current trend toward antiheroes in my considered estimation is more a consequence of fully rounded realistic characters and situations appeals than the spectacle appeal of more outrageous behaviors and situations, although I agree sagas that follow that story arc track are shortlived and shortsighted. Romanticism's poetic justice is just less common in adult entertainments of late.

The bad guy protagonist can and does often win in real life, the ends do justify the means, any means to an end, damn the consequences, better to beg forgiveness afterward than ask permission beforehand. That's what everyone else is doing, why not me? So, of course, I can vicariously like antiheroes who masterfully get away with justifiable homicide. Realism's influence is to my way of thinking prevailing because culture has become more informed, more skeptical, cynical, analytical, and less fantastically speculative than in the comparatively blissful self-serving ignorance of the past. If you don't look out for yourself, you're doomed. No one else will. Life just isn't fair and no reason given to hope it would be any different.

Last out of Pandora's Box was Hope, though. The pendulum swings, from post Postmodern questioning and challenging absolutes and authorities to perhaps a new existential paradigm, answering unanswered questions posed by the ever enduring cultural debate between predestination and free will. If there's an answer to the question What is the meaning of life? that is it. But it raises more questions than it answers; questions that tomorrow's literature can address, eh?

Re: likeability factor (Mad Men)

Posted: July 30th, 2010, 1:44 pm
by cheekychook
I think the key is whether or not the characters inspire you to feel sympathetic toward them.

Yes, Don Draper is a cad, a force, a womanizer, and often a bit of an ***---but he has a tragic, twisted past, he's needy, and he loves his kids. He's not evil incarnate---he's damaged---so we can feel sympathy toward him.

I think the same goes for characters like Sawyer on LOST. Initially he seemed totally unlikeable---a conman, a self-serving jerk, a criminal---but is that really who Sawyer was? No---he was also damaged by a horribly tragic past, and underneath all the sarcasm/bullying was a very sympathetic selfless man.

For literary characters the same is true---the character can act out, regularly, but the reader needs a sense of why, needs to understand what has made the person the miserable/cruel/grumpy/whatever wretch that they are---and if they can relate to that, or can feel that it was a significant reason for the character to become so awful, then they can sympathize with their plight and voila---likability is attained. Well, maybe not always likability, but at least tolerability (don't think that's a real word, but it oughta be) and a degree of understanding---which will be enough to keep them reading.

Re: likeability factor (Mad Men)

Posted: July 30th, 2010, 2:07 pm
by mojo25
I know Don Draper has done some bad things, but I like him--there's a depth to him and his backstory is so interesting (mother's a prostitute, etc etc). I thought he seemed a bit too harsh in the first episode of the new season, but I imagine it will seesaw back and forth--because that's the way he is. He's definitely not all bad. There's a vulnerability to him, so I think that's why he's likable.

Re: likeability factor (Mad Men)

Posted: July 30th, 2010, 7:21 pm
by djf881
People who are well-established and successful can do things that unproven people cannot. Matthew Weiner, the creator of "Mad Men" was an executive producer on "Sopranos," so he came with a lot of credibility. Also keep in mind that these complex and nuanced portrayals tend to show up on cable. Networks and major films are very conservative about these things; charismatic bad-boys always have squishy centers and people who are kind of jerky always mean well.

And antiheroes like Tony Soprano and Don Draper are always people you like; you like them in spite of the bad things they do. Not all people who do bad things are mustache-twirling villains. They don't always commit an unforgivable crime at the end of the second act so they can ber righteously killed by flawless heroes in the climax. You are supposed to be challenged by the difficulty of reconciling the fact that you like Don and Tony to your own values. The charming asshole is kind of a venerated American type. Protagonists the audience are intended to dislike are very rare, through, in US entertainment media.

The English comedian Ricky Gervais specializes in playing characters who are bad people that deserve to have bad things happen to them. When "The Office" was adapted for US television, some of the edges were sanded off that character. Steve Carrell's version of the character still vacillates between wanting to behave selfishly and wanting to be liked, but he's bumbling and socially inept instead of deliberately mean. He's sometimes pathetic, but rarely repulsive. You root for him to make it in the end, while you want the Gervais character to get a comeuppance.

Re: likeability factor (Mad Men)

Posted: August 1st, 2010, 12:00 am
by arbraun
I don't know, SeeSee. I write horror and have no problem with the protagonst being the antagonist. The only answer I can think of is the one they've beat into my head: if the protag's not likeable, how can the reader be interested in the story? I guess it makes them feel like a dirty voyuer to read it.

Re: likeability factor (Mad Men)

Posted: August 1st, 2010, 4:15 pm
by SeeSee
arbraun wrote:The only answer I can think of is the one they've beat into my head: if the protag's not likeable, how can the reader be interested in the story? I guess it makes them feel like a dirty voyuer to read it.
Better to feel like a dirty voyuer than to be bored, I guess? Or maybe that's the hook of the whole thing -- Don Draper and cast are so fascinating because they are selfish and tightly wired.

Re: likeability factor (Mad Men)

Posted: August 1st, 2010, 9:26 pm
by arbraun
Yeah, I hear ya. Dirty voyuer's fine with me.