A couple weeks ago, I saw that Ghosts of Girlfriends Past was coming on TV, so I set it to DVR for when we didn’t have anything else to watch. That turned out to be last night. We sat through maybe the first twenty minutes before turning it off and deleting it. Why? Because I didn’t see anything redeemable about Matthew McConnaughey’s character. I didn’t like him enough to want to see him redeemed. This is a problematic reaction for a watcher (or reader) and begs the question of where the line falls. At what point is a character irredeemable?
Some might suggest that all characters are redeemable if you’re a good enough storyteller. And maybe that’s true. Certainly some of the stories I’ve loved best are ones where the author has taken a guy who was the antagonist at one point and made me cheer and love him as the hero at another. Spike from Buffy is the perfect example. He didn’t get reprogrammed like the Terminator. He actually CHANGED as a character.
Now certainly there are all kinds of types of redemption. You can take an assassin and give him a heart of gold. A murderer and give him a purpose (Dexter anyone?). A mean girl who learns what it is to be on the other side of the teasing. But for the purposes of this discussion, I want to focus on the rake–the lothario.
This type of character has been a staple in romance for decades (perhaps longer). The classic formula was a very experienced man being “tamed” by the love of a good woman. I get the attraction here to a point. I mean, this is the ultimate conquest for a woman. To take a rake, a man who’s been with many, many women, and successfully, willingly, bind him only to you–the thing that all those other women failed to achieve. Plus there’s the supposed benefit of him being amazing in bed, as one would assume that he has learned from all his prior encounters. The taming of the bad boy is a powerful archetypal storyline, one that women are often particularly psychologically vulnerable to. (Me personally, I’ll take a nice guy dressed up in bad boy garb with sexy scruff any day–I just want the motorcycle jacket!).
But the thing about it is, you have to be careful how you portray this lothario. Readers (or watchers) have to see something redeemable about his character, some nugget of gold, kernel of goodness that makes it worth fighting through his man whore ways to get to the other side of the story.
This is where Ghosts of Girlfriends Past failed for me. In the first twenty minutes of the movie, Connor is shown as shallow, self-centered, unapologetically promiscuous, with absolutely no respect for women. He actually broke up with four women at once via a Skype conference call. I got the general sense that he feels like all women are prostitutes, and he’s just too awesome to have to pay for it. He gives an obnoxious pseudo speech about the ludicrousness of the institution of marriage and the lie that is love at his brother’s rehearsal dinner and holds up his Hugh Hefner like uncle as a role model. Nothing to like there. Now I did actually watch through the part where Uncle whoever’s ghost shows up to tell him he’s going to be visited by three ghosts and he’ll be made to feel, but I wasn’t hooked enough to actually watch and see him do those things. When he wound up feeling the breasts of the bride to be’s mother (whom he thought was one of the ghosts) and didn’t even really apologize for it, I turned it off. You don’t show me any good qualities by the first plot point, you’ve lost me. I don’t give a rat’s ass what happens to this character.
A much better example of bad boy rake done right is Dean Winchester from Supernatural. (C’mon, you had to know that was coming if you follow me at all) Leaving aside that he’s the star of a TV series that has much longer to develop character, the things that the writers of this show do right are to make Dean truly likable. Yeah, he can often be found lurking in bars, being charming and chasing tail. He’s had who knows how many one night stands (when the world is about to end and you’re all that’s standing between the world and Armageddon, there’s not a lot of room for meaningful relationships, I guess). But in the end, Dean loves women. He appreciates them. Everything about them. And you generally don’t get the sense that he feels they’re only convenient penis receptacles (there’s a story behind that term–someday I might tell it). When he screws up, he has the good grace to look bashful or ashamed. He’s humanized. And that’s why we forgive his less than stellar behavior (well, that, and his pretty baby blues).
What about you? What do you feel is the line where a character becomes irredeemable?