What a Jerk! #atozchallenge



What a day to be writing about them!

(If you don’t know, April 12 is an auspicious day around here. That’s all I’m saying.)

Jerks are actually tricky things. Because as authors, we can lump them into two categories:
1. Idiots who are trying hard and who the reader ends up liking
2. Characters the reader is never supposed to like, and so doesn’t.

I mean, think about Screech on the old show “Saved by the Bell.” (And don’t ask why I picked that one because I can’t even begin to answer that question.) He was a jerk. But we loved him. In fact, we loved rolling our eyes at him and resisting our urge to be kinder to him.

That’s how he was drawn.

And sometimes, that’s the sort of character you have to create. Like Screech, he may not be the antagonist — and let’s face it; the easiest antagonists to write are those who have nothing about them to make the reader like them.

But the jerk who the reader grows to love? That sort of character takes a deeper skill, a better mastery of craft. This is the guy you have to finesse. You’re always on a tightrope with this one: If you go too far to one side, the reader will hate him. If you go too far to the other, you lose what sets him apart.

When he’s done right, the jerk who wins you over can become some of fiction’s most endearing characters. Think Rhett Butler!

The flip side, the second type of jerk, is much easier. Like I said, these are often the antagonist, the person who gets in the way of the lead character’s mission. They’re the bad guy in a mystery, the bad guy on Criminal Minds. You know the type. They’re usually one-dimensional and often cliched. They are there for two purposes: to be the bad guy and to get it in the end, so the reader and main characters can feel vindicated. They’re about the simple message that the bad guy always loses in the end, and the good guy always triumphs.

But in real life, the first type of jerk is much more prevalent, isn’t he? That’s because life isn’t as black and white as the bad guy always loses in the end. But then again, that’s why we like fiction so much. We need that clear demarcation.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that even though the jerk who you’re never supposed to like is an undeveloped, usually cliched caricature who has very little, if any, literary value (from a high school English teacher’s POV, or even from the educated reader’s), he still serves a purpose, and that’s the feel good that the reader comes away with. That sense of satisfaction that life IS neat and orderly and it all works out in the end.

So. Jerks. The good ones are hard to write. The easy ones serve a greater purpose.

Think about it. Can you tweak your jerks so the lines between the categories here aren’t so black and white?



  1. Laurel Garver

    April 12, 2017 11:49 am

    I’m going to try to comment once again, though I haven’t been successful after attempting to do so on several of your posts.

    The best antagonist jerks with depth never believe they are the bad guy, but according to their own criteria are the right and good one. The story’s hero is getting in the way of their goals–even if those goals seem sick and twisted to the hero, the antagonist thinks he’s after some great good.

    • Susan Helene Gottfried

      June 15, 2017 10:26 am

      Laurel, what’s the problem been with comments? My site’s been acting up and is undergoing a redesign, so maybe it’s been mean to you — but that hasn’t been intentional! If you’ve got an issue, always feel free to drop me an email and I’ll see what I can do.

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