Throw some Jerks in your Fiction

Dramatic scenes thrive on conflict. A powerful technique is to include jerks. I mean, obviously it helps if your villain or antagonist is a little jerky, but in your next tale throw a jerk in your group of good guys too.

Don’t think this works? Who would use this technique? John Scalzi does, for one. In Old Man’s War John Perry’s original roommate fills this role to create some tension in the otherwise edenic trip to the CDF. In the Ghost Brigades, Jared Dirac must contend with a fellow elite forces trainee who severely dislikes him. In the Last Colony John Perry must govern a new colony and keep in line an ambitious political leader.

Okay, so one enormously successful author uses this, can you name another? How ’bout the big guy? I dare you to find one Stephen King story that doesn’t include at least one jerk in the protagonist’s group.

Recognize me from the Langoliers? Remember me from Rose Red?Remember me from Storm of the Century?

When your characters are trying to succeed/survive, mixing in a selfish person makes the audience wonder how it will shake out. Worry of betrayal keeps things on edge even in scenes when the monster is not chasing. It makes for sympathetic protagonists as we see them giving jerks grace. It can also set up scenes of reconciliation which add weight to our protagonists when the good guy displays magnanimity and the jerk comes to respect them. Sometimes the jerk can even become one of the favorite characters, like Jayne on Firefly or Han Solo on Star Wars.

Life is full of jerks and fiction which seeks to imitate it should fill that role also. What other jerks have you seen used to great effect in stories, TV and Film?

Who else uses jerks?

4 thoughts on “Throw some Jerks in your Fiction

  1. Hah! I’ve never thought about it before, but I really love to hate characters in books. All time favorite jerks include (but aren’t limited to) Ringil’s pompous dad in The Steel Remains and Anacrites in Lindsay Davis’s Falco books (gah, he drives me bonkers). There are more, I’m sure, I just can’t think of any others right now.

    It’s funny, but I never thought of Han Solo as a jerk, all though, on reflection, he certainly qualified. I guess maybe goes to show that, as popular belief would have it, (some) women overlook jerktitude.

    Cool post!

  2. I think this is very perceptive. There is another category of jerk, however, the tragic jerk. Specifically, I’m thinking of someone like Darth Vader (starts with good intentions, but goes bad), or Javert from Les Miserables (thinking he’s doing good while doing bad), Agent Smith from the first Matrix (before he became greedy, he was just protecting the system) or even Snape (although that was pretty obvious from the beginning, I think).

    In a story, a jerk who’s a jerk just for being a jerk’s sake is technically a psychopath…and those are no fun to read about. I would say that all characters have to have a fatal flaw…and some characters need to have a fatal flaw that makes them a jerk.

    Or am I running into another category here?

  3. Excellent point Nick. I think a good recent example of a tragic jerk is Baltar from the Battlestar Galactica Redux. He is a jerk and makes bad decisions constantly, but he becomes empathetic because we see how much he suffers from those choices.

    The fatal flaw brings up a new category, but selfishness or arrogance make for a splendid fatal flaw, like Achilles. (The Greek hero, not the character from Robot Jox.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s