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.
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?