Tuesday, November 8, 2011

14 REVENGE: A Case Study in Concept and Character Likeability

It's no secret that this season's hot new TV series, REVENGE, is a modern twist on THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO with a female lead. Genius idea, right? Dumas' classic was originally serialized, presented, one segment at a time, for maximum impact. A high-adventure soap crafted to get people talking about vengeance and mercy, hope and hopelessness, justice and injustice. And REVENGE, too, offers all of that.

But talk about likability issues. The show's writers have a challenge before them. Emily Thorne aka Amanda Clarke shows up in the Hamptons intent on revenging herself against the people who destroyed her life, and she does it with a chillingly cold, systematic ruthlessness that leaves us shivering as we watch. There is nothing to connect us to this character. Or is there? What makes us willing to swim in the cesspool of her head?

First, there's the glamour and suspense. The program opens with a literal bang as we discover Emily's fiance, the son of the people most responsible for falsely imprisoning Emily's beloved father, getting shot during her engagement party. So right off, there's the mystery: who did it? Only then do we get the backstory. Amanda Clarke is idyllically happy with her father in their huge Hamptons home until the society queen he loves conspires with her own husband to lock him up for crimes he didn't commit. Then Amanda herself is locked up as the Grayson's bribe and coerce a series of officials to hide her away in the interests of greed and self-preservation.

So okay, we're sympathetic. Emily lost her father and her childhood. She's lost her fiance. (We're not actually sure that she loves him though.)

We do know, or at least we quickly come to find out, that Emily had a dog and a best friend, Jack, when she was little. Jack is now grown and gorgeous, and the dog is old and still loyal to Emily. More sympathy. Brilliant but predictable.

Except that Jack isn't who Emily is engaged to. Nope, that would be Daniel Grayson. But the writers still use Jack (and the dog) shamelessly to show us why we're supposed to like Emily. Why we should forgive her being cold to Nolan, the one guy who goes out of his way to help her. Why we should ignore her coldly turning down Jack in favor of Daniel. Why we should forgive her for being cold period. Because we don't ever see Emily breaking down, being weak, being traditionally, compensatingly kind.

The writers keep Emily teetering on the edge of likeability in the greyspace between too cold for sympathy and warm enough to make us less fascinated. And they keep us breathless, wondering when the crash is coming. Every week Emily makes one tiny miscalculation after another, out of compassion or arrogance or poor assumption, that leads her deeper into danger. We can't look away.

So what can we learn from Emily?

We learn that you have to give the character something to fight for, something she craves to down to the wormwood of her soul, even if that's nothing more laudable than revenge. If the character needs something desperately enough, we are invested in seeing if she gets it. Conversely, if we make someone else care about the character--even if it is just an old, yellow dog--we can make the character seem more likeable. REVENGE never shows Emily doing anything kind. But because someone else cares for her, and more importantly, at some point, someone else truly cared deeply for her, we care for what she has lost. Loving and being loved make her actions more sympathetic.

What do you think? What would you put into Emily's story to keep her symptathetic? How often would you remind the reader about her motives? How well would her story work if we were reading it as a young adult novel?

How much, in the end, does character likeability matter in the face of a brilliant concept?

Leave a comment and I'll throw in a copy of THE OTHER COUNTESS by Eve Edwards.

Here's the book blurb from Goodreads:

It's 1582 and eighteen-year-old Will Lacey's family is in trouble. After years of wasteful spending, his late father has run Lacey Hall to near ruin. Tasked with marrying his family back into fortune, the new Earl of Dorset is all set for a season at court to woo not just the Queen but potential brides with his jousting skills. But when Ellie – a strong-willed girl with nothing to her name but a worthless Spanish title – catches Will's eye, he faces a bigger battle than he could ever have anticipated.

Here's to writing well: the best revenge,



  1. Having a main character like Emily is the kind of thing you would get a "smackdown" for in Scriptwriting class. Straight up you have to make the most unlikeable character (on paper) not only likeable, but relatable.

    Without getting into the nitty gritty - the writer's have already accomplished this to a point where everyone tunes in every week to see who will be the focus of Emily's wrath and how she will, literally, destroy them.

    I think Emily did all her crying and breaking down as a child and now she's just a lean, mean vengeance machine.

    I also scratch my head as to why she's so mean to Nolan. Although his character does seem to respond well to negative attention...

  2. Nicky,

    It is definitately a delicate balance, right? I marvel at the skill of the writers. And it is definitely not something that a novice could pull off, is it?


  3. That's an interesting thought. I'm too much of a softy, because I like main characters (or even people who become close to the mc) to be likable, and I'm frustrated when they're hard-hearted. I'm going to have to address it in my Nanonovel this month, though. I guess that's why I'm in MG instead of YA. You don't see as much of it there.

    For some reason this post puts me in mind of Madeleine L'Engle's characters Vicky Austin and Zachary Grey (who wavers between a softer and a more dangerous side).

  4. Beth,

    That's true, isn't it? MG tends to be more upbeat than YA, but I think it's because the kids aren't tested by life as much. I think that's what draws me to YA, the testing.


  5. I've enjoyed the show so far. And I like the mystery of her character, not necessarily her character. I look forward, in anticipation, to the time where she shows the brief moments of emotion or will realize that revenge isn't worth it. But yes, the dog definitely helps. I think we like the Emily who could be - the amanda Clark behind the Emily thorne. Even if we don't' really like Emily thorne.

    That's exactly what Edmond Dantes was like. Cold and aloof and vengeful. There was no passionate reunion with Mercedes at the end, for he had become a different person.

  6. Laura, I love that: "I think we like the Emily who could be - the Amanda Clarke behind the Emily Thorne." YES! It's that hope of redemption that keeps me tuned in. I'll admit, I enjoy seeing the Grayson's squirming, but so far, nothing has hit home to them quite yet. Amanda is hurting herself as much or more than she is hurting anyone else, and that makes for compelling viewing.

  7. Ah. This show tries to justify the protagonist's motive through A Freudian Excuse (she lost her family/childhood/etc). However, as TV Tropes had stated, a Freudian Excuse doesn't excuse a character's motivation.

    The presence of the best friend and dog is better, but, as you stated, the protagonist herself has to be nice in at least one way. Someone more than petting that dog.

  8. I think fascinating characters can carry a story even when the MC isn't so likable: look how we watched Glen Close in Damages. I haven't watched Revenge yet, though, since I have no tv--I always have to wait for these shows to come out on Netflix.

  9. I saw the upcoming promo for that show and did not like it. Maybe it is the likeability thing. I wasn't sure what vibe I didn't like and I think you've hit it. :O)

  10. CO, that's the edge they walk on the show. I'm constantly fascinated by how little they give us in terms of likeability, and how much I put up with from Emily and manage to justify. :D

    Gail, I agree. Likeable characters make for a pleasant read, but the stories that create a visceral response for me often include questionable moral or unlikeable actions by a character. A likeable character who does something UNLIKEABLE is fascinating! :)

    Diane, interesting. I don't know that this is the kind of a show you can jump into mid-season, but it would be interesting to know if you liked it once you saw it?

  11. A more interesting character to explore in this context would be Dexter!

  12. Lia, yes! Instinctively though, the fact that Dexter loves kids and goes out of his way to actively avenge them makes him more easily likeable. He's channeling his own dark urges into doing something arguably "good" for others, even if it is morally and legally "bad," and he does good things in his "day job" too. Is Emily doing anything good for anyone? If so I can't think of it. So on the surface of it, Dexter is far more redeemable, I think.

  13. Oh, and this topic reminds me of the YA book YOU by Charles Denoit. I didn't enjoy it because the protagonist, Kyle, is not likable. He lacks motivation, which makes him boring since he does nothing but drift through the story.

    And it's character-driven. While the novel can be seen as a tragedy, he lacks the sympathy MacBeth similar characters possess before their fatal flaw drags them down.

    And from the 1st person parts, he has the type of attitude that would make me cringe constantly in real life. The 2nd person narration works against the book.

    If it wasn't for the ending, I might've not finished it due to pure apathy. The book's suppose to be thoughtful, but any thoughts the narration presented I rejected because of Kyle's unwilliness to change or develop.

  14. The flashbacks to Amanda Clark are what make me like Emily. I feel for her and understand why she wants revenge so badly. It'll be interesting to see Emily crack at some point. I'll tune in because the show is pretty suspenseful!


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