Characters You Want to Strangle?

Emma Woodhouse? Michael Scott? Who makes your list?

Have you ever read a book with a character you just love, but you want to strangle at the same time? For me, that was Emma Woodhouse, “heroine” of Jane Austen’s “Emma.” I read that novel for the first time in high school. You could tell she meant well, and that her heart was in a good place, but she kept interfering in everyone’s– and I do mean everyone’s— love life throughout the course of the novel. She seriously endangers Harriett’s chances of longtime happiness, which was just SOO frustrating for me. Emma was also dumb as a brick when it came to her own life and Mr. Knightley.
I used to read in bed a lot, and I definitely remember a time when I was frustrated with Emma I literally threw the book against the wall. I threw the book. And yet, “Emma” remains one of my favorite stories. I love the ending. I love how devoted to and patient she is with her father. I’ve reread the book a couple of times, and even wrote a paper for a graduate-level narratology class comparing how the book and the movie (Gwenyth Paltrow version) take different tactics to make us as the audience care about Emma when frankly, she’s really annoying.

I always admire writers and actors who can pull this phenomenon off: making us feel for a character that, honestly, we shouldn’t like. This takes a lot of skill, skill of the type that I, as a writer, honestly don’t believe I have. I don’t even try to attempt this. It’s just too easy to screw it, and when you do, you REALLY alienate your readers. In short: my good guys are human, but they aren’t so obviously and annoyingly flawed to the point of an Emma, or a Michael Scott.

I respect Steve Carrell TONS as an actor because he pulls the pulling-on-your-heartstrings thing off to a TEE on “The Office” with his character of selfish, racist, misogynist, and bumbling Michael Scott. There is absolutely no reason we should care about Michael, at all. None. But Steve Carrell plays him so well, so humanly, that you can’t help but feel for the guy. When this kind of set-up works, it’s a beautiful thing, because it’s a reminder that we’re all flawed and annoying in our own ways. (On that note, GOD BLESS MY FAMILY. Seriously.) It’s a reminder to be patient, to focus on what we admire and respect about those around us, and to try hard to forgive mistakes. Characters like Emma and Michael are great, yes. But they’re difficult to bring to life.

I’m curious: who are the characters you love to hate? The annoying and kind of awful people you shouldn’t like but do anyway? Amy March from “Little Women?” Dr. Jeckyll?

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12 responses to “Characters You Want to Strangle?

  1. Victoria, a fascinating write. Yes, Emma is someone one would like to strangle and she is so real! There are hoards of people around the world who just can’t bear to see anyone in love. Wonder why? I will be posting this write on my page: Until death do us part tomorrow, so people can read this wonderful, ever so true article. Yet, Jane Austen is one of my faves :)))

  2. I agree with Emma Woodhouse, she was so interfering! Another character that really annoyed me was Melanie Hamilton from Gone with the Wind. She is annoyingly useless and unrealistically nice to everyone.

  3. Michael Scott… Oy! When he’s on I spend the entire time rotating between cringing and laughing. He is a walking, talking HR nightmare, but he has everyone’s best interests at heart. He’s also a lot smarter than he seems sometimes. I think that’s why Jim and Pam actually put up with him. 🙂

  4. As soon as I read this, immediately Scarlett O’Hara from “Gone With the Wind” came to mind. She is a spoiled brat who destroyed her sister’s love life, went after a married man whose wife loved everyone, even Scarlett. She finally found love and manage to screw it up too. BUT, she never gave up. She worked the plantation when nobody else would and even at the end, she vowed that she would get Rhett back. So, while being annoyed by her, you have to admire her too. It is too bad that “Gone With the Wind” ended up being Margaret Mitchell’s only book. She had a great talent and I’ve always wondered about the other books she could have written.

    • DEFINITELY. Scarlett is one of those characters, for sure. I love the scenes where she redeems herself standing up for Tara! Even if she’s HORRIBLE in most respects, somehow I care what happens to her.

  5. Pingback: On Character Triats, Part III: No Common Sense | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

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