Everyone has met a jerk at least once. Perhaps you dated one, or were friends with one. They’re not nearly so charming in real life as they can be on TV, or in books and movies — mostly because we’re the ones they’re being jerks to! And, of course, in real life we’re often not privy to the events that caused them to be jerks, or whether or not they struggle internally with those events.
Jerks are some of my favorite characters, though my husband doesn’t get it. In fact, he’s more likely to despise the character than feel anything for them, or see any chance for change. My husband is a nice guy, and he treats people fairly — a fact for which I’m grateful. I, on the other hand, look for hints of remorse and damage in jerk characters, loving those moments where they show their potential for honor, no matter how fleeting. Here are a couple of my faves:
1. Brian Kinney from Queer as Folk. Played by Gale Harold.
Brian is narcissistic, cold and selfish. His sexual exploits are proof of this, and his modern apartment is as sterile and cold as his heart. He is gay, almost 30, beautiful (and worried about losing that to age) and seemingly irresistible. He treats most people, even those whom he calls friends with contempt. Except for childhood pal Michael, and lesbian college friend, Lindsay, for whom he would do anything, he has no friends. He sees the young thing at a bar and goes after him, not knowing this young man will ultimately lead to his downfall and partial reformation. Brian’s change by series end is not huge, but it’s enough to be satisfactory, yet stay true to character. He has learned to love unselfishly, but he’ll be damned if he’ll let anyone else know that. Brian is a jerk, but through his interactions with his few friends, his son, his lover, and memories of his father, we catch glimpses of what lies beneath the hard exterior. We see when he breaks down, faces death — and worse, faces growing old. All of this is brought into painful clarity by Gale Harold’s unflinching portrayal.
Damon is borderline evil. Perhaps not even borderline. He has killed without remorse — and with just enough of a hint of it to make him not quite the villain. He does it all with a twinkle in his eye. In season two we’ve seen him kill the brother of the girl he loves, and try to atone for it without trying too hard (spoiler — the brother didn’t really die). He’s the guy you want around when someone has to die. He’s about self-preservation and pleasure, and has no illusions about what he is. “I’m a dick,” he announces in one episode. However, we know he will do whatever Elena and his brother Stephen need for him to do — even if that means not acting on his love for Elena, because he knows Stephen is better for her. Best moment was earlier this season when the sheriff (who up until this point thought he was human) tried to kill him. He looked at her with such confusion, “But you’re my friend,” he said. Fabulous. Somerhalder plays this character with charm, lethality, and just enough naivete to make him thoroughly captivating.
In books, particularly romance novels, these characters are often secondary, unrepentant rakes. Readers clamor for their stories, leaving authors with the task of making these men heroes without compromising character. Often times these characters can over-shadow the real hero of the book with their sheer force of personality. Plain and simple: they’re fun to write.
So, what do you think the appeal is behind these characters? And who are your favorites in books, TV and movies?