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Hateable Characters / Love for "Shallow Grave" (1994)

Last week I watched Shallow Grave for the first time.  Great movie.  And part of the reason it's so great is because its characters are so deplorable.

Shallow Grave's driveshaft is infighting among its leads after they discover a suitcase stuffed to the gills with cash and commit various felonies to claim it as their own.  It's a fairly basic premise that lends itself to quite possibly infinite possibilities - one of which is ~~[PLUG TIME!] my recent book, Born Loser [IT'S SUPER AFFORDABLE BUY IT!]~~.

I quite enjoy stories about backstabbing and treachery, so naturally this movie was right up my alley. But that's not what I'm here to talk about today; today is Wednesday, which is my day to obsess about arbitrary elements of writing that may or may not be the X factor that separates me from a lifetime of acclaim and success rather than the dredges of obscurity and frustration.  Today's topic: hateable characters.

It's something I applaud Danny Boyle and John Hodge for.  They had no qualms about making the leads of their movie insufferable pricks, which helps you stomach the atrocities that occur to / by them later.  You end up becoming invested in their fates out of a desire to close the loop on a mystery, but you won't lose much sleep over the inevitable conclusion.

This kind of character is something I've never been able to bring myself to put front and center in a book.  I've (intentionally) created asshole characters in the past as background flavor or as villains.  But a lead?  Ugh.  Not quite.  I'm too timid for that, I think.

I see the value in a flawed protagonist, certainly.  Like, say, Yossarian in Catch-22.  There's a lot of fun in chasing the balance between "competent action-driver" versus "likeable goofball with human frailty."  But there's a world of difference between Yossarian and, say, Ignatius Reilly.  Ignatius is a fucking twat.  He's perfect for his book, which is one giant joke that Ignatius keeps line-punching.  In any other book, Ignatius would make you roll your eyes and you'd constantly be like, "Why do people like this crap?  The lead is such an asshole."


For that reason, no matter how flawed I may make a character, I generally stop short of full-on Prick Mode.  And I think it's the right call most of the time.  Consider Born Loser again: the protagonist, James Rutledge, is absolutely a loser in every sense of the word.  When he gets caught up in a web of conspiracy and murder later on, there's comedy and suspense due to his innate helplessness and weaknesses.  Yet James is sympathetic - he's an underdog, an everyman against a stacked deck whose moral compass is slightly off, but never so broken that he can't tell right from wrong.  And in my story, I think that's the right call.  Born Loser is primarily a thriller with some dark comedy aspects.  I enjoyed putting some humor in it, but the goal is for the audience to be driven out of hope that James will triumph.

Contrast that with Shallow Grave, which is primarily a dark comedy with some thriller aspects.  In a story like that, you're driven less by the question of "How will they get out of this mess?" and more by the question, "How much lower can they stoop?"  If the characters were all sympathetic audience surrogates, you wouldn't laugh.  You'd just get grossed out and turn it off.  (I imagine some folks probably did for that exact reason.)  And that's why I'm definitely not the right person to tell a story like Shallow Grave - I'd be too busy trying to win back some love for Christopher Eccleston after he starts creeping around the attic.  Suddenly, I'm the one people are suspicious of.  "Really?  You wanted us to like that guy?"

All that said, there is one part of Shallow Grave that really doesn't work for me at all.  (Spoilers for a movie from 1994 forthcoming.)  The movie builds up to a climactic showdown / multiple assault between the three leads as they each try to screw the others and skip town with the cash.  I'm with the movie at that point.  And I'm still with it even as they start to murder each other.  I'm with it when Eccleston is killed, I'm with it when Kerry Fox finds out the suitcase she stole is actually a decoy filled with garbage instead of the cash, and I'm with it when Ewan McGregor has been knifed to the floor and is discovered by the cops.  I'm also with the final reveal that McGregor has hidden the cash in the floorboards of his apartment.  The part I'm not fine with is the implication that he'll be able to collect the cash later.

It's too happy an ending for him.  I'd have liked it so much more if there was just one more scene that shows how his plans, too, will fail.  Maybe you see McGregor in prison, cackling to himself because he knows where the cash is, but then you cut back to the apartment where he hid it and it's being torn apart for renovations or something.

Ultimately, this is why I don't like to make my characters too hateable.  As sarcastic and cranky as I can get, I'm a huge fan of happy endings.  It's extremely dissatisfying to have a happy ending when one or more of your characters is a total dickhole.