Fellow author Leo King posted another quick video diary, this time about the practice of "petting the dog" — that is, having a character being likable by having them do good things. I agree with this up to a point, since I think the notion that a character should be likable covers only half the territory. A character is not worth following because he is likable, or "good", but because he is fascinating, because for whatever reason we want to find out what they do next. That could be a good thing, that could be an awful thing. How we get hooked into wanting to know more matters.
I think my favorite story about someone who is not good, who has few pet-the-dog moments but is worth sticking with all the same because they are a fascinating case, is Mike Leigh's Naked. Johnny, the main character (I refrain from calling him a protagonist), identifies himself as unlikable from the git-go, when his mercenary sexual encounter with a woman goes sour and he steals a car to flee the consequences. He ends up in the flat of an old flame, and spends most of his time seeking out people even one notch above him on the social ladder, dragging them down to his level, and beating them with his nihilism a la Dostoyevsky's Underground Man. But he is also smart and observant, and his somewhat justified bitterness has a dank charisma about it, especially thanks to David Thewlis's caustic performance. We would not want to share a flat with him, but sharing two hours with him is eye-opening, and we want to know if he will somehow surface from the way he ops for misery over everything else because misery is at least familiar. (The movie also stacks the deck somewhat in his favor in its latter third, by pitting him against a genuinely vile shark of a human being. If nothing else, it provides us with a perspective for contrast: Johnny may be angry and cynical, but his worst blows are aimed at himself, not others.)
Then there are stories about people who are genuinely good, and whose penchant for goodness does not seem like the author twisting either their arm or ours. The title character in The Brother From Another Planet, as embodied so memorably by Joe Orton, is a gentle soul who doesn't have a mean bone in his body, and who embodies his goodness by being naturally open and receptive to others. Give people an ear, he seems to be saying, and they will sort out most of their problems on their own. His kindness isn't something that's been provided for him to dole out like so many doses of an ingredient in a recipe.
The pet-the-dog approach works best in moderation, I think, as a leavener. Lenny Nero, the wheeler-dealer sleaze of Strange Days, is a classic noir antiprotagonist — a sleaze, a con artist — but he also uses his connections to do well by his friends, and he eschews violence in favor of social engineering. He's not someone we would want babysitting our kids, but then again we do get a flashback to when he was a cop, and we see him doing almost exactly that to a child who had the misfortune to be at the scene of a domestic disaster. His main problem is that the circles he travels in doesn't afford him many opportunities to be a decent person, and the story is realistic about how good he can be under those circumstances.
Roger Ebert once wrote — in one of the finest essays ever penned about a man's love for a medium — that the movies he liked most were about Good People. "The secret of Silence of the Lambs is buried so deeply that you may have to give this a lot of thought, but its secret is that Hannibal Lecter is a Good Person. He is the helpless victim of his unspeakable depravities, yes, but to the limited degree that he can act independently of them, he tries to do the right thing." But Ebert also adds, "Not all good movies are about Good People. I also like movies about bad people who have a sense of humor. ... Henry Hill, the hero of GoodFellas, is not a good fella, but he has the ability to be honest with us about why he enjoyed being bad. He is not a hypocrite. The heroine of The Marriage of Maria Braun does some terrible things, but because we know some of the forces that shaped her, we understand them, and can at least admire her resourcefulness." They all fascinate, in different ways.