When Characters Annoy
As I embark upon the 17th Bryant & May adventure, I have to ask myself; am I still making the characters interesting? I ask because on the US Amazon website, a reader described Arthur Bryant as annoying. He is of course, but in the UK we treasure annoying characters, from Harry Worth, Charlie Drake and Albert Steptoe to Mr Brittas, Hyacinth Bucket and Count Arthur Strong. And of course, Basil Fawlty. But we also care for them.
Naughty characters are more fun than nice ones, just as sidekicks are more memorable than heroes, and besides, we need them to give our heroes someone to talk to. I had wanted to introduce a new villain but it seemed unfeasible, even in the world of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, to have the same on cropping up again and again – despite the fact that they do in real life (you only have to read court case files to see how often the same names crop up). The only two villains I’ve used more than once are Mr Fox and Mr Merry.
It’s tempting to tell readers why characters are annoying, but is there anything more tiring than a backstory that over-explains motivation? We treasure small-minded men and bossy women, especially in social comedies, but also as figures of tragedy. You can date this to ‘Hamlet’, wherein Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are classical tiresome but serve a key purpose (It’s not generally remembered that WS Gilbert wrote a play called ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’ that parodied them long before Tom Stoppard did the same).
But at what level do you start to wear out your readership? I have to be careful with Arthur and pull him back from the brink to keep him on the readers’ side, which is why I also make him vulnerable. One of the most fun things you can do with an annoying character is make them ‘infect’ everyone else with their behaviour, forcing them to be logical about something inherently illogical.
Norman Wisdom often took a different tack, becoming deliberately annoying to undermine wealthy enemies higher up the social scale. These are comics who upset the status quo, from Jerry Lewis to Jim Carrey. The most annoying fictional detectives I’ve come across are Mrs Brady and Detective Dover. I’d be interested to know of any others.
Lately television has become more trusting about audience tastes and has started to develop deeply flawed characters in series, but I think it’s something that must be done with a light touch. I’m heading back to the novel, but here’s Norman, being very annoying indeed.