If you’ve been reading my blog for quite a while, you may remember how I used to publish posts under the heading “The Writing Files”. While I did abandon these quite a while ago, I am now resuming them as I delve even deeper into the world of writing. Though I am by no means extremely experienced in the field, I will attempt to give advice or to write on the topic to the best of my ability. Just a lil’ advice. Take everything I say with a grain of salt.
I know it’s probably beating a dead horse (poor George Lucas probably wishes that horse was buried), but there’s never been a character quite like Jar Jar Binks. The collective hatred he has garnered over the years may seem warranted or unwarranted given the side you err on, but either way, he is generally considered to be an unlikeable character.
Now, I could go on to write a blog post about what a likeable character or even just a good character should be written like, but I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’d like to discuss something else more fundamentally important: does a character have to be likeable to work in a story?
The simple answer: no. But the reason behind it is just as important as the simple answer.
In the vast Star Wars saga, there are many beloved characters who fall on both the dark and light sides. While people like to cheer on their heroes such as Luke Skywalker and Rey, they also like to hate the villain. Just take a look at the 501st Legion, an organization solely dedicated to cosplaying primarily as the villains from the Star Wars universe. If fans can equally adore both good and bad characters, what characters are unlikeable? Part of the problem, I think, comes from the idea of liking the villain, because lets be honest: if Darth Vader was chasing you down and preparing to kill you, I think you’d be far from begging for his autograph.
This is one of the key parts to understanding the issue. Villains may be regarded with awe or even are preferred, but when it comes down to it, we don’t really like them. We don’t prefer them, love them, or root for them to win (unless it’s Suicide Squad we’re watching and then all bets are off). We cosplay as them at Comic Con because we feel safe in the security that these are fictional terrors and thus will never be as frightening to us as they are to the characters within the realm of the silver screen.
This is the first, important point I want to make. The antagonists of stories are often regarded as favorites not due to their likability, but rather because of their roles as the big bad guys. Joker is easily regarded as the best DC villain not because he is likeable, but because he is remarkably good at being the antagonist to Batman. We like them because they perform a duty and do it really, really well.
So. If a character does not need to be likeable, then why is Jar-Jar Binks hated? Well, lets take a look at another sometimes-despised character, Zendaya’s Michelle from the newest Spiderman film, Homecoming. Now, this has nothing to do with the actress and everything to do with the character. Michelle is a bit of a snoop as well as a loner and besides that, she’s just plain ornery. She says obnoxious things, refuses to take part in activities due to historical injustices, and is generally a kill-joy. *Spoiler alert!* “Michelle” is revealed at the end of the film to be the renowned MJ of the Spiderman Universe.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. If you’ve ever read the comics or even watched the original Sam Raimi films, you’ll know that Mary Jane Watson is a bright, bubbly person who brings light into the often-dark world that Spiderman inhabits. She comes from a tragic past, yet manages to be complex and also human as she attempts to be a friend to not only Peter, but also everyone else she knows. I say this not to rant against the diversifying of the MCU, but to instead point out that the MJ of the comics was a fully fledged character who managed to be shown as a human with struggles despite the fact that she was often in the shadows of other big characters. Zendaya’s MJ shows up sporadically through the film whenever Spiderman happens to make it to school and is – again – a grump throughout the majority of it. We don’t understand why she seems to have an interest in hanging around Peter and Ned, why she acts the way she does, why she is anything.
You could say the second point I’m trying to make is that if a character is not likeable, they should least be understood. Often antagonists or secondary sidekicks are these sort of characters who while not necessarily likeable, are definitely understood. For goodness sake, Voldemort, one of the most loathed characters in Harry Potter, is given a backstory!
Ultimately, why does Jar-Jar Binks fail? He has no role and he is not understandable. He was George Lucas’ way to shoehorn more lightheartedness and humor into the story. While Ahmed Best gave it his all, he may have wanted to pull back or even have a talk with the director on this one. After all, if George Lucas could make fluffy teddy bears in the forest relevant to the plot, how far off is an alien from Naboo?