Why we fall in love with fictional jerks like Han Solo.
Some protagonists are easy to get behind. Marty McFly, for instance, or Spongebob Squarepants. They’re kind, enthusiastic and have clear moral codes that obey the traditional right/wrong rubric.
Then there are characters who are caustic, sarcastic, self-satisfied and mean. Guys like John Bender (“The Breakfast Club”), Patrick Verona (“10 Things I Hate About You”), Gregory House (“House”), Han Solo (“Star Wars”) and Ray (“In Bruges”)?—?all massive SOBs who defy likability. So why are we so enamored with them?
They’re Far Away
Perhaps the most critical ingredient in the why-we-love-a-jerk recipe is the safety of voyeurism. Removed from the characters by screen and score, we witness their misbehavior from a godlike elevation.
There isn’t any real-world obligation to engage with them, thereby excusing the fictional jerk from their ugly traits. Just imagine having an appointment with Dr. House. His snide jabs would fall much flatter when it’s your disease he’s diagnosing.
They Let Us Peek Behind The Curtains
We wouldn’t find John Bender as amusing if we had to spend 180 days a year watching him terrorize Shermer High School. But joining him for a single day lets us see the boy in a way most classmates never will.
Over the course of one detention, we learn it’s not pure arrogance that drives Bender?—?it’s a lack of self-worth. His parents are all but absent; his teachers have no use for him; his confidence is effectively nil. This sort of vulnerability helps us excuse his prior hijinks. (Plus, the dude does have some killer one-liners: Does Barry Manilow know you raid his wardrobe?)
Or there’s Patrick Verona, Padua High’s fearsome badass in “10 Things I Hate About You.” Rumor has it he ate a live duck and lit a state trooper on fire. And though we eventually learn Patrick is a big old softy, he makes some dickhead decisions along the way.
Agreeing to deceive a girl romantically for money is not the stuff of heroes, I know. And neither is his initial treatment of lovesick Cameron. But we like this guy anyway because we come to learn?—?like we did with Bender?—?that he’s broken and he’s trying the best he can.
They Calls Em Like They Sees Em
Han Solo is not somebody I’d want to be stuck on a ship with in real life. He mocks others’ religion, defaults on his debts, treats women with contempt and prizes the dollar above doing the right thing. (At least at first.) But find me somebody easier to like in the Star Wars universe and I’ll eat my shorts. Why is that?
In part, Han Solo?—?and we’re talking early Han Solo, like “Episode IV” Han Solo?—?is likable because he tells it like it is. Sure, he mocks Obi-Wan’s “religion.” But that religion has been dead for decades, a crippled legend quashed by Vader when Solo was just a kid. He’s been across the galaxy and seen no evidence to support it.
His contempt for Leia derives from her ambition to beat the Evil Empire, a behemoth so untouchable Han Solo rightly rolls his eyes at her mention of rebellion. Han is a realist, and a clever realist at that. He’s survived more in his lifetime than Leia and Luke combined. He sees a self-styled princess and a starry-eyed farm boy, bamboozled by a crazy old hermit.
So is he a jerk? Sure. But he’s only a jerk as long as it makes logical sense. Once he realizes the Empire must be destroyed?—?and that the rebellion might have a shot?—?he comes around.
They Live Our Fantasy
Ever want to tell your boss off? Or yell at the cashier? Or explain to a coworker that he makes Patrick Star look like Elon Musk? Sometimes, we enjoy jerks because we want to be jerks ourselves.
We share these same impulses, so we can excuse when a fictional character indulges them. It’s when a real person acts like this that we get angry?—?after all, why should he get to be a jerk if I’m sitting here counting down from 20 so I don’t pull the ears off this train conductor?
They’re Really Funny
They make us laugh. And that, above anything else, might be the reason we love these guys. They’re assholes, but they’re funny assholes.
Exhibit A: Ray from “In Bruges” being cynically hilarious: