A long time ago, I watched Don Bluth’s All Dogs Go To Heaven and hated every minute of it. The reason being is that, quite frankly, the character of Charlie Barkin is the most reprehensible main character I have ever seen. He’s rude, he’s greedy, he’s manipulative, he’s a liar, and extremely self-centered. Yet because he gives some puppies pizza and suddenly gives a shit about Anne Marie at the climax, we’re supposed to like him and sympathize with him. I did not buy that for a minute.
See, Charlie Barkin was an attempt at writing the Jerk with a Heart of Gold character, but a failed one. Stories about redemption and second chances are important, but Charlie was too unlikable for it to work.
Lately, I’ve been thinking of this trope and how it’s used in media. It is used a lot for secondary characters. Arguably the greatest example is Grumpy from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. At first he resents Snow White and wants nothing to do with her, but as the movie progresses Snow White’s kindness rubs off on him and he grows to truly care for her, and he becomes a better person. We believe that he’s a jerk with a heart of gold because his reveal isn’t sudden or forced, and he has some redeeming qualities early on.
Writing this type of character takes skill because it’s very easy to just make them an actual jerk who isn’t a wholly awful person. And this is pretty relevant thanks to two recent animated hits: Moana and The Lego Batman Movie.
In Moana, Maui is extremely narcissistic. That makes sense, he is a demigod. But throughout most of the movie he’s, quite frankly, a humongous asshole to Moana herself, constantly dismissing her and putting her life in danger, from trapping her in a cave to using her as bait for Tamatoa. He starts to warm up to her after she reassures him that he’s not worthless (he was abandoned as a baby), but he still snaps at her. But then, by the climax, SUDDENLY he values her life more than his and will help her complete their quest.
What? No, I’m sorry, that doesn’t work. That literally does. Not. Work.
You cannot have this character act like a complete ass, make us feel sorry for him almost a third into the story, and then expect us to believe that he can overcome his narcissism and abandonment issues in only a few minutes. That is not good characterization, and a poor representation of someone with mental health issues. (This is one reason why I was really disappointed in Moana and cannot love it like everyone else.)
So that is an example of a Jerk With a Heart of Gold that doesn’t work. Thankfully, Lego Batman does.
SPOILERS FOR THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE AFTER THIS POINT
See, we like Lego Batman right away because he’s FUNNY, and we KNOW why he’s a jerk at the beginning (his parents died and he doesn’t want to get close to anyone because of that). After Batman accidentally adopts Robin, he decides to get the Phantom Zone Projector from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude to banish Joker for good. At first, I was horrified because he was going to use Robin to go get it in what was essentially a death maze. BUT, to my great relief, we see that Batman really and truly does care for Robin. He panics after almost getting into a car accident when Robin doesn’t have a seat belt on before they even get there, and he guides and helps him into getting the Projector so he doesn’t get hurt. And when they leave, Batman almost admits he was happy. As the movie progresses we see him gradually and naturally start to let others in and care for them. And at one point, the narrative actually calls him out for the jerk things he did (I won’t elaborate because I don’t want to spoil TOO much). In the end, he is a happier, better person with lots of love.
See, THAT’S a lovable jerk. THAT’S how you do a Jerk with a Heart of Gold because he doesn’t spend the whole movie being a complete ass but then revealing that, awww, he DOES care after all.
Basically, the key to writing a main character who is a jerk but we’re also supposed to like is to make sure we like them from the very start and understand WHY they’re a jerk right away. They should consistently care about others, even if they can be grouchy or do morally dubious things most of the time, or they should be hilarious so we can still enjoy them despite not being the best person. Otherwise, you just end up with an asshole, and nobody likes those.