Down With Genius Jerk Protagonists

I’ve gotten very bored with brilliant jerks as protagonists in fiction. You know the type–the troubled genius who’s soooo good at tearing other people down, at figuring out their secrets and insecurities and what he thinks is everything important about them with a single glance, who never cares how people react to him (and it’s almost always a him) because social conventions are just beneath him, he just can’t be bothered. And, when the supporting characters get upset because the person they care about is a jerk to them again, and again, this tends to get written as the cost of entry of getting to be around such “genius”. They need to tolerate being treated badly because that’s Just How He Is.

See: House, BBC’s Sherlock, and many examples I’m certain I’m forgetting.

I get the appeal, I really do. I can be kind of prickly, and people are so much work sometimes. There certainly is something cathartic about watching someone say all the things we don’t because we’re trying to be nice, and it would be so convenient to not have to bother.

But it’s bullshit for a couple of different reasons. Sooner or later it makes the story boring. This is especially a problem for long-running TV series where after several seasons it becomes pretty obvious that the writers will never allow any major change to the characters and/or their dynamics to occur. No matter what happens status quo will be restored, so then why should I care about this fictional person when he it becomes clear he’ll always in the end choose to be unpleasant to others?

When a character consistently ignores other people’s opinions I stop believing that this character is as good at observation and knowing people as he thinks he is and the story wants me to buy into. If he never stops to listen to people or always overrules them because he just knows, how can he be certain, and how can the viewer/reader be certain that he’s actually right? If he’s choosing to ignore people when they say he’s being a jerk, than what else is he choosing to ignore? If he notices that people are hurt by his actions and doesn’t care, why should I believe that he has any idea what the “greater good” might be? That’s the justification for these characters, after all, that their actions might be terrible in the short term but somehow regularly insulting everyone around will result in the best outcome in the long term.

I’ve been wracking my brains trying to come up with some good examples of this trope–jerks who realize they’re being jerks and that being the smartest person in the room is no excuse. Pretty much all of them are in YA books, which shouldn’t be surprising as stories about teenagers also tend to be stories about people undergoing change. My favorite anti-example is Elliot Schaefer from In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan. In Other Lands is the book I wish I could’ve handed myself at fifteen, because Brennan wrapped a guide for how to not be a jerk to others in a fantasy novel (can I have an entire genre of this concept, please?).

If you’re good enough with people to understand why they act the way they do, then you’re good enough to realize that you are hurting them, and to choose not to. Kindness is a choice. So is cruelty, and I want to see this acknowledged more in fiction.

Celia Yost

Celia Yost is a graphic artist and painter by both training and trade. She's also prone to ill-advised craft projects and yelling about politics.

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