Paris Geller and the Chunks of Iron: On the Uses of Unlikeability in Fiction

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There’s a kind of character in fiction which my wife refers to as “a Paris”, and I call “a block of iron”.  I used to mentally label them “Lieutenant Sharpe’s crowbar”, but I think these names are better. I was wondering if you recognise this kind of character, and whether you have your own names for them.

There’s probably a name for them in fan culture, but I’ve never found a shoarthand in literary criticism.  What makes someone a Paris or a block of iron is not their own characteristics, but rather the unction they seem to be fulfilling within the fiction.

My wife calls them Paris after Paris Geller, in The Gilmore Girls.  Though she later became an interesting and sympathetic characters, Paris initially appeared as an over-privileged, over-achieving mean girl at Rory’s intimidating new school, Chilton.  She had moneyed relations, a clique of friends who weren’t as smart or ruthless as her, and an obsessive need to prove herself.

In other words, she looked an awful lot like Rory Gilmore might look if you didn’t like Rory.  After all, she also had rich relatives, a drive to compete, and an aura of being the most special of her friends.  Of course we don’t tend to think of Rory that way, at least not on the first watch through the show, and she’s established as a sympathetic character, unlike Paris (initially).

I heard somewhere in my school science classes that if you needed protect copper underwater on a boat, one solution from the past was to hang a chunk of iron next to it.  The iron oxidized more quickly, drawing oxygen out of the water in that area which might have otherwise caused the copper to degrade.  I may well be remembering that wrongly, or indeed I may have misunderstood it at the time, but the point here is that it stuck in my memory.  This was the metaphor I mentally used for “Paris” characters.  Someone who draws away the negative attention from the vulnerabilities of a sympathetic character, by exhibiting them stronger and more unlikeable ways.

Which is where Sharpe and his crowbar come in.  Whilst reading Bernard Cornwell novels (often Sharpe but not always) I began to notice how obsessive they were about the villains threatening women with sexual assault.  I then started seeing this in other historical novels, and later connected it with the chunks of iron.  One might look at Richard Sharpe, fighting and shagging his way across the imperial wars of Britain, and think that he is a bit of a wrong’un.  You might wonder if all this violence and casual coupling with women in vulnerable situations might be not in the best ethical tradition.

But you’d be wrong, obviously, as here comes a regular character in Cornwell novels.  Often an aristocrat, almost always a sadist, naturally a rapist, who shows what all these characteristics actually look like.   In case you were to mistake Sharpe of any of them.  I’m not saying it’s deliberate, and I think it’s a natural enough part of historical fiction, with all the negotiations between past and present, readerly enjoyment and fictional worlds.  Nonetheless, thes characters seemed to work as a crowbar to prise off unpleasant or suspect characteristics from Sharpe (and other heroes) by demonstrating them in exaggerated and lurid ways.

This, as you can see, reminded me of the iron chunks and Paris Geller.  Could this character be an example of upper-middle-class meritocratic credentialism, using establishment money to buy an elitist education, which will enable her to achieve high grades in public examinations, thus justifying her elite status and beginning the whole cycle all over again?  Gosh no, you’ve misunderstood.  Wrong Chilton uniform – you should be looking over there at Ms Geller.  (I swear I’m more fun than this sounds to watch Netflix with.)

Hang on, am I reading a book in which I’m enjoying the main character committing repeated violent acts and banging lots of women he happens to find in warzones?  No indeed, for enjoying sort of thing is the wont of absolute stinkers like Lord Thingie over there.  We in the present are nothing like him, thankfully.

As I mentioned above, I’ve never found a shorthand for this in literary criticism, but I bet fandom, with its involved lexicon of types and tropes, has come up with something like it.  It’s probably a tendency that spreads further than individual characters, and appears more with more subtlety in a range of fiction.  It does seem especially likely in historical and fantasy fiction.  I’m curious how other people noticed this phenomenon and whether you have a name for it.