Culture

Liking the Unlikable Character, by HIMYM Writer Kristin Newman

Writer Kristin Newman

Editor's Note: Kristin Newman is a television writer who has worked in Hollywood for almost twenty years. She has written for "That '70s Show," "Chuck," "How I Met Your Mother," and ABC's "The Neighbors." Her new memoir, What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding, is her hilarious account of her freewheeling, gallivanting twenties and thirties as she worked ample travel time into the downtime between writing seasons - and worked ample socializing and romance into those travels. Here, she ponders the importance of likability in television and in writing.

I had my therapist give me notes on my memoir.

Now I realize this makes me sound like the most neurotic, navel-gazing jackass writer in Los Angeles. But the reason I asked her to read it is that I desperately wanted to make sure I got my story right. And, even more importantly, that I got it right in a way that didn't make me sound like the most neurotic, navel-gazing jackass writer in Los Angeles.

I wanted to make sure I was likable.

"Make the main character more likable." This is the note that TV writers get most often from network executives. We make fun of it, we rant about antiheroes, and about how Archie Bunker was a grumpy racist and yet a beloved and important character who personified a moment in American time. We bang our heads about how "likable" isn't necessarily "interesting" or "funny," and bitch over coffee and takeout that this is why network TV fails: because it is filled with perfect, attractive, boring people who look exactly alike (which one was The Guy, which one was The Girl, and which one was The Pizza Place?) and who are always, always good at their jobs. (Network executives mysteriously have a hard time finding someone likable if they aren't good at their jobs.)

But then I found myself writing a memoir. And suddenly, man, did I want that main character to be likable! So much so that I found myself working through some chapters with my therapist, to try to figure out a way to, well, like myself at certain moments of my life. Oof, I really did treat that guy poorly. Eek, I really was spinning my wheels, making trouble where there was none. I'm really going to write all of this down and then publish it???

Sure, I could say that it's more vital that the main character in a memoir be "likable" than in fiction, because it's what keeps you reading. You stop rooting for the hero, you put down the book. But if I'm honest, that's not the only reason I want people to love the girl in those pages. I'm a comedy writer, for God's sake. The only reason anyone gets into this line of work is to be liked.

But here's my problem with liking myself as a memoirist: I hate navel-gazers. What could possibly be more boring? (Aside from Cirque du Soleil contortionists who can bend in half and so gaze at their navels from like half an inch away from their navels, which is fundamentally interesting as hell to watch.) But other than that, navel-gazing is generally something I try to avoid, on both sides of a conversation. Is writing a memoir an act of potentially unlikable navel-gazing? Sure. But, I hope, if it's done in an interesting, self-deprecating-enough way, maybe while balancing on a set of body-painted Chinese triplets, I think you can like even a character who periodically does unlikable things. Which was, incidentally, also how I was finally able to feel about myself, not after years on a therapist's couch, but instead after months of writing a memoir.

Which was so much cheaper than the years with the therapist.