Eight Deadly Words
aka: Audience Apathy
You need characters that you care about, and you need emotional investment. And then the action and special effects and the slime and the aliens and the coolness is the icing on the cake. But you need a cake to put icing on it. You can't just eat the frosting, or else, uh, it's too sugary and it's bad for you, and you get the diabetes."I don't care what happens to these people." A phrase coined by Dorothy Jones Heydt in a science-fiction based Usenet group in 1991 to describe an Audience Reaction to a work of fiction where the characters are either so universally bland and unengaging or unlikable and unsympathetic that the reader simply loses interest in their fate and, by extension, the work as a whole. This can happen with or without the presence of more objective shortcomings, but the most interesting examples tend to be those where this is a critic's main complaint, single-handedly dragging an otherwise well-made story down to where it's unenjoyable. Note that "not caring about" a character is not the same as "not liking" them — some character archetypes, such as the Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist, are driven by the notion that watching horrible things happen to people that deserve them can be entertaining. In other words, even if you hate the character, you still care about what happens to them (because you want to see them get their comeuppance) so you'll still follow the story. This trope comes into play when even that fails to arouse sufficient interest. In other words, apathy. Many Horror/monster/Disaster Movies try to avoid this by Developing Doomed Characters, only to make the audience hate the characters more for getting in the way of the slaughter they came there to see. Also often stated with added emphasis as "I don't care what happens to these people". See also Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy, where an excessively dark setting renders the protagonist's struggle so futile that the audience can't bring themselves to get invested in it even if the characters have some shred of likability. Not to be confused with Seven Dirty Words.
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- Moviebob on The Escapist makes this observation of the movie Monsters, noting that both leads are unsympathetic and Flat Characters.
- This review of Battleship outright invokes this trope, nearly word for word.
- Invoked in-universe in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Whenever one of the selfish children does something Too Dumb to Live that will clearly lead to their downfall, Wonka's response (if any) is almost bored: "Help. Police. Murder." after Augustus Gloop falls in the chocolate river, for instance.
- Peter Bradshaw expresses this view of Lawless calling it "an empty exercise in macho-sentimental violence", describing the supposed heroes of the film as flat heroes and the villain as "a pantomime baddie".
- Roger Ebert gave George Romero's Day of the Dead (1985) one and a half stars in part because much of the movie consists of "unpleasant, violent, insane" or ridiculously noble characters shouting at each other. And while he doesn't utter the eight words out right, he does say that in Romero's previous movies "we cared about the characters."
- Ebert sums this trope up in a review for another movie: "The Adventures of Ford Fairlane is a movie about a hero I didn't like, chasing villains I didn't hate, in a plot I didn't understand."
- Some people responded to Cloverfield this way. Apparently, that long, monster-free stretch of character development at the beginning just made some viewers decide the characters are neither nice enough to sympathize with nor bad enough to want to see eaten by a giant monster from the deep.
- Todd in the Shadows had that such opinion of Bloodhounds of Broadway, summing it up in one word: "POINTLESS". His reason for why is because it's a compilation movie without any unifying story; the only common thread between the multiple plotlines is that the characters all eat at the same restaurant, and the film switches from story to story so abruptly that there's no reason to get invested in any of them.
- The Nostalgia Critic makes this observation about The Last Airbender, noting that the movie is nothing but exposition and gives the audience no reason to care about the characters themselves:
I DON'T FUCKING CARE! And you know why? Because I never once heard anyone in this movie say "I 'feel' this" or "I 'like' this" or "I 'wonder' this". There are no emotions being addressed. Traditional storytelling is setting up a character, sending them on their journey, and learning more about them through their journey. The Last Airbender is just chess piece storytelling: Character goes here, character goes there, character says this, pawn to king four.
- Linkara cites this as one of the reasons he dislikes the works created or inspired by Rob Liefeld. None of the grizzled nineties antiheroes are anything more than props that fire massive guns and spew one-liners. He doesn't know who hardly any of the characters are, what they like or dislike, what their hobbies are, or whether or not they like Pina Coladas. And they only seem capable of displaying one emotion: pissed off. They're all so interchangeable that Linkara makes a running joke of referring to individual early Image comics as any of the other, similar early Image comics by "mistake".
Live Action TV
- Invoked many times on Mystery Science Theater 3000, as the bots watched characters they were ostensibly supposed to care about hurtle to their doom.
Tom: [flat monotone a la Willy Wonka] Stop. Wait. Come back.
- Hostages is getting this reaction from numerous critics on premiere night, including a nearly word-for-word recitation of the trope name from Alan Sepinwall.
- Seems to be a recurring problem in American Horror Story:
- One criticism of American Horror Story: Murder House was that the characters were too nasty to be likable but not unlikable enough that you enjoyed seeing them get killed off.
- This was also a common criticism of American Horror Story: Coven - almost every character was a borderline sociopath who was willing to screw everyone else over to get what they wanted, so there was no one you felt comfortable rooting for to triumph over the others.
- At least one critic hit this with the season six finale of Sons of Anarchy, due to it being a standout example of Idiot Plot.
- Stargate Universe fell victim to this, with many early reviews stating something to the effect of "the only one of these characters worth caring about is Dr. Rush," who was by all accounts a bastard in his own right. They got better in season two, but proved to have happened too late as the series was not picked up after its second season (shooting literally stopped in the middle of said second season from one day to the next).
- Dorothy Heydt coined the words when reading Volume Two of The Wheel of Time, and also applied them to a Fionavar Tapestry book.
- Mark Twain's essay ''The Literary Offenses of Fenimore Cooper":
10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the "Deerslayer" tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.
- Slacktivist's page-by-page review of Left Behind often notes how the main characters are far less likable than the villain - who, of course, is the Antichrist.
These are books without heroes because they are set in a world without heroism — without the possibility of heroism. A world of inexorable prophecies and inevitable doom.
- Made worse since the authors believe that You Can't Fight Fate in the real world, and wrote a story with two Author Avatar characters who also agree with the Biblical prophecies the authors believe in. As a result, they grumble a bit about the Antichrist, but don't do anything because everything is still part of God's plan. Even the characters themselves don't care what happens until Jesus comes back and kicks the Antichrist's ass.
- The reaction is best summed up in "No Heroes":
- The Musical of Musicals, a play that parodies various... well, musicals, registers this complaint about the works of Stephen Sondheim ("Unlikable people with lives that are hollow / It's all food for thought, but a bit hard to swallow...")
- Mother Courage and Her Children is a Bertolt Brecht work that is deliberately populated almost entirely by unsympathetic characters (Kattrin is the sole possible exception: she's mute and is victimized several times, but ultimately is killed during her futile effort to rouse sleeping villagers to the approach of the attacking army.) Even as each of her children are killed, the audience is discouraged from feeling any sympathy for Mother Courage; in fact, Brecht revised the ending following a production which he felt made Mother Courage too sympathetic to the audience.
- Shows up In-Universe in the play Seminar, where Leonard, a once respected novelist turned editor gives a series of writing seminar to four aspiring writers. Leonard is infamous for his Brutal Honesty and coarseness, and he repeatedly tears down what he feels are lifeless, bloodless stories from his students. When one of them protests that he hasn't spent enough time getting to know the narrator of her story, he delivers a scathing takedown that works equally well for the writer as well as her narrator.
I know who your narrator is. She's an over-educated, completely inexperienced, sexually inadequate girl who has rich parents who give her everything. She's got nothing to say so she sits around and thinks of Jane Austen all day. I don't give a shit about her.
- Diabetus of Retsupurae declares a variation in the Darkseed 2 wrongpurae, about the protagonist, Mike Dawson, who is suspected of murder.
slowbeef: To be honest, do you think he did it?
Diabetus: I would think no.
slowbeef: Who do you think did?
Diabetus: Well the problem is I don't really care. It's like an episode of Scooby-Doo, I don't really care who did it, I just want to see the thrilling chase.
- Jesse Cox has at times stated that he doesn't really care for any of the characters in the Final Fantasy XIII games, but it wasn't until Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII came out that he finally couldn't stand it anymore.
- Ross Scott had this problem in his Game Dungeon video of Wolfenstein (2009), which he cared so little for that he spent most of the game wanting to do anything more productive, like go outside, and pointing out that it's better for a game to make a player pissed off rather than completely uninvested.
None of the characters really seemed to give a shit about anything, and in turn, the game doesn't really make me care about anything.
- Many a Caustic Critic have this mentality when they're supposed to fear for a character's life. Special mention goes to The Cinema Snob and Phelous, since they review exploitation and horror films, respectively, with Phelous spewing a lot of hate at the Hostel movies especially for this flaw.
- The Annotated Series has this as a staple of comedy, as the annotators often cite not caring for any of the protagonists and instead paying attention to characters that aren't intended as significant or sympathetic.
- Max-Vader, veteran of the the Project A.F.T.E.R. forum and sometimes co-host of The Other Side has this as one of his main reasons why he hates Sugar Bits by Bleedman.
"I could forgive a bad story or clichéd writing if only the characters were likable and interesting. You see, in order to give a shit about the story, we need someone we can relate to — a protagonist with human character traits. A good example would be Luke Skywalker. In the beginning we get to know him, learn about his hopes and dreams, and start to care about him. I can't stress this enough: Be sloppy with your writing when it comes to your protagonist, and you can kiss the slightest hope for quality storytelling goodbye. Bleedman doesn't give a shit. Emotional baggage, "tragic" pasts or Jerk Ass behavior do not make a likable, deep or interesting character."
- This is Harry S. Plinkett's reaction to the Star Wars prequels.
- The Nostalgia Critic's largest complaint about The Last Airbender was that he didn't care about the characters because they seldom showed any emotion and simply told you what they were feeling rather than showing it.
- CinemaSins' 130th sin about Lucy.
"This movie should be f*cking OVER. Lucy wins and becomes air. I don't f*cking care what happens, except that what's actually happening is ludicrous.
- Ross's Game Dungeon, in its April Fools' Day review of Wolfenstein (2009), has Ross hypothesize that this is why he doesn't care about the game, saying that nobody is really reacting to or treating any sense of urgency to the horrors around them, which fails to invest him in the characters, which in turn fails to invest him in the game itself.
- Post-movie episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants that try to make the treatment of Squidward, Mrs. Puff and Plankton justified by having them act like assholes but do nothing to make SpongeBob, Patrick or Mr. Krabs sympathetic.
- Given the nature of Family Guy and its main characters, the show is frequently subject to this reaction. Especially in later seasons.