The House Effect

A year ago, I posted the first part of A Lesson in Vanishing on Scribophile for critique. It was the first time anyone (other than my lovely friend Christy) had read anything I’d ever written, and I was nervous. What if they didn’t like it? What if they didn’t get it? What if I couldn’t make it better?

I shouldn’t have worried so much. I have thick skin, and I tend to say, “Eh, f*ck off” if I don’t agree with something (and sometimes when I do, because it takes me a while to come around to seeing their point of view). The response was generally positive. Mystified, to an extent, but positive.

What I remember most, though, was one critiquer’s comment: Frankie comes off as a bit of a bitch.

She is. I wrote her that way on purpose.

It used to be, not so long ago, you couldn’t create an unsympathetic main character and have people view your work favorably. No one wants to hear about bitchy women or crotchety old men.

That all changed when Gregory House, MD, got all up in our grillz. I call it the House Effect.

House had a huge impact on who could be considered a lead (at least in my opinion). Someone as cranky, rude, and generally unpleasant as House wouldn’t be allowed to carry a show even ten years ago. Yet he does, and millions of viewers tune in every week to see who he insults this time.

The trick, it seems, was letting viewers catch glimpses of an incredibly lonely man beneath the prickly exterior. You’ve seen him vulnerable, you’ve seen his absolute dedication to saving a patient’s life (even if it’s just to stoke his ego), you’ve seen him in love and sort of happy about it, and when he apologizes, it has that much more impact. One of my favorite episodes was the one where David Strathairn guest starred as a patient dying of heart disease. Everything we learn about House in that episode resonated through the remainder of the season and well into the next.

Frankie is an unsympathetic character. There’s a lot to dislike about her. She has no patience for human beings in general, and would much rather be left alone. She’s often rude and tactless. And, much like House, she has little desire to change her ways.

Then she starts having panic attacks. Despite her best efforts, she somehow manages to find people who look past her aloofness and stick around anyway, finding her blunt way of saying things amusing. By the end of the story, she hasn’t changed much from how she was at the beginning. But there’s just enough give in her now that (I hope) makes the reader think, I hope she stops running.

I like House the way he is. I wish I could get away with half the stuff that he does. What I like most, though, is the show’s writers aren’t setting out to redeem him now that the series is coming to an end. He’s still cranky, still in pain, still brilliant, still lonely. Still House.

He’s the unlikely hero. And he’s the perfect muse.

*image via 20th Century Fox

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