Column: Don't judge a book, or character, by the cover

Freddie Highmore as Charlie Bucket in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," one of the stories with a misleadingly loving character (Willy Wonka). (Geoffrey Chandler/Flickr)

To be compelling, a protagonist needs depth. That being said, if the main character of a film, television show, or work of literature is a jerk, there is a pretty big chance that they also have a heart of gold. Snarky and seemingly selfish, this character is usually a loner who uses their callous exterior to hide their sensitive interior. The jerk with a heart of gold often tries to hide that they actually care for something greater than themselves.

Willy Wonka, from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” by Roald Dahl, is often the first example of this archetype that young children are introduced to.

Wonka is an eccentric genius who isolates himself in his chocolate factory with only his Oompa Loompas to keep him company. Most of the time he maintains a cheerful and carefree persona, but his self-centered disposition is hard to ignore.

When the children that he invites to tour his factory are ejected from it in strange and painful manners—such as when the greedy Augustus Gloop falls into a chocolate river and is sucked up one of its tubes—Wonka is more concerned about the fact their troublemaking may affect his sweets than the fact that the accidents may cause permanent injuries to the children.

True to the archetype, Wonka manages to redeem himself at the end of the book by showing special care and affection for the impoverished Charlie Bucket. When Charlie ends up as the last child on the tour, Wonka passes on his factory to the boy and makes Charlie his ‘successor.’ He even allows Charlie to bring the rest of his poor family to the factory.

Han Solo from the “Star Wars” movie series is another popular example of this archetype. In “Episode IV: A New Hope,” Solo is a smuggler who is hired to transport Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker to the planet Alderaan on his ship, the Millenium Falcon. Solo makes it clear that he and his first mate, the Wookiee, Chewbacca, are only doing so in order to clear up Solo’s debts. Solo only decides to help Luke save Princess Leia once he realizes that he’d likely receive a large reward for rescuing her.

When informed that Leia is going to be killed, Solo seems to think only of self-preservation, exclaiming, “Better her than me!”

However, by “Episode VI: Return of the Jedi,” it is obvious that Solo is noble at heart. He is commissioned as a General in the Rebel army and is clearly committed to defeating the evil Empire. He also affirms his love for Leia, whom he once viewed only as a potential source of income.

The jerk with a heart of gold is one of the most common archetypes in literature and film, as it is satisfying for a reader or viewer to see a typically ‘tough’ character show their hidden soft side. The archetype also speaks to the complexity of real people, as most human beings occupy moral or emotional gray areas and cannot be classified in completely black-and-white terms.


Helen Stec is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at helen.stec@uconn.edu.