Dirtbags in fiction have been a fixture in popular fiction for a very long time now. They come in all sorts of varieties but with the common goal of earning the ire of an audience. They are that special kind of character that exists solely to be hated. The reason writers often resort to creating dirtbags is to give the audience a reason to side with the protagonist of their story. Maybe this hypothetical hero has entered a competition but you don’t quite care about whether or not they win, but throw in a dirtbag competitor and you can’t help but want to see that smug grin of their wiped off their face. In short, the dirtbag exists for the purpose of manipulating the audience, so here are a few different types that are used to do just that.
The Rich Dirtbag
Perhaps the most well-known and basic variety of fictional dirtbag of all is the rich snob who gets in the protagonist’s way. They are affluent, cruel, apathetic to the plight of the poor, and are thoroughly unpleasant all around. They also have a tendency to carry a British accent. The reason they exist is for the simplest of reasons: People just like to assume the worst when it comes to rich people. Many believe them to be greedy, dishonest, and of course, under taxed. While people can respect hard work, they also can make assumptions about the rich that makes them ideal dirtbags in popular fiction. That’s why most rich dirtbags are written to have inherited their vast wealth.
The Romantic Rival Dirtbag
Have you ever watched a romantic comedy? The basic premise is “Boy meets girl, they form an instant connection, but one of them is just dating this unbelievable ass hole for some reason”. That’s the most obvious way a writer can say “Hey audience, don’t root for this couple, root for THIS one right over here!”, it’s the writing equivalent of your Mom sampling broccoli for you when you were a toddler and telling you “yum”. It’s meant to divert our desires and focus them on something we otherwise wouldn’t. But why does it happen so often? Well, that’s because people already see their romantic rivals as dirtbags anyways. What fiction shows with these dirtbags is essentially what we already want to believe about the person who’s currently or even potentially dating your soulmate. Also, there’s the fact that writing a couple to have actual chemistry is way harder than just creating a crappy alternative in the form of a dirtbag.
The “Bigger” Dirtbag
Here’s a problem, you’re writing a Hollywood blockbuster about a lovable jerk or an anti-hero but you feel like they aren’t lovable or relatable enough for the audience. You want to have this bad ass person who goes around doing whatever they want but as a result, they just look like a horrible tool. What is the solution to this dilemma you ask? Why, it’s to make an even BIGGER dirtbag of course! How else are you supposed to get your audience to root for your hero? The reason this tactic that is often employed is because ultimately, who we consider heroic and villainous is relative to the world they live in and what the person writing them intends to convey. When placed next to something far worse, an otherwise unlikable character could be who we root for in the end.
The Dirtbag on the Phone
They’re loud, they’re obnoxious, and you can’t BELIEVE they’re having such an inane conversation during this time of crisis. It’s no secret that people find those who use phones in public annoying, which is why when writers want an audience to instantly dislike a character or to just have us sympathize further with the protagonist’s plight, they deploy some random dirtbag with a phone (think Ken from the fourth episode of Breaking Bad). The reason for this is simple, whether people like it or not, they’re attention is immediately diverted by whatever pointless phone conversation is being broadcast in public, and this loss of focus on what they’re actually trying to pay attention to is incredibly annoying for audiences. Also, they’re prevalent in real life too, so putting them in a story tends to bring out old wounds.
The Stuffed Turkey Dirtbag
They exist for one purpose, and that purpose is simply to die. They’re lives are generally short, and for the audience, very sweet towards the end. They usually play the roles of minor antagonists that are just unbelievable jerkoffs for a short burst of time until they get they’re comeuppance and die immediately after. They generally come and go so quickly that you almost wonder why they received any focus at all. The reason they are here though, is as a way for the writers to “treat” the audience. On some level, a lot of us are a little sadistic when it comes to pain being inflicted on things that aren’t human. So, by making a character a complete tool, you are dehumanizing them, which makes it a lot easier for people to enjoy their pain and deaths.
The Titanic Dirtbag.
Otherwise known as “The Dirtbag From the Film Titanic“. Truly, this character is a one of a kind dirtbag (a dirtbag snowflake you could say), one we immediately know is terrible when the film’s protagonist tries to off herself due to the mere prospect of having to marrying him. He is special in that he combines elements of all the aforementioned dirtbags and adds a little bit more. He’s rich, a romantic obstacle, so much of a dirtbag that he overshadows every other person on board the ship (including the people who are actually responsible for the ship crashing) in terms of how much we hate him, he may not have a cellphone but he loudly broadcasts his petty concerns for all to hear, and he’s so obviously terrible that Rose had to make damn sure that she told her audience that this tool killed himself during the great depression. Seldom will we see such a perfect and complete dirtbag brought to life on screen again.
Dirtbags are the silent heroes of fiction, the great magicians of storytelling, and the kings of quotability. With their great powers of misdirection and their uncanny ability to make us care about things we otherwise wouldn’t through their sheer unlikability, we come to understand more about the story they are in and maybe even ourselves. With pure-hearted honesty and passion, I can say with conviction “God Bless the Dirtbag”.
Please note that “The Bully Dirtbag” is not mentioned due to how obvious they are. There’s really nothing more to add in their case since their so basic in both use and necessity. We know why they exist in movies and we know what purpose they serve for the audience.
Quote of the Day:
“Something Picasso? He won’t amount to a thing. He won’t, trust me. At least they were cheap.”
Caledon Hockley on a portrait of Picasso he saw, Titanic