Being part of both TV watching fandom and a handful of fanfiction circles, I’ve been privy to some of the more well-known tropes. But, though it may have been discussed outside of what I’ve read, there’s a big trope that I’ve been very guilty of enjoying, which crops up especially in fanfiction, but is also pretty common in TV. It’s what I call the Woobie Bastard.
(What is a Woobie? To explain, I quote TV Tropes: “A woobie (named for a child’s security blanket) is that character you want to give a big hug, wrap in a blanket and feed soup to when he or she suffers so very beautifully.” Now, I believe most of the tropes I’ll discuss here aren’t considered Woobies by TV Tropes’ definition, and not even under their Jerkass Woobies term, but I definitely see a lot of it – in how their respective series use them in the narrative, and especially in how the audience responds to them, so I’m going in my own direction here. )
The Woobie Bastard is, well, a bastard. He’s a dick. He makes fun of you, calls you a moron, and would rather do stuff himself than let your stupid ass mess it up. But the thing is, he may talk the talk, but if you give him that second look, he doesn’t walk the walk. When you’re sick, he’ll make you soup. If you’re in danger, he’ll shoot the polar bear. And eventually he’ll have an emotional breakdown where you realise you love the guy, mean nicknames at all. And there’s a good chance he goes by a ‘tough’ nickname, largely so that once the Woobie starts to shine through, you can start calling him by his ‘real’ name. He hides a brain smarter than he at first seems. This character goes through many trials, all of which evolve and underline his essential loveable nature, while his abrasiveness is melted away by his issues being revealed and dealt with. He’s not the lead character, but the supporting castmember either assigned to be the love interest of the leading lady, or a supporting character with sexual tension with another supporting character. And, of course, he’s always devastatingly attractive and, despite the fact that he’s a dick, is usually a sex object at the centre of a thousand fanfictions.
So, who immediately thought of a specific character when reading that? Because I can think of a few.
My first Woobie Bastard boyfriend was in anime fandom (which adores its Woobie Bastards), Kyou Souma of Fruits Basket. Kyou is abrasive and rude to lead character Tohru, who treats him with unjudging friendship and love for the entirety of the series. He will relentlessly insult something… until the moment he realises he’s actually hurting Tohru’s feelings, and then he’ll backtrack. He spends early-days of the series, both the anime and the comic (manga) counterpart, veering between these two modes: ticking time bomb and uber-protector. Of course, slowly we learn that this kid has had a basically horrible life, that the universe has regularly shat on him since he was a kid, and eventually he begins to straighten out. And in the end, SPOILERS, Tohru and he end up together, happily married into their old age.
You may not know Kyou, or his thousand counterparts within anime, but you may be familiar with another popular Woobie Bastard: James “Sawyer” Ford of Lost. For many TV watchers of the past decade, I’d say Sawyer practically defines this trope. A snarky bastard best known for giving the entire cast rude nicknames and his hate-you-want-you tension with (otherwise bland) lead female Kate Austen, it’s slowly revealed through season one that he’s also got plenty of inner Pain and Anguish. He’s become the very thing that destroyed his family and murdered a man based on a lie. As the show goes on, Kate begins calling him “James” when trying to appeal to his better side. Unlike Kyou, he doesn’t end up with the leading lady; he does, however, become properly domesticated and enter a fan-favourite romance with another character, Juliet Burke, eventually riding off into the sunset with her.
And the Woobie Bastard doesn’t even have to be so in canon. Glee‘s Noah “Puck” Puckerman has had hints of being a Woobie Bastard in series (impregnated his best friend’s girlfriend, but claims to be in love with her; has another character flip-flop between calling him “Puck” and “Noah” depending on whether she’s appealing to his better side or not), but his character is often so shallow and backgrounded that his Woobieness is usually overlooked. Frankly, because Puck is so far down the scale in Glee‘s insane cast, there’s few chances to cause him the pain that the fans desire from a Woobie Bastard. However, in fanfic… It’s not uncommon for Puck to show all of the troped elements out of nowhere: surprising sensitivity and intelligence, self-awareness (something the canon Puck sorely lacks), empathy (another thing he is devoid of), and, of course, the Puck/Noah naming element. Oddly enough, though this might just be the circles I run in, I see a lot of Woobie Bastard Puck fics not in the Puck/Quinn fandom (or ‘Quick’), where elements of the trope are canon, but in the subfandoms of Puck/Rachel (or ‘Puckleberry’) and Puck/Kurt. Because Kurt and Rachel are seen as more sensitive types, unlike Quinn’s hard candy shell, they are easier to play against the trope. It even shows up in fics I think are utter brilliance, like jockchic’s “Streetlight People” and “Everything That Counts”, who build a compelling and very readable Woobie Bastard Puck.
And, of course, there’s Draco Malfoy, whose Woobieness is almost entirely composed of fandom. I’m not familiar with this sphere, but I know of plenty of people who are, and many of the ‘worst fanfics of all time‘ I’ve been directed to have included the young master Malfoy. And Twilight fans, am I wrong to assume that Edward Cullen is also among this group? I’m not really familiar with the story beyond a passing knowledge, but everything I’ve heard makes me think he falls within this group.
One of my favourite comedies plays with this trope in an interesting way: Community‘s Jeff Winger. Jeff here is not a supporting character, which is typically one of the things that forgives the Woobie Bastard’s rougher elements. He’s a witty, loveable jerk with hidden pain, but because the story is from his point of view, he’s not nearly as Woobified as the other gentlemen here. We see his perspective, and the show allows its view of him to get pretty ugly. It plays the trope from the perspective of its name character, with Annie Edison as the innocent who he shares sexual tension with as she teaches him how to be a better man. What’s never clear is whether they are playing it straight (as they do in a handful of episodes), or playing with the trope (as they do in others). That said, because Jeff is allowed to look ugly in ways that don’t relate to his inner pain, he’s a refreshingly-characterised reversal of the trope. He’s occasionally a bastard, and often painted to by sympathetic, but the show definitely avoids Woobifying him, even as he shares a flirtation with Annie – who, I’d say, is just as much a reversal of the typical innocent maiden typified by Tohru above.
The the thing about these men (and the Woobie Bastard is almost always a manWha, though you could definitely make a case that Kara “Starbuck” Thrace of Battlestar Galactica fits the profile too) is that they are a deeply-entrenched trope of the genre, and deeply engaging. What is it about these magnificent bastards that makes them so attractive to fandom, to the point where some attractive-yet-just-mean bastards get Woobiefied in fandom to meet it?
I don’t quite know. I know that this trope is deeply attractive to me, for reasons I can’t quite spell out, and many folks I know fall into the same trap. I’ve heard it’s big in romance novels, and is the key to some famous film romances as well. It also reflects the relationship dynamics of a lot of real-life dysfunctional relationships, where one half thinks their love interest is a Woobie Bastard, while their friends and family all see that he’s just a regular bastard.
Do you think I’m on track with this trope? What do you think of it, and its bizarre power to engage and attract fans? And what are some examples, either successful or failed, of Woobie Bastards in your favourite media?