Fixing Joel
|2 min read
jbwarner86's avatar
By jbwarner86   |   
8 74 16K (1 Today)
So what I've gathered is, nobody likes Joel anymore. This is kind of a problem, since he's supposed to be the main character.

People's main issues are that Joel is dismissive of other people's interests, is inconsiderate of his family's opinions, has some smart-ass comment to say about everything, acts without thinking, swears too much, and has no real problems that are worth complaining about - he's not in a bad enough position to be as bitter and sarcastic as I've made him, and he comes off as just a whiny petulant jerk. I'm not going to lie: this is a genuine surprise to me. I thought I'd well and truly established that Joel's creative ambitions are unappreciated at home and at school, and that he uses sarcastic humor as a coping mechanism for being emotionally beaten down all the time. People's reaction to that basically amounted to "Yeah, we get that, but he's still an asshole."

I think maybe the problem is me. I'm just not a talented enough writer to get my ideas across clearly. What I really need is contribution from other creative minds, people who can take my ideas and help me build them up into something that an audience will want to read. Anybody who has any suggestions for how to make Joel more likeable and sympathetic and maintain the theme of rebellion against oppressive forces, I am sincerely open to hearing them.
anonymous's avatar
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PsychoDemonFox's avatar
PsychoDemonFoxHobbyist General Artist
Personally, I don't have much issue with Joel... But my tastes are kinda weird, so what do I know?

Though maybe giving him a few moments of niceness would make him a bit more likable..
Scar1966's avatar
Scar1966Hobbyist General Artist
Joel is a typical teenager, sarcastic, knows everything, vessel of teenage angst. I can't fathom why anyone would not relate to him.
However, critics are always critical, that's why they're critics. If they had the talent to do anything other than critiques, they wouldn't be critics!
(Do you get the impression that I dislike critics? Good, that's what I was going for!)
You tell stories with your chosen art form, and I love those stories! As a teenager in the '80's, I relate to this only too well, and you always seem to hit on some memories of that era that I hadn't thought about in ages.
Tell your stories from your own heart, let the haters hate, and lovers love.
maxvision92's avatar
maxvision92Hobbyist General Artist
Because we've grown up and are not that kind of person anymore.
maxvision92's avatar
maxvision92Hobbyist General Artist
Excuse me, but criticism is an art form in and of itself. And if you shut yourself out from criticism, you are doing yourself and your art a disservice.
pharmmajor's avatar
pharmmajorHobbyist General Artist
If it helps, I like how Joel is being handled 
Jeimii-chan719's avatar
Jeimii-chan719Student Writer
I thought he came across like you said but I like what the one person suggested, maybe if he got back at Lindsay and her family it would give him a bit more likability.
jbwarner86's avatar
Lindsay and Kevin will start to get theirs more often in the future. Not enough to completely eliminate them as threats, but small victories that at least let Joel and their friends feel a little bit of triumph, enough to let Lindsay know that Joel won't be so easy to dismiss anymore now that he's got more allies in his corner.

The real tipping point will be when Jocelyn is introduced. She's the first person who not only refuses to take any of Lindsay's shit, but is strong enough to dish out serious punishment to her. I have an idea in mind for a story where Jocelyn fights Lindsay, and that's the moment when Lindsay realizes she can't use her skills of manipulation and deceit to stop this one. The idea is for Jocelyn to be the only character who can truly put Lindsay in her place.
Jeimii-chan719's avatar
Jeimii-chan719Student Writer
Good to know. Cool, I'll be happy when Jocelyn gets introduced since she is one of my favorite characters. She's bold and opinionated, she's not afraid to be herself and I love that. Jocelyn might be a bit much when she's too touchy feely with Steve or have a mouth on her but boy is she cool!
A-Splashing-Koi's avatar
I'm a new reader to Nineteen-Ninety-Something, so I could be missing some things about this. As a writer, though, I do have a few things to advise about making a character sympathetic.

I think the main issue seems to be "show, don't tell". You have your intentions for what you want Joel to be in mind, but you don't get them across enough to the reader, so the reader only sees Joel being a jerk and not the reasoning for it. You don't seem to be aiming for the "Jerkass Woobie" trope, either, so that's another ball park.

You say his ambitions are unappreciated, and that he uses a coping mechanism for being emotionally beaten down. Why not show some background to that? Maybe he was a lot less cynical, maybe he did try to reach out to his mom over what she crusades against once, but she actively shut down his efforts to get through to her over it. Maybe he did try to communicate with her outside of arguing, and she just won't have it because she's that convinced she's doing the right thing, so he's given up and is generally now apathetic. 

I looked back through your old comics, mainly the Forever 16 version of NNS, and I see where people are coming from. Joel does come off as a lot more...optimistic, for lack of a better word. Why not incorporate that in backstory, in that he used to be a lot more naive/innocent and then became more cynical over time, instead of making it just "Early Installment Weirdness" (in trope terms)? 

You could also use this as a point for character development for him to mellow out over time and become less rude in his sarcasm, or at least gain a more balanced view of the world rather than pure cynicism. His relationship through Michelle could be a catalyst in this. They could have a fight over something he starts with a snarky remark that unintentionally hurts her, and they make up later when he realizes he was wrong and apologizes. Something like that, to show that he's growing as a person and he's aware of his flaws, and he wants to improve himself. 

All of this is only based on what I've seen, but hopefully I got the point across. 
jbwarner86's avatar
Yeah, the way I wanted to approach the character development in this series was to show the characters acting the way they do for a while, and then gradually reveal more details about their pasts to explain why and how they became the people they are, letting the readers piece it together as I go. Didn't really work as well as I'd hoped, though, so I'm trying to be a little more straightforward now.
A-Splashing-Koi's avatar
Sorry for the late reply, but yeah, that's what I meant. I think the main problem with that plot device is what format it's in. It works more easily in books because it's continuous and you can read it in one sitting (unless it's in a long series), but in comic strips, it's a lot more spaced out and can be easy to miss because you need to binge on lots more past ones to get the full picture.

I'm interested in seeing where you're going with NNS. Accepting critique of your work is a good start on working out how you want to write your story (a lot of successful writers, like Anne Rice, still don't seem to get that), so keep it up.
Otakukiller's avatar
OtakukillerStudent Writer
I don't mind a lot about the negative traits about it. my issue is that there's very little positive to outweigh. And I don't mean a positive story and a negative story, I mean positive elements in negative stories and negative elements in positive stories. we need balance
DrZime's avatar
DrZimeHobbyist Digital Artist
Just as a side note to your journal entry: it's very cool of you to ask for advice like this, and it looks like you have some great watchers with amazing insight. :clap:
MetalHeadFan2500's avatar
Sorry again just thought up another advice, Joel needs a better foil to bounce off, great character base humor are from conflicting personalities, Joel friends just sorta agrees with him, and he dismisses so much to other people it's not interesting, he need to be challenged, so to sum

Make Joel more pathetic,

more psychologically interesting,

Be more critical against Joel's flaw than just agree with him (like Sandler movies, particularly Hotel Transylvania 2 where he endangered a child and everything works out for him)

Have a bit more sadness
maxvision92's avatar
maxvision92Hobbyist General Artist
Just put all this in one comment, dude.
MetalHeadFan2500's avatar
Just when I think Im done I put more
maxvision92's avatar
maxvision92Hobbyist General Artist
So edit it all into one comment.
MetalHeadFan2500's avatar
Sorry one more thing, I'm taking screenwriting classes, yet I learned more about writing by this guy… his Sonic Dissected series are amazing but chapter 12 13 (or part 8 or 9 on Youtube) is important to learn not just comedy, but how they work within plot and characters
MetalHeadFan2500's avatar
Wait I got a great example of an unlikable but sympathetic teenage comedy Watamote, this has a fascinating yet easy to relate teenager girl that people can understand, basically if Daffy Duck was a teenage character paranoid, egotistical, lacking self awareness, and very pathetic

Dubbed episodes are on Youtube but not high quality, also try Cruncyroll for better quality or Subbed
MetalHeadFan2500's avatar
Joel needs to lose more, as genius comedy writer and critic Doug Walker aka Nostalgia Critic said pain is an aspect of comedy, make Joel more pathetic

But also tragedy, Joel needs more issues than just minor teenage problems to overly bitch at like most teenagers, at least knowledge how shallow and terrible Joel is with his music elitism, have that be satire

Though the most drastic I can ask is for Joel to grow up a little. Which is what my epic 5 year superhero epic is gonna be like, with my teenage characters, particularly Victoria "Vic" Mustang (I commissioned a prototype of her to you, who had Dave Mustaine beautiful hair) who uses comedy is defense mechanism for self loathing issues and fight injustice with satire and nuclear powers, but also learns to become a better person later and matures
MetalHeadFan2500's avatar
Here's great uses of the unlikable sympathetic comedic characters, granted these are adult characters with mature problems, but Im sure you could replant teenage issues, the only great enough dark teenage comedy I know is Breakfast Club

Duckman episode 4

Rick and Morty season 2 episode 3

Bojack Horseman Season 2 episode 11

Venture Bros Season 3 episode 2

Archer Season 2 Episode 3

I use watchcartoonline, which DA won't let me link, Duckman episodes on Youtube
JoeyWaggoner's avatar
JoeyWaggoner Digital Artist
I recently caught up with the comic today and I've got a lot to say about Joel.

One of the main story arcs you've got going on here is how much Joel wants to prove to the rest of the school that Lidnsey is a horrible person, but while reading the Universal storyarc I thought to myself "...Why is he doing this?" I mean I get she's a jerk, heck she might be the biggest jerks in all of webcomics, but the problem is she hasn't really done anything to Joel personally for Joel to try and go after her. I mean she has done is ruin a cheerleader's reputation and cheat on her boyfriend sure, but she hasn't done anything to Joel except throw some insults at him which isn't even a big deal. The cheerleader and cheating on her boyfriend still makes her a jerk but why does Joel care? Joel doesn't know these people, he's not friends with them, if anything they're kind of like background characters in this strip. I'm reminded of what Chuck Jones often said about Bugs Bunny, that he needed to be provoked before he started messing with Elmer or Sam or whoever, otherwise he would feel like a bully. Unfortunately that's how Joel feels whenever he's put up against Lindsey, he feels like a bully. Again in the Universal story all Lindsey is doing is just going about her own business, Joel just comes in sticking his nose where it doesn't belong and films her making whoopie (remind me again who's the villain of this story). If Lindsey had went out of her way to try to make Joel miserable while on the vacation like cutting in line or pushing him into that slime geyser that would somewhat justify him going after her cause she was attacking him first. That still doesn't excuse him recording her having sex which is going way too even if you did make those changes. I know Lindsey is the more horrible person, but like the Nostalgia Critic said in his "Life and Times of Timothy Green" review: "Just because you make one the spawn of Satan doesn't make the other a good human being."

Recently you have said that Joel "uses sarcastic humor as a coping mechanism", and one thing I've noticed while reading the strip is that pretty much all of the Maxwell family uses sarcasm. Now one could argue that's how Joel started using sarcasm himself but I don't think that was the intension. Think of the Simpsons and how they all react differently to certain things, Bart uses wise cracks, Lisa tries to be smart, Marge tries to calm everyone down and try to keep them out of trouble, Homer either reacts with anger or stupidity, and Maggie is a baby. With the Maxwell family it's Tina uses sarcasm, William uses sarcasm, Katie uses sarcasm, and Joel uses (big shocker) sarcasm. Now this might be just your sense of humor but if you're going to make Joel's sarcasm a big part of his character his sarcasm should be different, I would say either make it so Joel uses grumpy sarcasm and everybody else is happy or have it the other way around where his family stays grumpy and he tries to use more optimistic sarcasm.

On another note, I feel the family gets way too angry in this comic too often. I mean I know story and comedy comes from conflict but Joel, Katie, and Tina seem to start yelling at the top of a hat, Tina in particular, she see's one thing that's even a tiny bit offensive and she almost goes on a rampage (like that time she bursted into Katie's room and ripped apart that cassette). The only family member who doesn't do this is William. He seems like the only sane one in this family.

And yeah as you mentioned before Joel doesn't seem to give a damn about anyone's opinion. Katie is interested in a band he doesn't like, he insults it, William pays him to be a golf caddie, he complains about how boring it is, ect. ect. It makes him feel really despicable because if he doesn't respect the opinion of others why should we respect him?

Again going back to the Simpsons that family fights a lot, but at the same time there's the occasional thing that brings them together, something that they all enjoy. Bart and Lisa fight, but they still both enjoy Itchy and Scratchy, Homer is a meat lover and Lisa is a vegetarian, but they still enjoy spending time together, Bart is often punished by Marge but they still care for each other, Maggie is a baby, and they always enjoy sitting on that couch with their old friend TV. The Maxwells need moments where they put aside their differences and actually enjoy spending time with each other, cause no one wants to watch a family who fights 24/7 (unless they have a reality show).

One thing I miss about Joel he was more optimistic back in the old days, he had high hopes and tried to be friendly to most people. He was a bit more naive, a bit more innocent. I also miss those projects he used to do, like when he would try to make his own movies or do his own tonight show. He messed up and did a pretty bad job with them, but it didn't feel like "Oh let's see what horrible things are going to happen to Joel," it felt more like "Oh let's see what kind of crazy thing Joel is doing today." Nowadays he's a bit too smug, a bit too snarky, and a bit too mean and angry. An example I can think of is that comic where they're at Block Buster and Katie suggests renting "The Little Mermaid" and Joel says he thinks Ariel is hot, in the original versions of this strip Joel had a more bashful and slightly embarrassed face (like "Oh he admits it, but he knows it's not exactly normal. He kind of acts like he's got a cute crush"), in the current version he's got this smug face when he says that which looks sort of... Creepy (like "He knows this is wrong and he appears to be proud of it. He's thinking less like he has a crush and more like he wants to bang her").

Also for someone who's often ranted about TV shows these days being too dark and depressing you seem not to have any trouble putting your characters through the crap they go through and having Lindsey win every single time. Maybe you could have her win once or twice but the characters should still walk out with some optimism (Or in a comedic twist they get a better reward than she does). My point is Lindsey should get her comeuppance at some point at least.

Boy this went on longer than I thought it would. Nineteen Ninety Something has potential but it needs a lot of fixing up before it can get to that point. Hope this helps out.
MetalHeadFan2500's avatar
There three major components for engaging unlikable character for me

1 have a freudian excuse, such as a troubled childhood, that the character would have a flaw as a defense mechanism to hide from
2 Fight for something or someone, a goal
3 Self pity and dislike of themselves

3 is something Joel lack, try watching Bojack Horseman, Venture Bros, Duckman, or Rick and Morty

I don't think you watch these shows, as you perfer more lighter entertainment, however if you would like to write an edgy strip, you need more than biterness

Such as Teen Titans Go, it try to be an edgy darker comedy than the original show, but it's just mean for the sake of being mean, or EVERY FRIGGEN SETH MCFARLANE SHOW, where the gag look how terrible these characters are, so flat and unlikable that I don't care.

it's hard but I can give some suggestions of how to do this right
theyakkoman's avatar
Looks like you've got a lot of feedback already, and if I'm repeating what other people have said well... Guess it's just popular opinion. ;)

I think the problem with Joel-Now is best summarized in the comment section of you're September 16th strip. 
It's a strip you've done before and when I read a previous version, I liked it. 
Joel was a wee bit adorkable when admitting that "yeah, I actually find Ariel pretty hot".
But when he goes "Oh, Yeah. Ariel is fucking hot, man". That doesn't sound like the Joel we knew. At best, that sounds like Aaron, at worst sounds like a douchebag trying to be cool and edgy.

Do you remember when I gave you feedback on OTDE? Remember what I said Jamies problem was?
She wasn't sympathetic.

And being able to sympathize with the main character is, well, you already know this, super-important. 

Rebell or not, I think we all like Joel because deep down, he's a genuinely nice guy. And he is a dork. 
Not maybe a stereotypical one, but he is definitely a Music-Nerd. 
That's what makes him sympathetic and relatable. 

Now, he's misunderstood. That's good. That's relatable. We've all felt that way, one way or the other (there's a reason X-Men used to be the most popular superhero team).  
But I think when trying to show that he's misunderstood, you didn't balance it with enough support. 

Look, conflict is great. It's what drives a story forward. But if Joel always get's shit and never paus or triumph it becomes stale, repetitive and worst of all, boring. 
We need to see our main character catch a break every now and again. Hell! Even Spider-Man has a good day from time to time. And I think you're on the right course now, introducing Michelle to the story. 
In fact, the Michelle stuff is your best in a long while. Because here Joel acts like Joel. He's in love. He's a bit dorky, and we can root for that relationship cause we too like Michelle.

Another problem your stories seem to have now is: Making Joel a victim who whines about his situation makes him, well, a victim.
And, sad as this is, ask any actor: No-one stands a victim.
First instinct is sympathy. But if the person doesn't DO anything about there situation but complain, we pretty soon lose interest. Trust me, I've dealt with those people in real life. At first, you feel sorry for them but after a while, you just can't stand them because all they do is whine. 
And that's what Joel comes off as now. A whiner. 

Before, his jokes we're said with a smile. We got that he used humour to soften the hard blows life was giving him.
But now, it comes of more as whining in the usual teenage "no-one understands me" way. 


You know what just struck me? Charlie Chaplin!

Chaplins Tramp is an icon. An enduring pop culture, loved for generations and across cultures figure. 
Because even though he's down on his luck and lives in poverty he is remains kind and upbeat. 
He keeps fighting. 

Like Donald Duck.
A bad-luck magnet with a tendency to throw temper tantrums (wow, alliteration). But he always starts his short films (and better comic books) happy go luck with a smile on his face. 
If he walked around grumpy all the time, we wouldn't find him funny. But because he always keeps fighting and keeps smiling we like him. 

I think Joels problem is his attitude. He's to negative. Make him a bit more optimistic. He has an outlet after all. If nothing else, let him believe in the power of rock n roll. I know that sounds cheesy. But he's a teenager. Teenagers can be a bit cheesy in their pretty naive beliefs about the world.
He doesn't have to be a blind idiot like Aaron (in fact, it's a good contrast when you make Joel the straight man to Aarons more whacky character). But a bit more upbeat would be nice. 

Not to say he can't get upset. Like in the storyline where his Mom takes his guitar from him when she thinks he turned deaf because of playing it, of course he got upset (it's one of the better storylines if you ask me, but that story also ended on a happy note).

Lastly, and this may be just a personal taste, but please drop the swearing.
Your stories works best when they try to emulate a classic news-paper strip like Foxtrot, and I've never seen the f-word in a newspaper strip.
I know, teenagers in real life swear, and swearing has it's time and place. But having Joel swear like a sailor just makes the strip seem immature and trying to be "edgy". 

Just my two cents.
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