My turn with the sarcastic Wonka meme

Wonka vs Wonka and the problem with overly likable characters

I watched Timothée Chalamet’s recent turn with Willy Wonka. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. It wasn’t as good as Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka in the 1971 film or the one in Roald Dahl’s original book we read in my sixth-grade class. The reason is a mistake writers make—creating a protagonist who is too likable.

There’s a reason Wilder’s Wonka has been used in that famous sarcastic meme you see in this post. Wilder’s Wonka is not supposed to be a good guy. He’s a trickster, but with a strong hint of malevolence. We don’t know what he’s going to do next. And as unpleasant as Veruca Salt, Augustus Gloop, Violet Beauregarde, and Mike Teavee are, we feel their punishments were more severe than they deserved. The heroes of the story aren’t so great either. Grandpa Joe was bedridden, but he springs to his feet as soon as Charlie gets that golden ticket? Charlie himself breaks Wonka’s rules by sipping sodas in the Fizzy Lifting Drinks room and almost gets sliced up by a ceiling exhaust fan. (And we won’t go into the uncomfortable backstory about the Oompa-Loompas.)

Those are the things that make the original book and the 1971 movie so engaging. Willy Wonka fascinates us because he’s so unpredictable, and we don’t know what to make of him. Charlie is just a kid who makes the occasional wrong choice, but he does the right thing in the end. For all his faults, Roald Dahl trusted his audience—especially children. He tackled twisty plots and dark themes, and he encouraged us to follow along.

But Timothée Chalamet’s Wonka plays it too safe. He’s too good of a character. We’re instantly supposed to care about him because he’s a poor young man with a hat full of dreams and his late mother’s chocolate bar. People instantly like him, whether they are the townspeople who fall in love with his magical chocolate, or the poor girl and the other people held captive by Olivia Coleman’s corrupt innkeeper. Because Chalamet’s Wonka is so exceptionally good, he must be confronted by adversaries who are exceptionally bad. Slugworth isn’t the sneaky competitor of the 1971 film. He’s part of a murderous chocolate cartel.

As a result, Chalamet’s Wonka has two major problems.

First, the plot is predictable. We already know Wonka is going to win. It’s not just because he goes on to create that chocolate factory, but because we expect to see the good guys beat the bad guys—especially when the bad guys are extremely bad. With the original story, we don’t know how things are going to turn out. We’re not sure whether Charlie will survive the tour of the chocolate factory, or Willy Wonka is someone to be trusted. We stay engaged because we’re not sure how the story will end.

Second, the characters are flat and uninteresting. When they start out as 100% good or 100% bad, there’s nowhere for them to grow. Yes, Chalamet’s Wonka has to face challenges and learn skills (like how to read), but he remains the same kind and magical person he was in the beginning. Charlie had to grow in the original story. He had to overcome disappointment, learn from the mistakes others made on the tour of the factory, and figure out how to get out of a dangerous predicament. He makes the right choice in the end when he could have gone in another direction. (Considering how Wonka treated him and the other kids, no one would have blamed him.)

We want our readers to like our characters, but it’s more important that they keep our readers fascinated. Make your characters imperfect. Give them room to grow. Show them making bad choices, and then show them learning and changing from them. That’s how we all are. Giving characters flaws makes them more human.

So make your Wonka more like Gene Wilder’s than Timothée Chalamet’s.