Character Study: Barney Stinson
My friend Samantha asked recently during a How I Met Your Mother binge session, “How do they make Barney so likable?”
And it’s a valid question. He’s a horrible person, at least on the surface and in the early years. He treats women terribly, he’s shallow, misogynistic, selfish, and condescending at best. His only goal in life is to hook up with hot chicks (his words, not mine), and he’s incredibly rude about it as he does so.
And yet we root for him. He’s one of the central characters on the show, and he’s arguably the most enjoyable part of the show.
How do they do that?
Samantha and I came up with what we’re calling The Trifecta: he’s funny, his back story is super sad, and he grows a lot over the course of the show. I wanted to break that down a little more, see what I can learn from it (since my whole schtick is showing villains in a positive light). Here’s what I came up with:
1. Barney is likable because he is funny. You could really pick any one trait to emphasize. Funny works for Barney because this is a sitcom. The other characters are funny, sure. But the heart and soul of the show is a pretty schmoopy-love-sick character, and Barney fills in the gaps, making sure there are a lot of laughs, even when the episode is serious.
He’s responsible for the catch phrases that made the show famous: “Haaaaaave you met Ted?” “LEGEN-DARY.” “Wait for it…” ” Five!” “Challenge… accepted!”
They gave him one trait that was undeniably positive and it never goes away. He might not be funny to his friends on the show, but he always delivers the laughs to the audience, and that’s what matters.
2. His back story is sad. You cannot help but feel bad for Barney once you learn his back story. It gets told in pieces, spooled out a little at a time (that’s its own storytelling lesson), but each piece is a little more sad than the last.
He was dumped in a very heartless way. He was raised in a broken home filled with lies. He doesn’t know who his dad is. He finds his dad and that’s more sad than you could ever have imagined. Compared with Ted and Marshall, whose upbringings were hunky-dory suburban blandness, Barney’s story is heart breaking.
His story is a little too over-the-top for any other type of story – you couldn’t get away with such extreme measures in most stories, but the nearly-slapstick nature of HIMYM makes it work. But making us feel sorry for a character is a guarantee that we will forgive a lot of his abhorrent behavior.
3. He grows. No doubt, Barney’s character arc is the most dramatic over the course of the show. It’s nine years altogether, so everybody changes, but Barney makes the biggest changes, hands down.
By the time we enter season nine, Barney has opened himself up, abandoned most of the childish, hurtful behaviors of the earlier seasons, and just becomes a really stand up guy.
This goes a long way toward making audiences like him. If he were to continue being the same selfish womanizer from season one, we would have grown bored with him long ago. But he doesn’t, so we don’t feel bad rooting for him.
Because there’s a chance he just might become the guy we hope he’ll become.