Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Character Study: Unctuous, Oily, and Overly Flattering

I'm the kind of person who likes to delve into how characters work or what makes them tic, whether "good" characters or "bad" characters.  I like to find ways to pinpoint characters' traits, motives, and methods.  One way to get started with this type of character analysis is to simply find the most appropriate word to describe that character. 

One of my favorite words to more accurately describe "bad" characters is unctuous.

Merriam-Webster's online dictionary defines unctuous as "revealing or marked by a smug, ingratiating, and false earnestness or spirituality."  The key to understanding unctuousness is to remember that it is usually obvious to other characters or to the audience that the unctuous character is not sincere, therefore the character is unpleasant and untrustworthy.  

When we watch unctuous characters on television or in the movies, we get a sense that they are untrustworthy, lack goodwill, or are in some other way "oily."  As a matter of fact, the etymology of "unctuous" points back to the Latin word that meant to anoint with oil, then later to the Medieval Latin word for "greasy."

Three examples of unctuous characters from television, literature, and film are Eddie Haskell, Draco Malfoy, and Obadiah Stane.

Eddie Haskell from Leave It to Beaver

Eddie Haskell, played by Ken Osmond from 1957-1963, was the smooth-talking, over-flattering friend of Wally Cleaver.  Always trying to impress Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver with his obsequious small talk, one of his lines goes like this:

"Wally, if your dumb brother tags along, I'm gonna - oh, good afternoon, Mrs. Cleaver. I was just telling Wallace how pleasant it would be for Theodore to accompany us to the movies."

As you can see, he stops mid-sentence to shift his tone to impress June Cleaver.  It doesn't work, by the way, as Mrs. Cleaver, played by Barbara Billingsley, generally reacted politely, yet unfavorably, to Eddie's unctuousness.  Because these scenes with unctuous Eddie were ironically humorous, his scenes were always punctuated with audience laughter.

Draco Malfoy from Harry Potter 

Draco Malfoy, who appears in each of the Harry Potter books, is also unctuous on occasion.  For example, we see he flatters both Professor Snape and Professor Slughorn in order to win favor, not to mention how he brags about his family's favorable relationships with Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge and Undersecretary Dolores Umbridge.  

Malfoy desires favor with Snape and Slughorn because favor from these faculty members can earn him better marks and preferential treatment: He also believes they can help raise his social status.  On the other hand, he behaves disrespectfully toward Rubeus Hagrid, a half giant, because Malfoy believes he is inherently "better" than Hagrid.  Draco Malfoy is certain that flattery toward Hagrid would not get him any closer to the top of the social ladder.  Instead, he disparages Hagrid as a way to try to elevate himself.

Of course, the reader can discern Malfoy's insincere flattery and selfish, one-sided desires, especially after he realizes he no longer needs Snape's favor to achieve a higher status with the big baddie at the top, Voldemort.  In the end, Malfoy learns that this favor he seeks might not be so favorable,  but in the meantime, he is pretty unctuous when he wants to be.

Obadiah Stane from Iron Man 

Jeff Bridges plays Obadiah Stane in the the 2008 Iron Man film.  In this film, Stane is Tony Stark's longtime mentor, having been a friend and business partner with his father, Howard Stark.  Stane frets over Stark's health when he returns from the cave, puts his arm over his shoulder like a father figure, and psychologically manipulates him into making business decisions that help Stane reach his own goals. Yet, behind the scenes he was the person who attempted to have Stark assassinated.

Stane's lines in the film show both his admiration (flattery) of Tony Stark's abilities, and his own "oiliness," and villainy. For example, as he accepts an award in lieu of Stark, he states: "Thank you, Colonel. This is beautiful. Thank you all very much. This is wonderful. Well, I'm not Tony Stark. [laughter] But if I were Tony, I would tell you how honored I feel, and what a joy it is to receive this very prestigious award. Tony, you know, the best thing about Tony is also the worst thing - he's always working."  While he admires Stark's abilities and calls him a "golden goose," he also tells Stark: "For thirty years, I've been holding you up! I built this company up from nothing! Nothing's gonna stand in my way - least of all, you!"

Stane is certainly both over-flattering at times, and an "oily" super villain. 


Unctuous is a wonderful character word, as it implies a whole lot more than just "good" or "bad."

Calling a character "unctuous" means we know he or she is "oily," an insincere flatterer, and that perhaps the other characters know as much, as well.  Beyond that, unctuous characters make for interesting study, as we can attempt to pinpoint their motives and understand their choices.  It could be they appear as ironic comic characters, like Eddie Haskell.  It could be they are on their own character arcs, learning about life as they try to win favor, like Draco Malfoy.  Or, it could just be they are super villains out for revenge and power, like Obadiah Stane.  

Can you think of any other unctuous characters from television, literature, or film?  Do you have a character word you like to use to better describe "good" characters or "bad" character?  Feel free to share in the comments!  

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the author for permission to republish.

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