To Like or Not to Like, That Is (Not) the Question . . .

Without a doubt, Paul Newman was a superstar, one of the great Hollywood actors.  His success dates back to the 1950s, starring in such films as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Long, Hot Summer.  But it was his performance playing pool shark “Fast” Eddie Felson in the 1961 movie The Hustler that cemented his status as one of the all-time best.



The question immediately arises:  What is it about Fast Eddie Felson that gripped and moved audiences, that allowed Newman to catapult to the very top of his profession?  No question, Newman was a gifted actor, and a lesser talent may not have played the part so well.  Nevertheless, there is something memorable about Fast Eddie, the fictional character.  There is something about him that stuck with people, and wouldn’t let go.

Is Fast Eddie just so likeable?  Is that it?  Surely, he is charming.  With his boyish grin, good looks, and natural flair and charisma, Eddie Felson is easy to notice.



A great guy, right?  Not really.  All too often, he’s a boorish jerk who mistreats the people closest to him.

A small-time hustler, Eddie thinks of himself as the best pool player in the country, and he wants to prove it by squaring off against the legendary “Minnesota Fats.”  He gets the match, and, despite jumping ahead early, ultimately loses the contest–a grueling 36-hour pool marathon.  After losing to “Fats,” Eddie is down to his last $200.

He then runs out on his longtime friend and business partner, Charlie, scrapes just to get by, and meets Sarah, a troubled alcoholic who falls in love with him.  Throughout all this, we see Fast Eddie at his worst.  When Charlie finds him, and asks him to come back on tour with him, hustling pool on the road, Eddie dismisses him, calling him a “small-time Charlie.”  He wants a rematch with “Fats,” nothing less.  He wants to be the best.  He tells Charlie to “lay down and die by yourself.  Don’t take me with you.”



He is often insensitive to Sarah, treating her with very little respect, yet he maintains his cocky attitude.  Eddie Felson doesn’t walk.  He struts.  He doesn’t smile.  He smirks.  He’s a jerk.  And yet . . . there is something about him.  Something endearing, nuanced, vulnerable.

Beneath his bravado, Eddie is like a little boy desperately trying to prove himself.  He feels the need to be the best because, deep down, he doesn’t believe he is.  By movie’s end, he does get that rematch with Minnesota Fats, and he does in fact beat him.  At a terrible cost.  Sarah has taken her own life, largely as a result of Eddie’s choices and misplaced priorities.  Beating “Fats” is hollow.  The goal he had wanted all along means nothing.  Eddie finally understands this, too late.

You might think, as an audience, we would say, “He had it coming, he should be miserable,” and leave it at that.  After all, if he had chosen a different path earlier in the movie, the tragic outcome could have been avoided.  But then we pull back.  Don’t we all have a little Fast Eddie in us?  Don’t we all make mistakes?  Don’t we all, at times, overemphasize trivialities at the expense of life’s essentials?  Eddie Felson is not less of a character because of his flaws.  He is more of one.



When I wrote The Eye-Dancers, I hoped to create characters with layers, depth, dimensions.  It would be easy to label Marc Kuslanski, for example, as the “science geek know-it-all,” and Joe Marma as the “tough kid with the big mouth.”  And it’s true.  Both boys fit those descriptions.  But, it is certainly my hope, that’s not where the descriptions end.

If Joe is rash, violent, angry, and has a chip on his shoulder, why is this so?  When we meet him, we see that he feels he needs to prove himself because he’s the shortest boy in his class.  We also discover that he has an older brother, Bob, who seemingly has it all–grades, girls, sports trophies.  “It wasn’t fair,” the text reads in chapter two.  “No matter what [Joe] did, no matter how hard he tried, he always came in second place. . . . It was hard on Christmas, too, and on Bob’s birthday.  What were you supposed to get the brother who had everything?”

Likewise with Marc, it’s easy to dismiss him as a creep.  Even Mitchell Brant, who becomes his friend later in the story, tells him at one point, “Your horse gets pretty high sometimes, you know that?”  But beneath the know-it-all exterior is a person who, even though he doesn’t like to admit it, hungers for a sibling (he is an only child), and a friend.  Early in the book, the narrative reads, “Sometimes, when [Marc] sat in his room, with only his science books and favorite Web pages for companions, he would feel a loneliness that threatened to reach down and crush him in its fist. . . .  He would see kids his own age playing ball, laughing hysterically, joking around, and it was hard not to wonder . . . if perhaps childhood had passed him by altogether—assuming it had ever visited him in the first place.”

I’m not sure if readers will like Joe Marma and Marc Kuslanski.  But I hope they’ll understand them, and look at them as flawed people with real feelings and real emotions.

And maybe that’s what it’s all about.  Maybe that’s what characters need to do.  They feel.  They hurt.  They strive, and they fail.  They make progress, and lose ground.  They cry and scream and claw.  They are us.

They don’t need to be perfect.  They don’t need to have all the answers.  They don’t need to be an archetype or an ideal.  They don’t even need to be liked.

They just need to be human.

Thanks so much for reading!


45 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. mandyevebarnett
    Apr 05, 2013 @ 19:06:03

    As an avid Paul Newman fan from early childhood, when my school pals were ‘in love’ with the likes of David Cassidy & The Osmonds – yuk – I found him breath taking but also saw the depth he would bring to roles. Yes some characters, Paul played were nasty gits but no matter what he was fawned over. Was it a taming instinct in women, a jealousy in men?
    Paul is sadly missed not just for being an actor but a faithful husband and generous giver to charity.


  2. Kitt Crescendo
    Apr 05, 2013 @ 19:30:58

    I think your last sentence “They just have to be human.” is quite right. Gone With The Wind is a classic example. Scarlet O’Hara was not a very like able person most of the time. She was, however, relatable.


  3. Lyn
    Apr 05, 2013 @ 19:54:25

    Beneath his bravado, Eddie is like a little boy desperately trying to prove himself. He feels the need to be the best because, deep down, he doesn’t believe he is Yes, that’s Joe Marma to a T. I thought of him as soon as I read the post:-)

    Yes,Paul Newman was a great actor and children here in Australia are beneficiaries of his generosity to charity.


  4. picturemereading
    Apr 05, 2013 @ 20:07:15

    It’s Paul Newman..the man just had charisma! I love him!


  5. 2embracethelight
    Apr 05, 2013 @ 20:09:00

    I do recall watching that movie some years back. Given I am not a fan of those kind of movies, I can’t say I remember a lot of it, except that I did feel Eddie was a childish hustler. Childish from the standpoint that he didn’t behave with much respect for others. However, it was so believable from people I have known of, that I commend him for his acting ability. He convinced me. I think what attracted me in part to this movie was the pool. I am an avid pool player.


    • The Eye-Dancers
      Apr 05, 2013 @ 20:17:35

      Hi, Yisraela! Yes, and pool is certainly shown at great length in The Hustler! The pool scene with Jackie Gleason in the beginning goes on for about a half hour, if memory serves. And yet, it’s a riveting scene.


  6. Sue Dreamwalker
    Apr 05, 2013 @ 20:11:50

    I think way back I may have been in love with Paul Newman LOL…. he was of my era 🙂 Lovely post


  7. becky6259
    Apr 05, 2013 @ 20:35:19

    Good analogies — you are very observant of people, which I guess is what it takes to be a good writer.


  8. laurie27wsmith
    Apr 05, 2013 @ 20:53:13

    A great character that Eddie Felson, I can remember watching the movie as a kid and thinking, just take the girl and go. Naturally it doesn’t happen that way and we were treated to a fine movie. You are right, our characters have to be real no matter what. Throw them to the lions and see what pops up 🙂


    • laurie27wsmith
      Apr 05, 2013 @ 21:00:54

      Duh! Throw them in the writing sense of drama, emotions, etc. With Eddie his life seemed to me as a child to be a wasted one, yet the events in it still drove the story. I guess you hoped he’d pull his finger out and grow up.


      • The Eye-Dancers
        Apr 08, 2013 @ 13:56:45

        Great comments. The Hustler is a frustrating movie to watch, because we’re hoping Eddie can make the right choices, but he rarely does. But as you point out, this is what draws us to characters. They have to be real.

  9. pishnguyen
    Apr 05, 2013 @ 21:11:21

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts on your characters, as well as learning about the thought process behind their creation. It sounds like you have created interesting characters. For me, “likable” is an okay thing for a character … but “interesting” — that’s what keeps me turning the pages.


    • The Eye-Dancers
      Apr 08, 2013 @ 13:58:26

      Great points. That’s a good way to look at it, too. Characters need to be interesting and layered, first and foremost. Likeable is a nice added benefit, if that’s the case, but it’s certainly not necessary! Thanks for your comments!


  10. cariwiese
    Apr 05, 2013 @ 21:48:37

    Good points! Sometimes, when we try to make all of our characters easily liked, they become boring by default. Love this post. Thank you for visiting my blog!


  11. indytony
    Apr 06, 2013 @ 01:48:07

    A very well written review of the movie and connection with your story.

    You have captured something very true about us as human beings. As a neo-Puritan, I would put it this way,

    “We celebrate sin and despise righteousness – in ourselves, and especially in others.”


  12. seeker
    Apr 06, 2013 @ 03:48:51

    If all the characters are perfect, then what is the point of creating such good story like yours and watching a feel good movie? You are right to humanize the characters in your book.


  13. Christy Birmingham
    Apr 06, 2013 @ 16:32:41

    I had always heard about Fast Eddy but did not really understand what/who it was… now I am educated! 🙂


  14. lolarugula
    Apr 06, 2013 @ 16:43:13

    It’s so true that while reading The Eye Dancers, there were a number of times I didn’t like Joe or Marc at all. But as the book progressed, I came to understand them better and what was behind their actions and demeanor…you gave real depth to them. Oh, and now I want to watch The Hustler again. 🙂


  15. kelihasablog
    Apr 06, 2013 @ 21:43:30

    I remember seeing that movie.. LOL… and I can’t speak for anyone other than myself, but I admit, I felt like there was an evolution in the characters in Eye Dancers, cuz they felt more dimensional to me at the end… if that makes sense. 😀


  16. fortyoneteen
    Apr 07, 2013 @ 02:39:52

    Great post Mike! Speaking as a lover of reading, I do fall for any character that is written well, and by well I mean, that is real. A great book for me is about the people that live in it. Sometimes, it’s the character that you just can’t like, that you end up falling for!


  17. joseyphina
    Apr 07, 2013 @ 18:45:23

    Nicely written.


  18. BeWithUs
    Apr 08, 2013 @ 07:55:38

    Have a great Monday! Cheers~ 😀


  19. FreeRangeCow
    Apr 08, 2013 @ 20:28:47

    Wow…we just watched this movie a couple of weeks ago…the timing of the universe, eh?


  20. honeydidyouseethat?
    Apr 09, 2013 @ 03:48:59

    ahhh I liked all of the boys!!!


  21. natycalinescu
    Apr 10, 2013 @ 19:50:04

    I think all of us need to be human. 🙂


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