Thursday, November 21, 2013

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..." "<fill in the blank> 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.


  1. You know, that's a really good analysis. I love HIMYM (and Barney), even though I would HATE him in real life. (As a single girl, I hope my friends and I never meet anyone like him.) One more thing I'd add, though- he's played by Neil Patrick Harris. And who doesn't like NPH?

  2. I have wondered about (but never analyzed) this very question - but I've gotta say I think you hit the nail right on the head. It's just true - when Barney made a developmental leap forward and toward being a decent person, I always leaped for joy with him. He was my guilty pleasure - a complete jerk that - that like Katie said, I would hate it real life - that I had a little crush on. Anyhow - I think your blog is LEGEN-wait for it..... DARY! I always look forward to your posts popping up in my blog feed. If you every want a new set of eyes to read any of your work - I'd love to be involved in your creative process. I think you have a talent for catching attention

    p.s. I have a cousin that named his son Legendary. I was instantly jealous :p

  3. This is perfect! I absolutely LOVE Barney. One of the things I love about him though, as ironic as it sounds, he really is an innocent. Seriously, when you think about it, underneath all of his scummy and awful and dirty self, he's an innocent. He's like a little child who just wants his dad to be proud of him. While he lies to everyone, deep down he still thinks people are honest with him. He craves attention and love and it's just... he's awesome. They did such a great job of developing his character on this show.

  4. I would definitely hate him in real life, too.

    Thought I sort of argue that NPH's popularity has been brought about by the show. He was doing a lot of voice work and made-for-tv stuff before the debut of HIMYM. He's a magnetic personality, to be sure, but most of his popularity has been since 2005, when the show started. I'm super glad that the producers brought him on, though, he's definitely an addition to my television :)

  5. That's part of the genius of the show, I think. The writing is phenomenal, and I feel like you can genuinely root for each of the characters all along the way.

  6. It's true. I like the arrested development side of his character. And that's part of the sad backstory, part of how they crafted a real, multi-dimensional person instead of just putting up a douchey guy as the opposite of Ted's love-sick puppy face.

    Related: Did you ever see that show "Rules of Engagement"? I felt like David Spade's character is supposed to be the same type of guy as Barney, but he comes off as one-dimensional, and the show suffers for it. I actually think the whole show is trying to be an answer to HIMYM but falls short because the characters aren't as robust.

  7. Aww, thanks for the credit, but you did most of the analysis. I just was all, "Hey, why do I like Barney so much?" ;)

    But I WOULD add a fourth one to the list: He's not afraid to do uncool things. He sleeps with old ladies, fat chicks, and man-like weight lifters. (OK, so rude for me to say that, but it's Barney, c'mon.) He isn't afraid to cause himself pain, like holding his arm in the air for hours on principle because he wants someone to "bump this." When he wants to nab a girl who doesn't like suits, he gives up his suit for her.

    And he loses. He wins sometimes, but he loses a lot, and he never gives up.

    There's five! He's tenacious.

    Oh, Barney, you're so awesome.