Meet the Reader: ‘Unlikeable’ Characters

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I recently read a screenplay about a really terrible man – a self indulgent drug addict and dealer who lies and cheats and steals; verbally abuses his girlfriend; runs over a child with his car; and then flees the scene. At the end of the script, this awful person has a life-changing experience that causes him to finally see the light and turn his life around. While it wasn’t bad idea for a story (there’s no better fodder for drama than a bad person who reforms), I passed on the script. The problem was that, while the author clearly intended for me to feel happy that this very difficult protagonist had ultimately gotten his act together and embarked on a more promising path in life, I just couldn’t. Why? Because I absolutely loathed this character and because the author didn’t give me any reason not to.

Screenwriters love to pen scripts with flawed protagonists: difficult, compromised, or damaged people with significant issues and problems who are often quite capable of behaving badly – criminals, hustlers, con artists, addicts, gamblers, killers, cheats, schemers, liars, and lunatics. It’s not hard to understand why. Such characters can be infinitely more interesting to write and watch than the “likeable” protagonists that studios often insist on featuring in their films – those bland and boring cardboard heroes who are too perfect and too ideal and who lack the flaws, problems, and idiosyncrasies that make people interesting and generate exciting drama. However, as interesting as “unlikable” characters can be, they are also infinitely more difficult to realize successfully.

unlikeable charactersThe protagonist is the most important element in a screenplay because he is the guide that takes the audience through the story – a movie narrative is about the protagonist; his goal gives the tale its direction and focus; his adventures – the steps the protagonist takes, the challenges he faces, and the obstacles he overcomes to achieve his objective – drive the plot and give the story its momentum, build, and drive; and his arc – the transformation he undergoes as a result of his experiences in the piece – gives the movie its theme.

Therefore, for a film story to work, it is essential that viewers invest themselves intellectually and emotionally in the protagonist’s plight and its outcome. If they do, then they will get caught up in the film and become passionately involved with it – they’ll be entertained; they’ll be moved; they’ll feel challenged, provoked, and enlightened; they’ll be glad they saw the movie and want to see it again; and they’ll urge others to see it too. The movie will be a creative success and (most likely) a financial success as well. If viewers don’t invest in the protagonist, then they will just be passive onlookers – they’ll watch the movie and might even be mildly entertained by some of its bells and whistles, but they’ll walk away feeling nothing. And so the film will be a failure.

Studios tend to prefer positive protagonists – upstanding characters with appealing traits and noble goals who behave in fine and admirable ways — because they feel audiences will find such characters appealing and thus will want to invest in them, therefore increasing the odds that the film will be successful. Studios tend to shy away from negative protagonists – dark, difficult, or unpleasant antiheroes with unappealing traits and dubious goals who behave badly – because they’re actions are generally off-putting and execs fear that such characters will turn audiences off to the point where they won’t want to invest in the protagonist and therefore doom the movie to failure.

The studios are correct that audiences are attracted to likeable protagonists and some of most successful films in movie history (Star Wars, The Sound of Music, The Avengers, Jaws, E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial, the Harry Potter series, Titanic, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and so on and so on) bear out this hypothesis. However, movie history has also shown that audiences do no not automatically reject unlikable protagonists – there have certainly been enough successful massively films featuring difficult “heroes” (Gone with the Wind, The Godfather, Saturday Night Fever, Raging Bull, Scarface, The Wolf of Wall Street, anything by Quentin Tarantino, etc.) to validate this notion.

This said, the majority of screenplays I read featuring negative protagonists are failures. The reason is that writers of these scripts – like the author of the piece mentioned at the start of this column — make their antiheroes too negative. They pile on the darkness and bad behavior to the point where it becomes suffocating – the characters are so unappealing and awful that there’s nothing about them we can or care to invest in.

To help you avoid this problem – to help you craft edgy characters that audiences will want to stick with – here are a ten (hopefully) helpful tips:

  • Make sure your difficult protagonist is fascinating: Dr. Hannibal Lecter is brilliant, cultured, precise, and incredibly well mannered. He also kills people and eats them. In A Beautiful Mind, John Nash is a genius, Nobel Prize-wining mathematician who is also subject to delusions and hallucinations that cause him to see people who aren’t there and think he is a CIA agent. Neither of these men are your normal, run-of-the-mill heroes, but each one is incredibly interesting, which keeps us hooked even when their actions are repellant.
  • Make sure your unlikable protagonist is incredibly charismatic: In movies as in life, we’re willing to overlook a lot of bad behavior if a person has enough charm. Scarlett O’Hara may be a selfish, manipulative schemer, but she’s also sexy as hell. Vito Corleone may be a ruthless mobster capable of cutting off a horse’s head to intimidate an opponent, but the quiet, contained power he radiates is undeniable captivating; Tony Montana’s enormous, swaggering self-confidence in Scarface keeps us enthralled as he rises from a lowly INS detainee to the king of the drug lords; Jordan Belfort’s unapologetic delight in his own excess attracts us to the debauchery of The Wolf of Wall Street like moths to a flame; Jules Winnfield’s Biblical gusto allows us to cut him enormous slack when he shoots people.
  • Give your unlikable protagonist a few likeable qualities: Nobody’s all bad – including your anti-hero. Find something positive about your protagonist to shine some light in the darkness –something like Scarlett O’Hara’s fierce determination; Tony Manero’s talent for dance; Don Vito Corleone’s Old World courtliness and his principled refusal to sell drugs; Jake La Motta’s incredible skill as a boxer; and so on.
  • Give your unsympathetic hero a sympathetic goal: It’s hard to invest in a mob boss who murders all of his enemies, but it is easy to invest in a man who is determined to save his father, as Michael Corleone is in The Godfather. It’s hard to connect with a selfish woman who exploits others and pines for another woman’s husband, but it is easy to connect with Scarlett O’Hara’s desire to save her family’s heritage. We may find Tony Manero’s treatment of women hard to take, but we can certainly understand his desire to win a dance competition.
  • Make your difficult hero self-aware: A bad guy doing bad things who feels totally justified in his actions is impossible to invest in. But a guy on the wrong road who knows he’s on the wrong road is possible to invest in because we’ve all been there at some point in our life or another. Jules Winnfield’s recognition that his escape from death in Pulp Fiction was a miracle causes him to realize that the time has come for him to change his murderous ways. Tony Manero begins Saturday Night Fever as the selfish, misogynistic, racist disco king of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, but everything that happens in the film after it’s opening dance sequence causes Tony to see that he is reigning over a hollow kingdom and that the only way out is for him to abdicate. As Die Hard’s John McClane stares death in the face at the top of Nakatomi Plaza, he admits to himself that he has treated his wife terribly and vows to do better should he make it out of the building alive. These characters’ acknowledgements that what they have been doing isn’t so hot allow us to root for them in spite of themselves.
  • Show your anti-hero’s pain: In real life, people usually behave badly because they are in some sort of emotional or psychological pain. We all understand that on some level, so if you can depict your protagonist’s pain, we will understand him as well.
  • Make sure that your script knows your protagonist is flawed: By the end of The Godfather Part II, Michael Corleone has been transformed from an idealistic college student into a cold, heartless killer. Michael’s attitude towards himself is one of self-righteous justification – he feels right to have done all of the horrible things that he has done. But the film itself never feels this way – it’s final image of him isolated and alone on the frigid banks of Lake Tahoe in autumn damns Michael to a miserable, lonely hell of his own making in a way that feels entirely correct and allows us to embrace the film while distancing ourselves from its truly monstrous hero. In contrast, a terrible Brat Pack epic from 1985 called St. Elmo’s Fire presents Rob Lowe as an alcoholic saxophone player who cheats on his wife, neglects his infant child, fails to support his family, treats his friends poorly, and takes sexual advantage of a young virgin who has a longtime crush on him, even though he has no interest in pursuing a relationship with her. This is undeniably reprehensible behavior, but the film doesn’t seem to think so – in a cheery denouement it sends Lowe off to New York to pursue his dream of musical career with a few quick lines of dialogue extolling his supposedly great talent (which seems to suggest that he is justified for putting his art ahead of his obligations and commitments – art above all and all that) and indicating that there’s a nice and financially stable man waiting in the wings to marry his wife (thus letting Lowe off the hook for treating her like crap and abandoning her) and even suggesting that his child will be better off without him in her life (thus applauding him for leaving her – this is a good thing he’s doing here). It even lets him off the hook for manipulatively deflowering the virgin by suggesting that he’s done her some sort of favor by helping her finally get over the hump (so to speak). This outrageous endorsement of his awful deeds and treatment of Lowe as a hero causes us to loathe the film as much as we loathe him.
  • Context is everything: Someone once described The Godfather films as “bad guys killing worse guys.” It’s true, and it’s also the thing that makes those films (and similar movies such as Scarface) palatable – we don’t mind the Corleones exploiting and murdering people worse than themselves, but we probably have a much harder time supporting their adventures if they were doing the same things to “innocent,” non-mob people.
  • Your flawed protagonist must earn his redemption: Most stories featuring flawed protagonists are redemption tales – we are introduced to a character going down the wrong road in life and who in the course of the narrative realizes the error of his ways and does something to turn his life around. The problem with many of the “flawed protagonist” specs I read is that they spend approximately 100 pages showcasing the antihero’s dirty deeds and then drop in the turnaround in the last five pages. Every so often this last minute redemption works, but most of the time it doesn’t because, instead of having the antihero work to achieve his salvation, it instead seems as if the protagonist is given free pass simply because it’s time for the movie to wrap up. This is extremely unsatisfying and can cause us to resent the film.
  • If you are going to redeem your anti-hero, get the process started early: The risk in holding off on redeeming your unlikable hero until the very end of the script is that we may dislike him so much that we won’t stick around until the turnaround happens. So get the process (at least the self awareness part) started sooner rather than later in order to give us a reason to hang in there.

You don’t have to do all of these things in the same script, but doing at least a few of them will give your readers and viewers reasons to invest in a character that they might steer clear of in real life, but whom your script will hopefully render as fascinating and compelling.

Copyright © 2014 by Ray Morton
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One thought on “Meet the Reader: ‘Unlikeable’ Characters

  1. OldeGrayWolf

    Unlikable is a mild description of a character in the first screenplay I ever wrote. Actually, this script was originally the manuscript for a novel but it is now in pre-production as a feature-film trilogy. This fellow turned into a person I never want to have to deal with in real life. It was pretty disturbing to me that I could ‘dream up’ someone so frightening and disgusting. Makes ya wonder where this stuff is tucked away in your psyche…

    Thanks for the great insight you share so generously. I always glean some gem from your work.

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