Likability alone will not make your protagonist appealing. But, never fear. Staton Rabin shares specific techniques you can learn for making your heroes engaging.
Staton Rabin (www.StatonRabin.com) is a screenplay marketing consultant, script analyst, and “pitch coach” for writers at all levels of experience. Contact: Cutebunion@aol.com. Follow Staton on Twitter @StatonRabin. Full bio here.
You slave away at writing your screenplay for months. Finally, you finish your first draft, do a rewrite and a polish, and proudly show the results to a script analyst. She tells you your story structure and dialogue are fine but says, “We don’t care about the main character or his plight.” What the heck is this annoying person talking about?
Speaking as that annoying person, I can tell you that if you don’t write a protagonist who is likable—or at least fascinating in his rottenness and recognizably human—nobody is going to like your script. But, how do you make your hero likable or fascinating?
You have the perfect answer! Cast Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio, or Jennifer Lawrence in the main role. Sorry, this answer is a cop out; and the chances of your getting stars like this for your movie are about as good as my chances of winning the gold medal in the Women’s Speed Skating competition at the next Olympics. (Note: I don’t know how to skate.)
Yes, it certainly helps to cast a likable actor in your main role. However, you can’t rely on this to make your protagonist appealing. But, never fear. There are specific techniques you can learn for making your hero engaging.
First, it’s important to figure out what kinds of personality traits will prove appealing to a film audience. Luckily, these qualities are very similar to what people like about others in real life: compassion, humor, expertise, stick-to-itiveness, self-sacrifice, charm, generosity, empathy, courage, integrity, reliability, honesty, etc. Have you ever noticed that even people who are so different from each other they couldn’t stand to spend five minutes in the same room together tend to agree on which others are likable? Often, even habitually nasty people (except, perhaps, those afflicted by jealousy) like those who have the good qualities they lack. Human beings may differ somewhat on which personality traits they find most attractive—but, more often than not, there’s general agreement about which qualities others find admirable, which is awfully lucky for screenwriters who have to create likable characters out of thin air.
GIVING YOUR HERO “THE SILENT TREATMENT”
Perhaps the best movies to watch to get a sense of what makes a character instantly likeable are silent film comedies. Movies by Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd provide a veritable laboratory for studying what makes a hero appealing. In films like Chaplin’s City Lights or The Gold Rush, Keaton’s Our Hospitality or The General, and Lloyd’s The Freshman or Safety Last!, the filmmakers manage to make the audience fall in love with the characters these comedians play—even without using any words (other than the occasional title card, of course). Once these characters’ screen personae have been established (Chaplin’s poignant but plucky Little Tramp character, Keaton’s acrobatic genius and gentle, impassive face, or Lloyd’s intrepid nerd who wears eyeglasses), the audience will tend to carry over their affection for the hero from one film to another.
These classic films provide us with heroes who are underdogs, besieged by troubles (but not wimpy or passive), and who triumph over difficult odds. In fact, nearly every successful film fits that description. Audiences tend to root for underdogs who, instead of complaining about their misfortunes, make the best of them and (usually) are victorious in the end. When, in The Gold Rush, Charlie Chaplin gets snowed in and stranded in a cabin in the Klondike, does he complain about his situation? No. He cheerfully eats his shoe.
In Our Hospitality, Buster Keaton is dating a young woman and gets caught in the crossfire between their two feuding families (similar to the Hatfields and McCoys). When he visits her family’s home for dinner, the “Canfields” leave him alone because even these bloodthirsty killers believe it’s bad form to shoot a house guest (even if he is a McKay). But the moment Keaton sets foot outside the door, they’ll open fire on him—so he’s trapped. The mild-mannered Keaton, unarmed, is clearly the underdog. But, he’s clever and thinks his way out of the situation.
Audiences like disadvantaged characters who find clever ways out of a jam and triumph over their opponents. What these heroes may lack in brawn, they make up in ingenuity. When little Charlie Chaplin faces down an enemy—in the boxing ring or elsewhere—he is always half the size of his opponent. But, he wins by his agility and wits.
PATTING THE PIT BULL
Kindheartedness is another quality that makes a film hero attractive. This is why Chaplin is always adopting dogs, waifs, or other misfits of society in his movies (The Kid, for example). In the trade, we call these “pat the dog” scenes. This doesn’t mean your hero must literally pat a dog. In City Lights, Chaplin, in his ragged clothes as the Tramp, befriends a blind flower girl—someone who is even worse off than he. She wrongly assumes he’s a wealthy man.
Even when a character may be gruff on the surface and occasionally cruel (like Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca), if we understand the source of their pain and know they’re a good person at heart, we will still like and admire them. In Casablanca, Rick seems like a sourpuss who claims to “stick his neck out for nobody.” But, the clever Vichy French police prefect, Captain Renault (Claude Rains)—who has access to Rick’s records—speculates aloud about his mysterious past and uncovers evidence that Rick is really a self-sacrificing good guy who became embittered somewhere along the way. Eventually, we learn the cause of his bitterness: He was jilted by his great love, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), when they were in Paris. But, even before Ilsa shows up unexpectedly at Rick’s in Casablanca, we already know he remains capable of kindness despite his unhappy history. His bitter words say one thing, but his actions say another—and actions speak louder than words. After refusing to help a young newlywed who is desperate to escape from Casablanca with her husband, Rick orders an employee to rig his club’s roulette wheel so that she (who will have to have sex with Renault in order to get her exit papers if Rick doesn’t help her) can win the money to afford to buy her and her husband’s escape.
Here are the Casablanca scenes in which Captain Renault questions Rick about his past. What we learn about Rick—and even his resistance to admitting to his past heroism— makes him more likeable. Notice how adroitly this exposition is handled: with humor and over conflict. The information is pulled out of him—Rick himself never tells us about his history of altruistic behavior, nor of his broken romance.
At first, Rick successfully evades any questions about his mysterious past:
I have often speculated on
why you don’t return to America.
Did you abscond with the church
funds? Did you run off with a
senator’s wife? I like to think
you killed a man. It’s the romantic
It was a combination of all three.
And what in heaven’s name
brought you to Casablanca?
My health. I came to Casablanca
for the waters.
Waters? What waters? We’re
in the desert.
I was misinformed.
But, later, Renault pries more successfully—though Rick still tries to deny his good-guy past:
Louis, whatever gave you the
impression that I might be
interested in helping Laszlo escape.
Because, my dear Ricky, I suspect
that under that cynical shell you’re
at heart a sentimentalist.
Rick makes a face.
Oh, laugh if you will, but I
happen to be familiar with
your record. Let me point
out just two items. In l935,
you ran guns to Ethiopia.
In l936, you fought in Spain
on the loyalist side.
And got well paid for it on
The winning side would
have paid you much better.
Maybe. Well, it seems you
are determined to keep
Notice the way Rick immediately changes the subject once Renault uncovers something important about his past. But not before we understand that Rick has a history of self-sacrifice and bravery—despite his denials.
By the way, the same “actions speak louder than words” writing philosophy applies to crafting villains as well as heroes. In The Magnificent Seven, villain Calvera, played by veteran character actor Eli Wallach, says lots of “nice” things but commits unjustified acts of brutal violence. So, despite his polite way of expressing himself verbally, the audience is left with no doubt that he is the villain of the piece.
What does all this mean for you as a screenwriter? That both your heroes’ and your villains’ words needn’t echo their behavior, and they can and should have many facets to their personalities. Creating a contrast between their words and behavior will not leave the audience confused about which category (good person or “rotter”) they fall into—as long as the preponderance of their behavior is in line with one designation or the other.
Is it possible to come up with a “laundry list” of qualities that will make your protagonist more likable?—a sort of Chinese menu for screenwriters from which you can mix and match appealing personality traits? Absolutely, and I’m about to give it to you. But, first, I must address the issue of anti-heroes who serve as a screenplay’s protagonist.
BREWING UP THE ANTIHERO
“If you can’t make your hero likable, at least give them a challenging goal. Make them fascinatingly evil and very good at what they do.”
Why is it that characters like the Godfather, Hannibal Lecter, or Macbeth can serve as the “hero” of a film? Because even villains have some admirable traits. Sometimes, we like these characters—or, at least are fascinated by them—because, as rotten as they are, they are better than their enemies. Sometimes, it is their ingenuity, persistence, family loyalty, courage or expertise that impresses us. Or, we may secretly wish that we could dispose of our enemies with the same guiltless aplomb as these characters. But, most importantly, almost any villain or antihero is inherently sympathetic as long as the character is presented as recognizably human with all the complexities that entails. There’s probably no one on earth so evil that, if we knew the whole story of how they came to be what they are, wouldn’t engender some sort of understanding on our part, if not sympathy.
Even if your main character or characters are criminals (Butch and Sundance, Bonnie and Clyde, etc.), keep in mind that there are many things you can do to make sure that the film audience will like—or at least empathize with—your heroes. Here are some of them:
1) Though there are valid exceptions to this rule, it’s preferable that if your hero or anti-hero commits a murder, it is not “in cold blood.” (Ideally, it should be only in self-defense or justified in some way.) If they kill, it should not be gratuitously brutal. They should not enjoy it too much, and killing or maiming should be used only as their last resort. Notice that in the 1960s classic Western Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, the two heroes, played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford, are extremely reluctant to do anyone physical harm. When they rob the safe on the Union Pacific Railroad train, they beg the man guarding it to open the lock and get out of the way before he gets hurt. When the man (Woodcock) stubbornly refuses to budge, and they are forced to blow the safe—knocking him down—they check on him to make sure he’s all right before leaving.
2) Make sure your protagonist is an underdog and, preferably, outgunned and outnumbered by those pursuing them. In Butch Cassidy, the two outlaws are chased by a relentless super posse (“Who are those guys?”); and it takes the entire Bolivian army to gun them down. They are ridiculously overmatched, which gives the lawmen an unfair advantage—and this only increases our sympathy for our anti-heroes. In Bonnie and Clyde, the G-Men riddle the small, Robin Hood-like Barrow gang with enough bullets to wipe out an entire army regiment, resulting in a terrible, bloody death for our protagonists. It all seems so unfair. Americans have a sense of fair play. Make the most of it.
3) Sometimes, we like our main characters simply because their enemies are even worse than they are. In Butch Cassidy, we like these guys partly because they are so funny; and their enemies definitely aren’t. Of course, having Redford and Newman play these roles doesn’t hurt.
In some cases, showing the cruel childhood that made the main character into the twisted person they later became can make them a more sympathetic (or at least understandable) character. This was used to good effect in 2017’s “Manhunt: The Unabomber.” Keep in mind, though, that this technique of “showing their unhappy childhood” can be overused, and if the criminal is simply the villain of the movie, it’s neither relevant nor interesting what made them what they are.
4) If you can’t make your hero likable, at least give them a challenging goal. Make them fascinatingly evil and very good at what they do. Hannibal Lecter may not be someone you’d like to invite for dinner (at least not if you don’t want to donate your liver to accompany his fava beans and a nice chianti), but he’d certainly be an interesting dinner guest.
“Present your protagonist with a painfully difficult choice between two options: one of which will result in selfish gain for them, the other being more altruistic or noble.”
5) Whether your main character is a hero or an antihero, present them with a painfully difficult choice between two options: one of which will result in selfish gain for them, the other being more altruistic or noble. When your hero makes the right choice even at the cost of their own comfort or safety, we will admire them all the more. The movie A Man For All Seasons, in which Sir Thomas More (played by Paul Scofield) refuses to take an oath and sign his name to a document that violates his faith in God and his conscience (even though he knows he will be beheaded by his friend and monarch, Henry VIII, if he doesn’t sign), is a good example of a film about a hero faced with a difficult choice who rises even higher in our esteem when he does the right thing and is willing to make a big sacrifice—or even die—for his principles.
While More’s decision is not a great surprise given his impeccable morals (the real Sir Thomas More was also a virtuous man of integrity, who was eventually canonized), there are also many movies in which antiheroes, flawed heroes, or even villains make an unexpectedly selfless, noble, or self-sacrificing choice in the end. This can be a very powerful moment in a movie—especially since their actions are credible but not entirely predictable or inevitable. Examples of this (spoiler alert!) include the final decision made by hard-drinking Sydney Carton (played by Ronald Colman) in A Tale of Two Cities (1935)—when Carton nobly sacrifices his own life to save the husband of the woman he loves (“‘Tis a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done…”)—or Captain Renault’s (and Rick’s) final choices in Casablanca. All of these characters are flawed, complex, unpredictable people who do the right thing in the end—which is much more interesting (from a filmgoer’s standpoint) than watching “perfect” people merely do what is expected of them.
A SCREENWRITER’S HEROIC BAG OF TRICKS
Here are a few more tricks for making your protagonist appealing to an audience. Keep in mind that heroes are never perfect (in fact, your hero should probably have at least one personality flaw that they can overcome through growing and changing during the course of the story), and villains are never irredeemably evil. Remember, too, that an audience’s affection for your hero will depend not only on what they think of them but also on whether the stakes are high enough and we care about the outcome. If your hero’s goal is not a consequential and a worthy one which is difficult to accomplish, we usually will not care about them nor what happens to them.
THE “LIKEABILITY” LAUNDRY LIST
• Give your main character a love interest who sees potential in the hero or starts out underwhelmed by them but gradually grows in appreciation. As the love interest evolves in their admiration for the protagonist, so will the audience. Jean Arthur played a cynical reporter in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington who shows idealistic country bumpkin and novice senator Mr. Smith (Jimmy Stewart) the ropes in corrupt Washington and gradually falls in love with him when she realizes he’s not a naive fool but rather a principled and courageous man. As her opinion of him rises, so does ours.
• As stated earlier, present your hero as noble, self-sacrificing, and brave (i.e., somebody who risks or gives up their life or personal ambitions for others, rather than merely pursuing selfish goals). Many screen legends of yesteryear played this kind of role, especially Ronald Colman in films like A Tale of Two Cities and Lost Horizon.
• Create a hero who is striving to become a better person.
• Give your hero fears or vulnerabilities, and show them struggling to overcome them. Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones is terrified of snakes, yet he’s willing to cross a snake pit in order to accomplish his goal.
• Endow your hero with a special talent or expertise, which they use in pursuit of their dream even when the deck is stacked against them (Saturday Night Fever, Rocky, etc.). Keep in mind that in terms of film hero potential, the ability to write does not qualify as a special talent. Which would you rather do: watch me write or watch Fred Astaire dance?
• Show that the hero fights bigotry or learns to overcome his prejudices—without preaching. Gregory Peck excelled at roles like this, especially in To Kill A Mockingbird (in which he plays a Southern lawyer who bravely defends an African-American client falsely accused of rape) and Gentleman’s Agreement, where Peck (as “Phil Green”) was a magazine writer (Oops! All right, so there is at least one good movie about a writer—in addition to All the President’s Men, of course. But, (like Woodward and Bernstein) Mr. Green doesn’t just sit around writing. He takes an active role in pursuit of a goal, pretending to be Jewish in order to bear witness to anti-Semitic reactions this might stir up in friends, new acquaintances, and strangers. His goal is to write an exposé about his experiences.
• Remember that a hero must be active in pursuit of their goal. Even if a film character is depressed, make sure that they are actively depressed, not passively sitting around in their robe watching television. An example of an actively despondent character is Jimmy Stewart as the momentarily suicidal George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life. When he’s at the breaking point, he gets ready to jump off a bridge—when Clarence the Angel jumps off instead, knowing that George will jump in and save him.
Of course, you needn’t use all these techniques in one script—nor should you. Just use the ones that make sense for your character. If you follow my advice, one day your script’s hero will be able to say (in the immortal words of Sally Field when she accepted her Oscar for Places in the Heart): “And I can’t deny the fact that you like me! Right now! You like me!”
CREDITS: Casablanca, directed by Michael Curtiz, screenplay by Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, based upon the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison.