Should screenwriters always write likable main characters?
A key tenet of mainstream movies is that the main character must be likeable. They must have a flaw that will be corrected by the end of the movie as part of their obligatory character arc. This is the basis of stories.
As audiences become more sophisticated and more complex characters are increasingly inhabiting our screens, this tenet is becoming diluted in favour of flawed, interesting characters with unique points of view. This may translate to a greater number of flaws than we have previously been used to.
Having one flaw in older movies was typical and expected. However, we are seeing characters that may only have one or two positive characteristics while being largely unlikeable. Quite a paradigm shift. Consider Jimmy and Gretchen in “You’re The Worst” on FX or Frank Gallagher on Showtime, who is downright nasty when he’s not being selfish and negligent.
There are several reasons for this trend:
- Characters with trivial flaws were cartoonish, naive and sometimes laughable. They weren’t necessarily representative of the people we know and oidn’t explore the trials and tribulations of our present time. This made it harder for audiences to like them.
- Majorly flawed characters are relatable as long as they have a modicum of humanity. We can empathise with alcoholics, thieves and such like. We can even relate to murderers and white collar criminals if we understand their motivations and backstories. Audiences have matured and are more willing to accept the ugliness of life, especially in the wake of the financial collapse. We aren’t always seeking an entertainment escape with loveable characters.
- Unlikeable characters tap into our suppressed sense of morality. They awaken our sense of rebellion, individuality, risk and determination to pursue our goals at whatever cost. If we’re that invested in such characters, they don’t have to be totally likeable. Audiences will root for them just on their boldness.
- Flawed, relatable characters help generate empathy. This will keep audiences emotionally invested in them.
- Unlikeable characters have the capacity for greater character growth (except for villains). Even if they are a little less likeable at the end of the story, growth has occurred.
- Many modern characters may also have deeper and/or multiple wounds or troubling trauma which they haven’t dealt with, which helps explain their unlikeability. This adds to their empathy with audiences.
However, even unlikable characters require a level of humanity so audiences will sympathise with them. If they are completely evil, audiences are more likely to be repelled. This even holds true with master villains.
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