Does Your Main Character Have To Be Likeable?


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.

Character Flaw

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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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Buck Wade says:

    a lot of villains are praised because of their unlikeability. Like malificent from sleeping beuty, handsome jack from borderlands 2, and many others.

  2. seanpcar says:

    “Likeability” is one of those vague, meaningless criterion imposed by nervous, risk-averse creative execs who don’t know the first thing about storytelling.

    You need to LIKE your friends; you only need to EMPATHIZE with a fictional character in order to be emotionally engaged in his story. That’s what Blake Snyder meant when he coined the phrase “save the cat”: A protagonist does something — or something is done to him (“kill the cat”) — that earns your empathy and has you rooting for him to grow emotionally. There are dozens of ways, subtle and grand, for the skilled writer to achieve this end for all manner of characters (heroes, sidekicks, villains, henchmen) — it needn’t be a moment as on-the-nose as “saving a cat” (which Snyder was the first to acknowledge).

    The opening sequence of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is LOADED with artfully applied techniques that have the audience empathizing with Peter Quill mere moments before we learn he’s grown up to be a self-serving scavenger — a galactic bottom-feeder, essentially. Likeable? It’s irrelevant — because we already EMPATHIZED WITH HIS PLIGHT. (That movie had us empathizing with an irascible raccoon, so it’s definitely one that demands closer study by students of screenwriting.) Once empathy was established, we were rooting for Quill to push through his character arc and overcome his “fatal flaw.”

    Empathy, “fatal flaws,” and character arcs are all separate (but interconnected) facets of CHARACTERIZATION — they are counterparts in the Swiss timepiece that is your hero. Now, if an exec tells you your protagonist is unlikable, that COULD be indicative of a failure on your part to sufficiently elicit empathy for him — something you should certainly address in a rewrite — but it is ABSOLUTE PROOF that the exec isn’t formally schooled in the art of characterization. Yes, he could be having a perfectly credible intuitive reaction to the shortcomings in your screenplay, but if he suggests your character is “unlikable,” he clearly doesn’t know how to articulate where the material is lacking. So, take the NOTE he’s offering, but be wary of any specific SUGGESTIONS that come with it — that’s where the development process often goes off the rails. The writer needs to be in command of the material; if WE’RE not, others will (happily) assume the alpha position — usually to the detriment of the project. Don’t let that happen — know your craft better than they do. “Likeability” is nonsense; complexity is key.

    1. You raise some interesting points. Likeability does have place in storytelling, but it isn’t the only defining character. It’s what you look for after completing a screenwriting 101 course.

      Sympathy and Empathy are more important as is complexity. Another expression I’ve heard is if you’re character isn’t likeable, make them fascinating.

      Thanks for your comments.

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