I have always believed that the most annoying word in the filmmaking lexicon is “likeable”.
Likeable, in its most common context, refers to a character that is good-natured, funny, charming, attractive and an everyman/woman. Basically, your Main Character has to be that really charming, beautiful jerk at the gym that manages to get the last bagel JUST because Janet finds him attractive. Ugh. Storytelling would suck if every Main Character fit this bill. Can you imagine Scrooge cracking jokes with his employees? The meaning of A Christmas Carol would be rendered moot. Or the Grinch inviting trespassers in with a drink and some charming anecdotes?
Likeable characters are uncomplex, perfect characters that may work for some stories. But they’re not realistic, and largely uninteresting for most.
The reason so many movies have these ‘perfect’ characters is all down to two things: basic psychology (we just love good guys) and difficulty. It’s very easy to turn a ‘complicated’ character into an utterly loathsome monster that everybody with a brain finds hateable (Example: Entourage. Everyone in Entourage. Even the producers.). But I think ‘likeable’ is the wrong word for the context. Audiences don’t care if someone is ‘likeable’, they want someone they can empathize and connect with. So, without further ado, here are the top three ways to make your jerk empathetic:
Likeable Trait #1 - The Arc
Imagine A Christmas Carol from the perspective of Bob Cratchett. He’s a hard-working guy with a disabled child, trying to put food on the table and have a good Christmas, but he’s treated like dirt by a miserable, misanthropic boss. In this context, Scrooge is truly the villain of the story! That’s a great example of how narrative is all about perspective, but that’s for another time. In the actual story, Scrooge is still presented as a rather despicable guy. He admires the workhouses and treats people with contempt.
If Dickens were a terrible storyteller, it would be very easy for an audience to not connect with Scrooge. But here, Dickens manages to keep the audience connected to his loathsome lead with one simple trick: he makes the audience anticipate the arc. We’ve all seen movies and predicted the arc of the lead in the first ten minutes. Especially in romantic comedies; the commitment-phobic guy meets the girl and we know that he’s going to change, embrace love and purchase impressive-yet-affordable real estate in Maine for his new family.
Audiences stick around because they know there’s an opportunity for redemption. Unless your Character commits an inexcusable act, your audience will connect.
An inexcusable act is something wholly unforgivable for a character, but even here, there are exceptions. In As Good As It Gets, our main character Melvin Udall (an OCD-suffering homophobic misanthrope) drops his gay neighbor’s dog into a garbage chute. This is the opening scene. Really. It’s a bold, risky move that makes for an excellent opener. In any other story, this would be completely inexcusable for a Main Character. But for Melvin, it works.
The scene illuminates us to who he is: he hates the dog, he hates his gay neighbours, the neighbours hate him, he has OCD, he values silence and he’s a general misanthrope. We immediately understand who he is and we have faith that his arc will make him change these things, so the audience doesn’t view this as an inexcusable act (in the way they would for a character like Ferris Bueller), but as an appropriate response for Melvin’s character. Actors often say “I don’t have to like or agree with what they do, I just have to understand why.” As long as an audience understands why, you can have a character get away with otherwise unforgivable behaviour.
Likeable Trait #2 - The Hilarious Wit
Something about humor connects and warms us to even the most difficult people. Humor is a valuable tool for a difficult character. Look at Bad Santa. Main Character Willie Stokes is a sex-addicted alcoholic and professional thief who disguises himself as a Santa to rob malls. Doesn’t take much to see that he’s a jerk. Luckily for us, he’s pretty funny, so we don’t get upset at his immoral actions or unpleasant demeanor. I’d suggest this is the most frequently used trait for the unlikable character in TV and Film, simply because it’s the easiest to define.
We admire people that make us laugh in uncomfortable or difficult circumstances.
On a side note, comedy is the easiest genre for the difficult protagonist because it’s the least uncomfortable and the most rewarding for an audience. The audience gets to watch Ben Stiller falling in love with another woman on his honeymoon while his very annoying new wife quietly suffers in The Heartbreak Kid (scumbag move), but they also get to watch him suffer due to these poor decisions. Unlikable comedic protagonists bring about a kind of cinematic karma. They allow the audience to engage with a complicated protagonist while watching him suffer for his actions.
Likeable Trait #3 - The Admirable Moment
This does not mean ‘Save the Cat’. An admirable moment is something for the audience to respect. It’s janitor Will Hunting solving the maths equations in Good Will Hunting; Mark Zuckerberg creating Facebook in The Social Network; Louis Bloom enthusiastically looking for work in Nightcrawler. They’re moments of great achievement, or efforts to make such achievement, that make us respect the character’s ambition and/or skills. We’re conditioned to respect people that achieve from a very early age. Make your character excellent at what they do, and an audience will intrinsically like them, even if they are a complete monster (see: The Godfather; Goodfellas; Pretty much any drama show on cable).
This can often be expanded to relationships and interpersonal behaviours. Maybe the assassin looks after his mother in his free time, or the nutjob scientist who kills humans rescues animals on the side. There is not a human being alive that thinks they are an intrinsically bad person. We all have good traits and bad traits, gifts and problems.
Archetypal good guys/bad guys certainly align us to the characters, but modern audiences don’t crave black and white morality tales like they used to. Modern audiences want complex characters handling a problem as best as they can. But we still need to connect somehow, and we respect people that care.
Why did audiences stick with Walter White for 5 seasons? He cared for his family; enough to kill for them. Most of us didn’t agree with it, but we respected his commitment to family.
Making the Unlikable, Root-able
Let’s wrap this thing up with two examples — a comedic example that follows all of the traits (Planes, Trains and Automobiles) and a dramatic example that picks and chooses (There Will Be Blood).
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Arc: Cantankerous control freak Neal’s arc is clear the moment he meets Del Griffith. We know he’s going to grow to love this guy and loosen up along the way. If he didn’t, it wouldn’t be much fun to watch (but might be an interesting premium cable comedy).
Humor: Neal is the straight man, so he doesn’t crack jokes. Yet, he makes us laugh consistently. Namely, through his responses of disgust to the overly-friendly Del Griffith, or his temper tantrums with everyone else.
Admirable: Neal is trying to get home to see his family for Thanksgiving. The fact that he cares so much about them to get there on time, any way he can, makes us respect him.
There Will Be Blood
Arc: We know pretty much from the first act that Daniel Plainview will become corrupted by his own ambition. We just don’t know how it will all end. That’s the mark of good storytelling.
Humor: Daniel isn’t funny. At all. If he did stand-up, he’d probably end up stealing from half of the audience and murdering the other half.
Admirable: Daniel is a successful man, and he’s ambitious. We have to respect the hustle, at least. Some people’s milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, but Daniel Plainview will drink all of it.
As long as your character is consistent, and their motive makes sense, your audience will connect. They may not ‘like’ them, but they’ll understand and stay the course of the story. Like all Screenwriting tips, not everything works for every story. Some stories need an unlikable Main Character to provide an alternate viewpoint, to represent the cynical underbelly of the ‘sunny’ world of daycare, perhaps, or the dark side of the bake sale. Other stories need a really great root-able Main Character that rescues cats and saves the world from imminent destruction without fail. It’s all about context. But these Main Characters do share many traits with ‘likeable’ Main Characters. I just think ‘Likeable’ is the wrong word.
It’s not about likability. It’s about empathy.