Monday, 1 August 2011

I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way

I'm particularly fond of protagonists that aren't immediately likeable. I like seeing stories about characters learning, changing, etc. Obviously I'm not the only one. But the problem is, it's a lot harder to pull off than having a character immediately likeable, with a clear, noble goal, making it very easy to engage with and root for them. I like those movies too. But there is something particularly appealing about taking a selfish bad boy and watching them turn into a selfless good one. The further a character is in one direction, the further they have to travel - and the more satisfying the journey. And clearly I'm not the only one as I see a fair few scripts across my desk that have protagonists that are not very nice to begin with. The danger however is that the audience just won't like them enough to care about them, what they do, or what they want to achieve. And if you can't make the audience care, you're pretty much sunk. So it's a massive balancing act of retaining the character flaws, whilst getting the audience on side.

I've heard of various ways to try and do this - but it's summed up very well here. So a big thank you to Jody Moller, who I'd never heard of but came across after a bit of googling on this topic.

1. The Redemption Factor

This applies to characters that start out unlikeable but over the course of the novel/movie grow, begin to really see themselves for the first time, recognise that they were unlikeable and change for the better. Think about Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day. At the beginning of the film weatherman Phil is painful. He is arrogant, rude and let’s face it sleazy. When he first starts reliving the same day over-and-over it brings out his worst characteristics as he tried to take advantage of every situation. But eventually – redemption and suddenly we the audience feel bad for him.

2. The Use of Humour

When we see a character behaving inappropriately but their behaviour is considered humorous then somehow we ignore the moral ambiguity and laugh – suddenly they are likeable, regardless of the way they act. Think of Melvin Udall in As Good As It Gets (portrayed brilliantly by Jack Nicholson). He is the definition of ‘unlikeable’ but he is funny and we love him.

3. The Badder Baddie

If you are going to have a protag that is inherently evil then the Antagonist needs to be bigger and badder – thus making your protag likeable purely by comparison.Think of Dirty Harry (or any movie or book with a morally ambiguous cop for that matter) the cop might be dirty but I can almost guarantee that the people they are chasing are far worse.

4. Morality Is All About Context

Give your Protag morals, they can be skewed morals, but morals nonetheless. Then make the Antag go in exact opposition to those morals – suddenly your protag is ‘likeable’. Often the ‘morals’ given to unlikeable characters revolve around protecting family, revenge etc… Think The Godfather.

Note that most of the examples given above fit into more than one category.

Like I say, whilst I've heard these ideas before, I've totally stolen the above from Jody's blog. She goes on to talk about Lisbeth Salander from the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson. So check out the full post here.

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