With the rise of somewhat unlikable main characters in cable dramas like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and True Detective, anti-heroes are everywhere. We don’t need to “sympathize” or even “root for” the main character(s) in a story anymore, it seems — as long as they are fascinating people in a fascinating, high-stakes world.
Is this true, and does it apply to movies, as well?
Yes, and no. I believe truly exceptional writing and characters can help get an audience to engage when they might not otherwise, but I also think that the number one most common problem in scripts that don’t succeed is that it’s hard to really “care” about the main character and story.
“Caring” is everything
The audience generally has to really care about what’s going on, to want to keep watching. Most of the time, this requres that they really identify with the main character of a movie, and even “like” them. The title of the Save the Cat books refers to the need, in author Blake Snyder’s mind, to have the main character do something unselfishly nice for others in the first ten pages, to make us want to stick with them. So many scripts get put down after ten pages, with the reader thinking, “Why would I want to follow this person for two hours?”
But out-and-out “liking” of the main character is not absolutely necessary, as long as you can provide a strong enough reason for the audience to still identify with them. The most common way is to give them really big and/or really relatable problems.
My rule of thumb is this: the more unlikable the main character is, the bigger and more relatable their problems need to be.
Why we care about Tony Soprano
On the surface, Tony Soprano is unlikable – he’s a violent mobster who lies and cheats. But as he’s introduced, in the pilot of The Sopranos, he’s having panic attacks, feels scared, and is humiliated that he has to go to a therapist. Meanwhile, his own mother may be trying to have him killed, and he can’t get the respect and peace he wants from his wife, children and colleagues. His problems are a combination of really big and really relatable. Yes, on occasion he whacks a guy, but most of the show is about getting us inside his problem-filled life, and personal, emotional perspective.
Breaking Bad is similar: Walter White starts out incredibly relatable. He’s a high school chemistry teacher who cares about his family, finds out he’s going to die, and wants them to be taken care of, somehow. Yes, seasons later, he becomes a very dark character, but what hooks the audience initially is something completely sympathetic (coupled with big and relatable problems).
And True Detective proves, yet again, that if the main characters of a series solve murders (or do something else that is heroic for others, or society at large), they can get away with being personally unlikable in a variety of ways. Many procedural T.V. dramas take advantage of this “loophole” – especially cable shows, which tend to be less dependent on ratings. Even on broadcast networks, which value likability more (as a tool for capturing the largest possible audience), we’ve seen examples of this, with shows like House, M.D.
Problems lead to caring
If the main character of your movie is not facing enormous, relatable problems, then you may have a problem. In fact, even if s/he is mostly likable, if the problems aren’t big or relatable enough, the audience will tend to not care about the story. This is the other most common issue I see in scripts: the main character isn’t facing something big, difficult and complicated enough – which then gets worse and worse, and builds to a climax. It also needs to have high enough stakes in their outer life experience (not just their inner lives) – a big enough reason why they MUST solve it (which the audience is totally emotionally on board with).
Most successful movies have a combination of huge problems (consistent with whatever genre they’re in), and a sympathetic and relatable main character who is relatively easy to like – regardless of any flaws they might have. (Yes, good main characters tend to have a “flaw”, but it usually doesn’t lead to them hurting others. Rather, it’s the thing that gets in their own way.)
What it really comes down to is that the audience has to be emotionally engaged in the story – meaning, primarily, the main character’s conflicts and problems. Usually, the best way to achieve this is to depict everything from the subjective point-of-view of this main character, who they can empathize with. Maybe they don’t entirely sympathize with or love the main character, but they can still put themselves in their shoes, and still want to follow them.
Michael Hauge on “empathy”
I was recently perusing the 20th anniversary edition of Michael Hauge’s classic book Writing Screenplays That Sell, and discovered that Michael had codified ways to win audience empathy, which goes far beyond my own personal conclusions (about the need for bigger and more relatable problems to compensate for unlikability). In his seven-page section on “Creating Empathy”, he cites the three most traditional methods:
- Making the audience sympathize with the character (through giving them some “undeserved misfortune”).
- Putting them in great jeopardy, which causes us to worry for them.
- Making them likable, which means unselfishly good-hearted, generous and helpful to others.
But he goes further than these tried and true methods. He also notes that you can make a main character seem likable by illustrating them as well-liked by others (with a tight circle of friends), even if you don’t see them acting unselfishly – as in the opening of Legally Blonde. And he observes that if a character is funny enough – if s/he makes us laugh – that can sometimes excuse otherwise unlikable traits, and cause us to want to continue to watch and engage with them. (As in When Harry Met Sally… and also As Good As It Gets — perhaps the best study in an unlikable main character who doesn’t seem to meet the traditional critiera. I think one of its secrets is that there are really three “main characters”, two of whom are intensely lovable.)
I agree with Michael that writers really need to give audiences (and readers) some combination of those three elements: sympathy, jeopardy, and/or likability. I also love the additional list he gives – of elements which can help further cement an audience’s identification with a main character. And since this is maybe the number one most important thing for a screenplay to achieve, I think it’s worth seriously taking note of these.
This secondary list (which I’m quoting with his permission) includes:
- Making the character highly skilled at something.
- Putting the character in touch with his own power (which can mean super powers, or power over other people; but also the power to “do what needs to be done”, and/or to “express one’s feelings regardless of others’ opinions”).
- Putting them in a very familiar setting to the audience.
- Giving them familiar flaws and foibles.
- Making them the eyes of the audience (where we only learn things as they do).
This second list doesn’t replace or substitute for the three primary methods, but these can help in achieving that all-important goal of audience “caring”. Keep in mind that it’s important this is achieved in the opening ten pages – which is when the reader is really asking themselves, “Do I have some strong emotional connection yet, and some reason to want to follow this character and this story?”
In 99% of scripts, the answer to that is likely to be “Not really”. If you can be the 1% (or less) where you get a “yes” on this, you are way, way ahead of the game.
I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads. And if you'd like me to read something you're working on, check out my consulting page.