Likable v. Interesting - Complications Ensue
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Thursday, March 03, 2011

On a certain script, I've been getting some feedback that amounts to two characters not being perceived as likable or worthy people. I've had various proposals on how to make these characters seem more likable or more worthy people.

While that note can be valid, often it is misleading. We don't have to like your main character and we definitely don't have to like your secondary characters. You have to make your characters people we find compelling. We have to root for them to succeed or fail, but rooting for them to fail is just as strong as rooting for them to succeed.

For example, we have a lot of sympathy for the Frankenstein creature, but we don't want him to survive -- he murdered a little girl! In Oliver Stone's NIXON, we don't want Tricky Dick to get away with it. But we find him a compelling, fascinating character -- a sort of monster himself.

Lisa and I were just watching Charlie Kaufman's BEING JOHN MALKOVICH. (And if ever the possessory credit should belong to the writer and not the director, this would be it.) John Cusack's character is not likable. He's a whiny loser of a puppeteer. Then he goes on to do things that make us hate him. Yet he carries the film. We care what happens to him ... and his punishment is very satisfactory, thank you.

In this particular screenplay, I couldn't give the main character more likability because of what he does. He has a profession we all despise and fear. And in the movie he does a very bad thing, and then covers it up. That's nothing I could change -- it's in the bones of the screenplay. Having him be nicer to his daughter or to "save the cat" would just piss the audience off -- they'd feel I was trying to weasel out of the character's essential badness.

I think I've cracked how to fix this particular screenplay. If I'm right, the answer isn't to make the main character more likable nor his girlfriend more worthy. Instead I'm making the girlfriend much more clearly crazy -- clarifying just where her insanity lies -- and showing more clearly how the main character is failing to understand her craziness. The solution is in making their flaws clearer and stronger, rather than giving them virtues they do not deserve.

When someone says your character isn't likable enough, the answer may not be in making the character more likable. There is something missing, but it may not be something you can solve by having the character take care of his aged grandmother. The solution is in making them more interesting. Make them more compelling, stranger, more distinct, more flawed, more human. Make them more someone we can't take our eyes off.

When someone asks you to make a character more likable, make them more interesting.

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3 Comments:

I have to completely disagree with your idea that the monster killed the little girl - excuse me, "murdered" her...

The monster clearly had no intent to harm her, and when he realized something was wrong he was immediately moved to panic. The monster is as much a tragic victim here as is the girl.

Yes, the monster's actions resulted in the girl's death, but he couldn't have known that. When he did realize it - it was too late.

I say manslaughter.

The evidence:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MA9opHsLACk

(This is what happens when you watch too many episodes of L&O while editing FRANKENSTEIN LIVES AGAIN!)

By Blogger Cunningham, at 5:52 PM  

Part of the time the "more likable" comment means "more interesting". But I think it really means "I don't want to see this person accomplish his goal." Some of the solutions might be...
1) Make the goal really compelling. In Malkovich, finding out what the heck is going on with the portal keeps us engaged. Since Cusack is the only way we'll find out what's going on, it'll keep us engaged.
2) Put someone worse nearby. In Goodfellas Ray Liotta is a bully and a thief, but DeNiro and Pesci are flat-out murderers. Compared to them, he's very likable. Same with Menace II Society.
3) Make the bad guy the underdog. Frankenstein's monster is chased by a mob. Cusack is in need of a job. Something about the lead being outnumbered or his goal seeming impossible makes us want to see the goal achieved.
3a) Have the bad guy fail at first. That uncompleted task makes the lead the underdog and we want to see that task completed.
4) Add another sympathetic - but not necessarily likable - character trait. The childlike innocence of Frankenstein's monster is identifiable and makes him sympathetic, even if we don't excuse the actions. This may be what you mean by making the flaws "more human."

A movie that uses all of these tools is The Professional. (Although that movie also has "save the cat" moments, too.)

Making off-putting traits more interesting often isn't enough. You can make the main character more sympathetic through the structure or

By Blogger Andy M, at 10:42 PM  

I agree 100% with the first two comments.

Also: "I couldn't give the main character more likability because of what he does. He has a profession we all despise and fear."

Nonsense. Dexter is a serial killer. Yet we empathise with him / like him.

Mr & Mrs Smith is a romance between two murderers - who murder people for money. Why do you want Mr & Mrs Smith to survive but not Frankenstein's monster?

Casino Royale (the new version) is about a guy who is out for bloodthirsty revenge - and he ends up blowing up an entire hotel -- killing everyone inside -- just to get one man. (The intended target doesn't actually die in the explosion and ends up dying in the desert! But the hundreds of staff in the hotel are massacred in the building's destruction due to James Bond's thirst for revenge)

It's always possible to make a character likeable / empathisable.

It might not be right for your project .. but it is possible.

Mac

By Blogger Mac, at 5:32 PM  

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