I’ve previously posted The 7 Challenges of Writing a Screenplay, and I’m proud to say I’ve tackled a lot of them successfully in my rewrites. Length is no longer a problem, and having gotten rid of a lot of exposition, my screenplay is a lot leaner.
Right now, I’m facing another problem: I have two protagonists, and one of them is deemed unlikable by half the people (professionals and friends) who read my screenplay. The good news is, some of the “dislikers” are happy with how interesting the events and pacing are, and have told me they don’t have to like a character to enjoy a story or movie.
Why can one main character be unlikable?
My character comes off as too selfish, and that makes it hard for the audience to root for him. He also doesn’t lose everything despite everything he does.
Except, he is not the only main character. His problems and behavior are central to the story, yes, but it’s a script with two protagonists: these two characters start the story as best friends, but extreme circumstances force them to be each other’s antagonist.
And the second protagonist couldn’t be more likeable. He’s strong, passionate, flawed, loyal to a fault… Yet no one seems to notice.
Yes, there are changes I can make to make the unlikeable guy more likable, but most positive changes would change the heart of the story, and I can’t allow that. Because you see, this is the story I want to tell.
When you understand that character, and he is not unlikable to you
And it’s hard for me to see the character as completely selfish, because history (meaning his back story) has proven him to be pretty selfless, or close to it, in the past. He is just having a major crisis, with a pretty debilitating problem, and is acting irrationally. This in turn suggests another problem: plausibility. Like most screenplays, mine requires a decent amount of suspension of disbelief. Not because the events couldn’t/wouldn’t happen, but they are a bit on the extreme side. But if they weren’t, the story I wanted to tell wouldn’t exist.
That’s not to say I don’t respect my readers’ feedback. I do. My last coverage evoked some great questions, and I’d love to discuss it with the reader. I just need to adjust my budget first for further consultation.
On the other hand, one professional reader not only liked this “unlikable” dude, but named him his favorite.
And I’ve just finished watching two webinars from Writer’s Store where industry experts (including Script Mag’s Jeanne Veillette Bowerman) emphasized that you can root for a character if he’s interesting enough, even if he’s evil. One given example was Hannibal Lecter. (In her webinar Creating Dynamic Characters.)
Now, I’m in no way claiming my character is that interesting (completely different genres for one. For two, my character won’t be portrayed by Anthony Hopkins:D) But in a way, my “selfish protagonist”, is the antagonist of the story in several ways.
If audiences can root for Hannibal or the killer in Se7en, they can tolerate my selfish character. Next to them, he comes off like a newborn kitten for crying out loud!
Good news: There Are Many Successful Movies with Unlikeable Protagonists
Let’s mention some recent successful movies with borderline horrible, obnoxious main characters. Please note I might spoil the movies a little.
Gone Girl: I seriously can’t decide whose character I detest more. Ben Affleck’s or Rosamund Pike’s? And it’s not like supporting characters are sweet either. Engaging movie (for the most part), great second act but come on! I’ve never spent so much time during a movie wanting to punch all the characters. I wouldn’t want them as my neighbors, friends, distant acquaintances…The cops in the film included.
Side Effects: Sure, Jude Law’s character becomes more and more likable as the story progresses, but what about Rooney Mara’s? And I definitely lost a little respect for Law’s character when he got back with his wife, no questions asked. After the way she treated him? Come on! I don’t need a long fight scene, but just give me a sign of difficulty for crying out loud!
Nightcrawler: Different and compelling movie, sure. But Louis Bloom has to be one of the most obnoxious protagonists ever written. Louis Litt from the TV series Suits is a selfless angel compared to Bloom. Seriously!
And we are never given a back story on why he is such a sociopathic prick. Actually Nightcrawler steps on and chews out so much renowned screenwriting advice, it will get its own post. (or at least another post.) The point is, the only thing I liked about that character was that it was played by Jake Gyllenhaal. I didn’t root for him. I didn’t respect his cunning. I think the fact that he’s so unlikable, and still gets what he wants (despite not being as slick and smart as he believes) is what makes the movie fun to watch.
What does this mean for you and your story?
I haven’t sold this story (with the selfish protagonist) yet. I may never be able to sell it. Maybe it’ll be optioned and/or bought and never made. Maybe I will have to wait until I have the resources to make it myself. Like all the screenplays out there, the possibilities are just too many to count.
The point is, I’m not giving up on it. It has its strengths, and it has its weaknesses, and I’m doing my best to eliminate the weak parts. I’ll do my best to sell it afterwards. But I believe in it, and I’m not giving up on it. I’m also determined to improve it without changing the core.
You might need to adapt too, but you also need to keep believing in yourself. I watched this wonderfully helpful webinar by Marilyn Horowitz (How to Sell Your Screenplay in 30 Days Using New Media through Writer’s Store) where she reminds you that you need to be your biggest fan. You need to be professional, yes, but you also need to believe. It has to be the kind of story you would pay to see. If you wouldn’t, why write it?
Write the kind of movie you’ll want to see. Be as objective as you can. Improve it as much as you can. Then start pitching and querying.
And good luck!