Myth of the Likeable Lead
The one note you always get from producers is that your lead character – your protagonist – needs to be likeable. I swear, it’s as if it’s on the checklist. You have your first meeting on the script and they insist you make the protagonist more likeable. Make him pet a dog? Give him a dog? Have him save a cat? That reason why they reject your script is that the lead just isn’t likeable enough. Okay, how do they explain movies like Scarface and Nightcrawler?
Your lead character doesn’t have to be likeable, but he has to be interesting. Hannibal Lecter isn’t very likeable in Hannibal, but he’s a fascinating guy – we want to hang out with him to see what he’ll do next. Al Pacino in Scarface isn’t a nice guy, but it’s fun to see the American Dream gone wrong. We don’t have to *like* the protagonist in your script, but they must be so interesting that we’ll want to hang around them to see what they do or say next. But Nightcrawler is an interesting case because the lead is both fascinating… and repulsive! Screenwriter Dan Gilroy was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for the screenplay to Nightcrawler, and it made critics’ “Ten Best” lists.
So, how do you keep the audience wanting to watch a character like Louis Bloom?
The most important thing to do is make the character *understandable.* We don’t have to like them, we do have to understand them. Crime writer George V. Higgens said, “Show the reader what the character thinks about and the reader will think about it, too.” We always want to take the reader and audience inside the character instead of telling the story from the outside. Decisions and actions need to be based on information the audience knows (because you have shown it).
The other way unlikeable characters work is to give them both positive and negative attributes. Every character is a mix of good and bad and it’s important that you know your hero’s flaws and well as what makes your villain right. You could make a little chart that lists good things and bad things about each character if that works for you. In a movie like Scarface (either version) Tony is a recent immigrant who is searching for the American Dream, and climbs from dishwasher to crime boss one step at a time. He deeply loves his sister, and takes care of his mother even though she rejects him. We can understand wanting a better life, and even having a parent who is against your choices. It helps that Tony gets double crosses by a wacked out drug dealer with a chain saw early in his journey.
Nightcrawler opens with Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) stealing a chain link fence. When he is stopped by a man representing himself as a police officer, Lou is polite and eloquent and obviously educated. This makes us wonder why someone like him would be stealing. The audience is given all of the information that this man is *not* a police officer, but a security guard just trying to scare him. When Lou sees that it’s just a security guard, he says he applied for a job as a security guard. When the guard threateningly asks to see his I.D., Lou punches him, collects his stolen fence, and speeds off. Oh, and steals the security guard’s watch. Now, we may not do this, but we understand why someone would punch a petty authority figure pretending to be a cop. We get a clue to why Lou is stealing the fence, but get more in the next scene where he tries to sell the fencing and some other building supplies to the supervisor at a construction site, and very politely asks him for a job. The economy has gone to hell, and nice young man Lou Bloom was a casualty. He’s crossed one line and begun stealing chain link fences, and tonight we have witnessed him cross another line and punch the security guard.
STEP BY STEP INTO DARKNESS
That is another technique when dealing with unlikeable leads: Don’t start them off as completely unlikeable, start small and take us step by step on their journey. From stealing a fence in the middle of nowhere to punching the guy who is threatening you to stealing some rich guy’s bicycle to trade for money and a camera to… well, we’ll get to his job as a news guy in a moment. First, let’s get back to our list of positive and negative attributes for a moment.
Lou is polite and soft spoken and ambitious. Where most characters would have completely different things in each column, Lou has *the same things* in both columns. He’s ambitious, he’s a quick learner, he doesn’t take no for an answer, he stands up for himself, he has balls (takes chances), he is an opportunist, and several other traits that end up in both columns. I think that is the key to this character, every trait that we admire he takes over the line until it is a negative.
Once he gets his camera and police scanner he ends up at a crime scene where shots were fired and he can’t get any good footage behind the police line… so he hops it to get closer to the action. This is admirable. Yes, illegal, but his job is to get the footage that no one else can get. Nina (Rene Russo), his boss at the TV station explains: “The best and clearest way that I can phrase it to you, Lou, to capture the spirit of what we air, is think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.” So, getting past the police line shows initiative on his part. Ambition. He’s doing a great job. Then he sneaks into the house… okay, that’s way over the line. The great part about this scene is that we fear for him. Suspense is generated because we know he has gone too far, and we are afraid the police will discover him and arrest him. In the kitchen he has a clear shot of the witnesses talking to the police, and he films this. Crossing this line results in him excelling at his job: He gets the shot! We understand why he sneaked into the house, and we half want to congratulate him… and half want to have him punished for this. It’s creepy to be in someone else’s house.
But he also spots bullet holes in the refrigerator, which is covered in family pictures held on by magnets. A picture of the witnesses (a young couple) and their baby on the other side of the fridge from the bullet holes. Lou “corrects this” for his shot, placing the picture between bullet holes. This seems like a small thing, but it is his first step in “creating the news.” We may cringe because we know that moving the picture is wrong, but it’s understandable. What’s the real harm?
But later, at a car accident, when Lou moves a body to create a better shot? Or when he and his intern Rick (Riz Ahmed) arrive at a crime scene before the police and Lou enters the house and films the carnage? Or when Lou tracks down the shooters and follows them to a restaurant, then places his camera and Rick’s then calls the police saying that the two shooters are in the restaurant and armed, so that they can film the shoot out? Each step is further over the line than the last. Instead of beginning with something as horrifying and wrong as creating a shoot out so that you can film it, we start with moving a picture on the refrigerator. Every step is a little bit further over the line.
All of these things are Lou being very ambitious when it comes to doing his job. He wants to get to footage that he can sell to the TV station for top dollar, and help Nina keep her job and maybe move up as the news divisions rating increase. These are positive attributes, right? What makes it work is that they are also negative attributes. Lou is what we admire, gone wrong. That’s what makes this a brilliant screenplay: What we admire about Lou is also what repulses us.
YOU’RE A VERY BAD MAN!
Other techniques for making an unlikeable lead work are:
1) Humor, especially cutting sarcastic humor. You can have an unlikeable character who says terrible things about people; and as long as they’re funny, we want to keep hanging out with him.
2) Clear Goal & Obstacle. If an unlikeable character has an understandable goal but something or someone actively prevents him from achieving it, we will want him to succeed. This techinque is often used in revenge and crime screenplays.
3) Someone to Love. By giving an unlikeable lead someone he cares about, we can show another side of him which is easy to understand. In Patty Jenkins’ Monster, Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron) is a serial killer who meets Selby (Christina Ricci) and falls in love with her. This shows us her softer side, and we hope that Aileen will mend her ways and stop killing men so that she can have a peaceful relationship.
4) Moral Code. Another technique used in crime films is to have our unlikeable criminal protagonist have some form of moral code that none of the other characters have. In Walter Hill’s The Driver the getaway driver lead is a professional criminal, but doesn’t work with armed robbers who are trigger happy. The cop chasing him has no code at all, and actually springs some trigger happy armed robbers from jail and sets up a robbery for them so that he can catch the getaway driver. If some innocent bystanders get killed, so be it: worth a few dead civilians to capture the getaway driver. Moral code can be subtle: In Michael Mann’s Heat the armed robber played by Robert DeNiro says you have to be able to pick up and leave town in 30 seconds if the police are after you, abandoning everyone you know… but he goes back for the girl that he loves. And every member of his heist team gets caught because they put family before their own safety. But the detective played by Al Pacino? Walks out on his wife and sick daughter at the hospital to catch his prey.
5) World Gone Wrong. Similar to a moral code is an unlikeable character in a world that is even worse than he or she (or it) is. This is a technique that is used in movies like Bad Santa where our grumpy department store Santa has to deal with children from hell for 8 hours a day. Our lead may be bad but everyone else is worse. Though this technique is usually used in crime films, Bad Santa is a great example because it’s a comedy. Techniques can work no matter what the genre is.
Your character may not be the nicest guy in the world, but he needs to be the most interesting guy you can imagine. For every fault, you must give us a reason why we would want to hang out with him anyway. Hannibal Lecter eats people, but you can’t wait to see what he’s going to do next! Make sure your unlikeable lead is understandable and fascinating and someone we want to hang out with for a couple of hours, even if they kill people for a living!
William C. Martell
William C. Martell has written 19 films that were carelessly slapped onto celluloid: 3 for HBO, 2 for Showtime, 2 for USA Net, and a whole bunch of CineMax Originals (which is what happens when an HBO movie goes really, really wrong). He has been on some film festival juries, including Raindance in London (five times – serving with Mike Figgis, Saffron Burrows, Lennie James, Edgar Wright and in 2013 with Julian Assange). The late Roger Ebert discussed his work with Gene Siskel on his 1997 “If We Picked The Winners” Oscar show. He’s quoted a few times in Bordwell’s great book The Way Hollywood Tells It. His USA Net flick Hard Evidence was released on video the same day as the Julia Roberts’ film Something To Talk About and out-rented it in the USA. A few years back he had two films released on DVD on the same day and both made the top-10 rentals. Recently wrote the remake of a hit 1980s horror flick, and later this year should have both a family film shooting. He’s the author of Secrets of Action Screenwriting, Hitchcock: Experiments In Terror, and the Blue Book series.