blog

Make an Unlikeable Character Work for Your Screenplay

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

Subscribe
As Seen On

Hitting the right note with your screenplay’s protagonist can be a challenge. Too likeable? Boring. Too unlikeable? Your audience jumps ship before the story even gets started.

It’s a topic that came up in this month’s workshop: how to handle a protagonist who’s doing things the audience might have a hard time rooting for.

Getting us hooked into the protagonist is one of the first things the screenplay has to accomplish in order to make us want to keep reading.

But we also know that good stories often show a transformation in the character, and that means they start out needing to change. Meaning, they start out imperfect, behaving badly, hurting themselves or others. Doing things that can be hard to watch, and harder to like.

So how do we get the audience on board when the character is acting like a jerk?

Does the protagonist have to be likeable?

Let’s remember that the point isn’t necessarily to get us to like the character. What we do need to do is get the audience aligned enough with the protagonist to be curious and/or care about what will happen next, and then create a rooting interest so the audience is willing and eager to go into Act 2 with them.

This actually solves our “unlikeable character” problem. Getting the audience to align with the protagonist enough to go along for the Act 2 adventure supersedes likeability.

Alignment can come in different forms: sympathy, empathy, intrigue, allegiance, and – yes – even fondness, actually liking the character. And you’re not limited to which or how many you can use – it’s about finding the right mix, the right balance for your particular character and story.

Creating a rooting interest

So in Act 1 we want to align the audience with the protagonist so they’re either intellectually or emotionally curious (or both), and then get them to root for the protagonist to do what he’s going to do in Act 2.

That gives us a nice 2-part framework to deal with: Engage + Invest.

Now, there’s overlap of course. You’re constantly trying to keep the audience engaged and invested. But this gives us a way to think about the phases we need to take the audience through to create that rooting interest.

(And I encourage you to look at movies that worked for you and identify how they accomplished these things, too.)

Since “engage” is the first order of business, that’s what we’re going to focus on in our deep dive today.

The examples of unlikeable characters that came up in the workshop were in The Social Network and My Best Friend’s Wedding, so today let’s take a closer look at The Social Network.

Who cares about Mark Zuckerberg?

The Mark Zuckerberg character is an oddball who does some pretty sketchy things and treats the people around him poorly. The character introduction in the script doesn’t even paint him as someone we’d necessarily want to hang out with:

MARK ZUCKERBERG is a sweet looking 19 year old whose lack of any physically intimidating attributes masks a very complicated and dangerous anger. He has trouble making eye contact and sometimes it’s hard to tell if he’s talking to you or to himself.

It’s like they’re not even trying to make us like him. How, then, does the script hook us into this character enough to go along for the ride?

How The Social Network engages the audience (and makes us want to see more)

For quick reference, here’s what happens in the first sequence of The Social Network:

  1. We meet Mark Zuckerberg. He’s in a bar with his girlfriend, Erica. He goes to Harvard and is obsessed with getting into one of the ultra-exclusive Final Clubs, which he says offers “a better life.” He looks down on Erica (it’s more oblivious than intentional), and she breaks up with him.
  2. Galled, Mark blogs insulting things about Erica, admitting he needs to do something to take his mind off of her. Gets the idea to build a site to rate local college girls.
  3. Intercut with scenes of hot coeds arriving to party with the bro-y bros of a Final Club. This is the life Mark wants but is excluded from.
  4. In one night Mark builds the Facemash website with help from his friends, including caring pal Eduardo. Facemash spreads like wildfire through the local college-age crowd.
  5. Erica learns about Mark’s blog. Guys in her dorm mock her. She’s hurt.
  6. Facemash traffic crashes the Harvard network.
  7. Flash forward 3 years. Mark faces Eduardo in a legal deposition. During questioning, Mark is compelled to dispute Erica’s on-the-record version of the things. He’s clearly bugged that she’s made him “look like a jerk.”

What tactics, strategies, and techniques do we see in the screenplay?

1. We meet Mark Zuckerberg. He’s in a bar with his girlfriend, Erica. He goes to Harvard and is obsessed with getting into one of the ultra-exclusive Final Clubs, which he says offers “a better life.” He looks down on Erica (it’s more oblivious than intentional), and she breaks up with him.

In this scene, we begin to see from Mark’s very first line of dialogue that he wants something very badly – to distinguish himself, to stand out, to be regarded a certain way. But what’s underneath that desire? A deeper need to be included.

A character who wants something badly is an essential component of a compelling story. And who can’t relate to wanting to feel accepted? That’s pretty universal.

We also get sense of what an imprecise science it is to achieve what he wants. It’s not about money, or being a genius (those are common in the Harvard environment). It’s about doing something remarkable, and who doesn’t have a desire to feel special? Again, we can relate.

But we also see in this scene and the next that Mark can’t see how he’s getting in his own way. He’s more oblivious than malicious, which I think we can sympathize with. And he seems unable to appreciate what’s right in front of him (Erica, his current friends), because he’s too blinded by his desire, so already we’re starting to see the flaws that will be challenged in this story.

Mark has feelings, too, and they’re hurt when Erica implies he should try for the easiest Final Club to get into, and later when she breaks up with him. This primes us for the next scene, when Mark reacts to being dumped. We can understand his reaction, even if we don’t agree with the actions.

And let’s face it – we also have to take into account the Sorkin dialogue. If you’re a fan then the snappy back-and-forth probably makes you like the character a little more – or at least find him entertaining – and that will keep you turning pages as well.

2. Galled, Mark blogs insulting things about Erica, admitting he needs to do something to take his mind off of her. Gets the idea to build a site to rate local college girls.

Mark admits he needs to do something to help take his mind off Erica, so we know he’s affected by being dumped. Again, this helps us understand his actions and empathize with him, even if we don’t condone what he’s doing.

3. Intercut with scenes of hot coeds arriving to party with the bro-y bros of a Final Club. This is the life Mark wants but is excluded from.

We see the contrast between the life Mark wants and the life he has. Mark’s a smart kid and the Final Club bros seem like entitled jerks. This helps align us with Mark because he’s an underdog, but it’s worth noting that there’s a fine line here. If the whole movie was about Mark trying to get into a Final Club we’d need to be really careful not to turn the audience against that group and that goal. (We need to root for the protag to do what he’s going to do, remember?) But since it’s not – the Final Club is just what Mark wants before the main story starts – this strategy works.

4. In one night Mark builds the Facemash website with help from his friends, including caring pal Eduardo. Facemash spreads like wildfire through the local college-age crowd.

Mark is great at what he does which, as Michael Hauge says:

There are basically three ways to get a reader to like your hero, which can be used singly or in combination,” and they are:

  • Make the character a good or nice person
  • Make the character funny
  • Make the character good at what he does

So Mark’s genius and skills add a few “likeable” points to the engagement equation, and help balance out some of the unlikeable behaviors. The net total will determine whether we’re engaged enough to continue with this character and this story.

We also see in this scene that Mark’s skills allow him to “infiltrate” the exclusive world of the Final Club (they’re visiting his site too, even during their party). Seeing the underdog get one over on the bully nudges us a little more toward alignment.

5. Erica learns about Mark’s blog. Guys in her dorm mock her. She’s hurt.

Wait — doesn’t causing this kind of pain make Mark totally unlikeable?

We’re trying to find that balance, remember. Hopefully there’s enough alignment happening that seeing how Mark has affected Erica doesn’t totally turn us off. And this scene is important for establishing the “before” picture of Mark’s character arc. Pre-transformation, he has no idea or concern for how his actions affect his relationships.

6. Facemash traffic crashes the Harvard network.

Mark is starting to make waves. Our curiosity is piqued – will he get what he wants?

7. Flash forward 3 years. Mark faces Eduardo in a legal deposition. During questioning, Mark is compelled to dispute Erica’s on-the-record version of the things. He’s clearly bugged that she’s made him “look like a jerk.”

And then more curiosity – Mark and Eduardo on opposite sides of a legal battle? What happened? How did they get here?

I’d venture to say that this probably plays on our interest in the “true story” aspect of this movie, one of its main entertainment hooks. We want to know what really happened behind the scenes of the Facebook juggernaut.

We also see in this scene that Mark is still fixated on how Erica and others might think of him, hinting at those deeper emotions that we can all relate to.

Find the right balance for your character and screenplay

Creating alignment with the protagonist is one of the first things most screenplays need to accomplish in order to keep the reader reading.

More than that, it’s the first step in giving the reader an emotional experience. We have to engage with the character so we can become invested. Once a rooting interest is created, we care about what will happen to the character and watching their journey affects us emotionally. And that’s one thing that will set you apart from all of the perfectly structured, well-written screenplays that don’t actually make us feel anything.

But that initial alignment doesn’t have to come at the expense of a complex, flawed character – one who needs the transformation this story will cause.

Every story is unique and it’s not an exact science. It is about finding the right balance, and the way to do that is through experimentation. Use a variety of strategies to engage us while you also establish the flawed starting point the character is coming from. Test and adjust until you have a mix that hooks the audience and prepares us to take this journey with the protagonist.

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

Subscribe