blog

Writing Unlikeable Romantic Comedy Characters

Rooting for second chances and true love

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

As we talked about last week, hitting the right note with your screenplay’s protagonist can be a challenge. You want them to be complex and flawed, but not so much that you alienate the audience. You need the audience to want to go for this ride, and that usually means you need to get them on your protagonist’s side or aligned with them in some way.

It’s not as simple as one “save the cat” moment – although that could very well be a piece of the puzzle. What’s more likely is you’ll need a combination of elements that woo us over to the side of the protagonist. A variety of things that nudge us incrementally into position. You might think of it as building a case, with many pieces of evidence that all add up to the inevitable conclusion.

In the case of your screenplay, the inevitable conclusion you’re aiming for is a reader who is engaged and invested enough in the protagonist and the story that they want to stay with them and see what comes next.

What is the mix of “evidence” that will get us to that point? As with most things screenwriting, there isn’t one answer; each story and character is unique. But we can look at how other screenplays have accomplished the task and add their tricks to our own toolboxes. Last week we examined the Mark Zuckerberg character in The Social Network. Today we’ll take a look at Jules, the protagonist played by Julia Roberts in the romantic comedy My Best Friend’s Wedding (written by Ron Bass, directed by PJ Hogan).

Major Plot Points in My Best Friend’s Wedding

First let’s get a big-picture view of the story. The major plot points that give this story its shape are:

  • Inciting Incident: Jules’s longtime best friend, Michael – the only man she might one day marry – announces he’s met someone, they’re engaged, and the wedding is in four days.
  • Break into 2: Jules knows what she’s up against now, and begins in earnest to “break up the wedding and steal the bride’s fella.”
  • Midpoint: Jules’s editor friend, George, pretends to be her fiancé and madly in love with her (accompanied by a big musical set piece). Afterward, George advises Jules to tell Michael the truth – that she loves him – even though he will choose Kimmy. But they’ll be able to say goodbye and move forward in their lives.
  • Break into 3: Jules finally tells Michael she loves him and plants a big kiss on him, which leads to a big chase after Kimmy sees them and takes off. Michael runs after her, and Jules chases him!
  • Climax: Jules comes clean to Kimmy and gets her to the church on time to marry Michael. At the reception, Jules toasts the bride and groom, saying she knows they belong together, and “loans” them the song she and Michael considered theirs.

So you can see the protagonist is doing some pretty terrible things, and expresses her intention to do them early and often. How does the story manage to keep us from hating her, and even get us to root for her? It starts with a setup that leads us to that inevitable conclusion: we’re engaged and invested enough to go along with her on this adventure.

Zoom In: The Act 1 Set Up

It’s worth noting that the movie is on the short side, and scenes tend to be long. So while this list makes it look like not a lot is going on, the real story happens in the character dynamics and the emotional beats.

Here’s what happens in Act 1:

  1. Jules, food critic, is fawned over in a restaurant as she dines with her editor, George. She hears a phone message from Michael, her best friend. He’s desperate to talk to her.
  2. Jules returns Michael’s call and learns he’s met someone – and they’re getting married in four days.
  3. Jules races to the airport, on her way to “break up a wedding, and steal the bride’s fella.”
  4. Jules is greeted at the airport by Michael… and his fiancée, perfect, perky Kimmy.
  5. Kimmy asks Jules to be her Maid of Honor.
  6. At a dress fitting with Kimmy, Jules learns what Michael has told Kimmy about her (where she stands on romance and relationships, which has historically been a hard pass).
  7. While Jules is in the dressing room she updates George on the phone. Michael walks in and sees her in her underwear. He says she looks good.
  8. Kimmy tells Jules that she knows Michael has Jules on a pedestal but she’s okay with that, because he has Kimmy in his arms.
  9. Jules meets up with Michael and the guys. Alone together, she tells him she’s not the same girl as before – she’s changed, and now she’s ready for the “yucky love stuff.”

Building the case to root for Julia Roberts to “steal the bride’s fella”

I’ve gone almost scene by scene here and noted some of my observations about what happens to build up our alignment with the main character. I encourage you to watch the movie and see what other tricks you can pick up.

1. Jules, food critic, is fawned over in a restaurant as she dines with her editor, George. She hears a phone message from Michael, her best friend. He’s desperate to talk to her.

One tactic to get us on a character’s side is making them good at what they do, which earns our admiration. Here we see Jules is a VIP and everyone wants to impress her. She’s also kind to the restaurant staff, a likeable trait.

When she hears Michael’s message, seeing her fondness for him makes us warm up to her. We learn that before they were best friends, they dated briefly and she still carries a twinge of regret over their breakup. We understand how much Michael means to her, which is good setup for what’s to come.

Jules is not an unlikeable person in this scene, and everything we learn here indicates that maybe Jules and Michael should be together. Maybe she let The One get away. She hasn’t been good at relationships in the past, and it seems like Michael might be her chance at happiness. We naturally root for true love, so after this scene we’re probably leaning toward Jules’s side.

2. Jules returns Michael’s call and learns he’s met someone – and they’re getting married in four days.

Being blindsided like this earns our sympathy. We also hear from Michael’s own mouth that Kimmy, the fiancée, is “all wrong for him.” If we’re already leaning toward Jules getting her true love, and Michael doesn’t even argue that he and Kimmy belong together? It’s easy for us to be on Jules’s side.

3. Jules races to the airport, on her way to “break up a wedding, and steal the bride’s fella.”

Jules is about to do some unlikeable things. So what makes us remain engaged and invested in her and the story? Fortunately, we’ve already built up some loyalty to her in the previous scenes. And so far there’s no competing evidence to make us root for or like Kimmy – she’s not right for Michael, she was born into privilege, gets what she wants, doesn’t have to work for it, etc.

And there’s one key moment in this scene that I think keeps us from turning on Jules. Her last line of dialogue: “I can’t lose him.” This does two things:

First, we know she wants something and wants it badly. A character who wants something badly is an essential component of a compelling story. We’re naturally drawn to strong desire.

Second, the desperation in that line exposes her vulnerability, her true feelings. And when we empathize with the feelings and understand the motivations behind someone’s behavior it’s easier for us to stay on board, to give them some leeway to do what they’re about to do, even if it’s not behavior we’d normally agree with.

4. Jules is greeted at the airport by Michael… and his fiancée, perfect, perky Kimmy.
5. Kimmy asks Jules to be her Maid of Honor.

We finally meet Kimmy, who is a bit too bubbly, a bit too coiffed-and-manicured, especially compared to Jules’s more relaxed, natural beauty. And she’s forcing a friendship on Jules, which is off-putting.

This “by contrast” trick is similar to something we saw last week in The Social Network. Showing us someone even worse helps us stay aligned with the protagonist. She may have flaws, but compared to forced, too-perfect Kimmy, Jules is our hero.

6. At a dress fitting with Kimmy, Jules learns what Michael has told Kimmy about her (where she stands on romance and relationships, which has historically been a hard pass).

This scene plays on what was set up earlier, which is Jules’s regret over her long-ago breakup with Michael. Sure, they’ve remained best friends, but what if she missed out on The One, and it was all her fault?

7. While Jules is in the dressing room she updates George on the phone. Michael walks in and sees her in her underwear. He says she looks good.

This provides “evidence” that Jules is on the right path, that her actions are justified. Michael was in love with her for many years and he still thinks she looks good. If he wants to be with her, who are we to argue? It’s another little piece to convince us to root for her.

8. Kimmy tells Jules that she knows Michael has Jules on a pedestal but she’s okay with that, because he has Kimmy in his arms.

From this and other interactions, it seems like everyone thinks Jules is Michael’s first choice. Jules is the only one who has been too blind to it. We get the impression that maybe they’re meant to be, and Kimmy is simply an obstacle to destiny. More evidence that Jules is actually doing the right thing with her bad behavior! Remember, we love to root for true love (especially in a romantic comedy).

9. Jules meets up with Michael and the guys. Alone together, she tells him she’s not the same girl as before – she’s changed, and now she’s ready for the “yucky love stuff.”

Jules fits right in with the guys and they all love her. It’s like social proof; if others like her, so should we. When Jules tells Michael she’s open to love, she’s putting herself out there, making herself vulnerable to hurt. We all know what that feels like, and we can empathize with how scary that is.

We’ve also been shown a lot of evidence that Jules probably made a mistake by letting go of Michael in the past. Doesn’t she deserve a chance to claim the true love she’s meant to have? If we see ourselves in her (which by now we probably do align with Jules), then we’ll root for her to get a second chance as much as we’d want it for ourselves.

Don’t we all want true love and second chances?

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?

Every story is unique and it’s not an exact science. But you can think of it as building a case, layering the evidence to show us why we should root for the main character, to give us permission to get behind the bad things the character is about to do, and to make us see ourselves in the character so that we’d want for her what we’d want for ourselves.

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