View Full Version : Likability of characters
03-10-2011, 08:21 PM
I recently got back my review of a short I rewrote in hopes that I would have a better chance in contests. They told me that my characters were extremely unlikable in addition to the fact that the plot made no sense, and although it really stung at first, I began to accept that it had a lot of problems, and admittedly because it was an assignment I had to do for a college screenwriting class, it was done in haste, so at this point I decided to abandon it and move on to another project, which is what I'm working on now. The characters in my current script are politicians, and they're known for doing questionable things, of course. I wonder, though, if they would still be likable if they had at least one redeeming quality, like their love for their families or helping someone in need. Would that make him/her even remotely likable?
go for empathy instead of likeability. sometimes trying to make characters too likeable cause them to ring false or for things to be pasted into the script that has nothing to do with anything.
example: a character who has murdered muslims, planted a bomb in the white house and beats his wife -- "oh, i'll give him a puppy so people like him more!"
think of what made you root for the bad guy in movies like Scarface, Goodfellas, Gordon Gekko in Wall Street 2.
03-10-2011, 08:56 PM
I should mention that these characters aren't necessarily evil or anything, rather they are more ruthless than anything else. They are the kind of people who would step on a lot of toes in order to get what they want, and they're obviously very ambitious. I don't really know how I can make someone empathize with them, other than try to let the viewer understand why they do the things that they do. I wonder also if anyone could even sympathize with trying to achieve something or fight for a common goal. Obviously it might not be winning political office, but the reason that lies beneath, to me, might be something that people could identify with.
03-10-2011, 09:26 PM
I have heard that too. That people HAVE TO like your main character.
But did anyone like Travis Bickle, Tony Montana, Jake Lamotta, Charles Foster Kane, Michael Corleone...
The list could go on... and on... and on...
I don't care about likeable, I care about compelling, and human.
I wish people were not so fixated on this. I really don't like the whole 'save the cat' thing. That's lazy and boring. Kill the cat, and then make them engage with your character anyway.
03-10-2011, 09:55 PM
I should mention that these characters aren't necessarily evil or anything, rather they are more ruthless than anything else. They are the kind of people who would step on a lot of toes in order to get what they want, and they're obviously very ambitious.
and you don't see how that is evil in any way? pride is the number one sin.
But did anyone like Tony Montana, Michael Corleone...
I don't really know how I can make someone empathize with them, other than try to let the viewer understand why they do the things that they do.
uhh...that's empathy dude. that's what i said above. get off the whole likable thing. or not. i have no idea what you're trying to do in your story.
03-11-2011, 12:00 AM
You'll get this note a lot. It's easy to be dismissive of it, but stop and think about it.
If you're going to spend two hours in a theater with these characters, shouldn't there be something about them that makes them worth spending time with?
It's worth spending some time thinking about what makes your characters enjoyable to spend time with. Certainly it's possible to make a good movie with unlikeable characters ... but it's a lot harder.
03-11-2011, 06:30 AM
you should study the glenn close character in damages - she's ruthless and will resort to murder to get what she wants but she does it for good. her clients are little people who have been hurt by giant white collar criminals.
you want to hate her but she does it for good.
you politicians must battle a greater evil then themselves. that would make them the lesser of evils and they come out on top.
also - take dexter, for example. i think it's a genius how they make us truly like a serial killer. but he has a code: only kills those who deserve to die and have killed multiple innocent victims themselves. he is the lesser of evils. the fact that he loves his family is a cherry on the top.
03-11-2011, 03:47 PM
I'm sorry if I got mad earlier, I was just frustrated by the tone of some of the replies, and looking back it made me feel like I was stupid by trying to express how I was feeling. I didn't want to give away too much about the plot, but my script is basically an ensemble drama, a series about the public and private lives of four presidential candidates who race to fill the void after the current president announces he won't run again.
I think I am going to go back and rewrite the script, maybe re-sketch each character or try to come up with a new beat outline as a result of it. This is a web series that I would like to film myself at some point but right now my main concern is trying to improve as a writer, and just to try to get this thing right.
03-11-2011, 03:59 PM
there's no real connotation on message boards, emails, text, etc unless people litter their replies with emoticons. i don't think anybody was coming off rude and there's no need to feel stupid. everybody has to start somewhere and your topic is a valid question. you may even get additional info by doing a search in this section about the same topic. good luck.
03-11-2011, 04:11 PM
I don't care about likeable, I care about compelling, and human.
Well not likeable in the "nice" sense of the word no. But compelling can make a character likeable. I think Travis Bickle is likeable. Tony Montana and Michael Corleone, certainly.
All great anti-hero characters are likeable to a degree because of some universal need that we all share. Because of their purpose and because of how dimensional they are written.
Bickle's not just troubled. Man spiffies up for Cybil. Wants stability in his lonely world. Montana's more than a drug lord. He comes back to his mother, his sister. Wants to prove he's somebody. So on and so on.
Montana is such an icon it aint even funny.
03-11-2011, 04:15 PM
I understand. I felt that way because I just felt like to some people, I came across like I didn't know what I was talking about, like I was stupid. I was frustrated, and at the time I had a post that just said, "never mind, I shouldn't have even asked". I took it down, because I know I made a mistake and I know I made it worse if I left it up there. Again, thanks for the kind words and I'll look for any further threads on this.
03-11-2011, 04:16 PM
Montana is such an icon it aint even funny.
Carlito in "Carlito's Way" as well. As a kid, Al Pacino had me thinking he was Puerto Rican or Cuban. That's how good he sold those characters.
03-11-2011, 04:21 PM
I've been thinking about one of my characters, particularly in his backstory. I figured, he had a bad relationship with his dad, his dad thought of him as someone who would never make it as anything in the world, and he's trying to overcome it, he's trying to pull off the biggest achievement any politician can achieve, just to kill whatever demons that have been nagging at him about his past, just to prove that he is worth something. As I see it, that's the "why" of it, and I might include that in the next rewrite.
03-11-2011, 04:30 PM
yep and as long as you can show that in a compelling way then people will be able to at least see where he's coming from. they may not like him, but at least they can understand why he does the bad things he does and may even be able to relate depending on just how far he goes.
03-11-2011, 04:33 PM
Thanks, everyone for the advice. I appreciate it.
03-11-2011, 05:41 PM
this sounds like it could be a good ensemble project: 4 very different candidates fighting for position, each with their own style of fighting. ie - one better at offense. one better at defense. one goes for the jugular, people love/hate him but he's got tons of donald trump money and attitude, one sweet like diabetes to the public and a killer in her private life.
i say, go for it! make each character interesting and complex and stay away from cliches.
03-11-2011, 05:59 PM
This thread makes me think of Due Date and how unlikeable RDJ's character was - especially as he spat in the dog's face. Not a good way to get our empathy.
03-11-2011, 06:15 PM
damn, he spit in a dog's face? it's hard out here for a pup...first Michael Vick, then they gotta get humiliated in a movie distributed across the world. :eek:
03-11-2011, 06:29 PM
The note 'hero isn't likable' can be another way of saying 'I don't want the character to achieve his goal'.
An unlikable character trying to save his family? I'd watch that.
An unlikable character trying to find romance? Nope - I won't watch it.
A likable character trying to get a promotion ? Yep
An unlikable character trying to get a promotion? Nope
03-11-2011, 10:45 PM
It's funny, you look at Carlito's Way and the character almost intoxicatlingly likable, then you look at Scarface and you couldn't find anyone more repulsive.
I think there is more than one meaning to the word 'like' around here, and I think a character may appear very unlikable on the page, but once a human being (an actor) breathes some life into them, all bets are off.
03-12-2011, 08:51 PM
This came up on another thread. "Likeable" is misleading. We care about them, about what happens to them. Likable or not, they are sympathetic characters. We empathize with the characters because they are under pressure. See what Tony is up against, listen to those speeches, he's human. The emotions are there. The characters want something and go to incredible lengths to achieve it and the stakes raise and the pressure on them increases and their new choices and actions reflect this, and we continue to watch to see... what will happen next.
03-13-2011, 08:31 AM
take travis bickel (taxi driver) - he is not likable at all. he is interesting but in a train wreck kind of way. even though they use voice over to express his thoughts we don't really know where's he's going... except that it doesn't look good.
the turning point in the story (for me) is subtle.
this dumbasss took a beautiful vision in white (cybill shepherd) on first date to a porno flick. a first date!!! she was so disgusted that she wouldn't talk to him or see him ever again. he spent hundreds of dollars on flowers, flowers, and more flowers, calling her every day. the flowers all wilted and died. and you start feeling sorry for this dumbasss. he blew it and he can't fix it no matter how hard he tries. we still don't like him but we can empathize with his humiliating pain. there was no empathy before that.
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