Creating The Anti-Hero Protagonist



No announcement yet.
  • Filter
  • Time
  • Show
Clear All
new posts

  • Creating The Anti-Hero Protagonist

    (Note: To give new writers a full understanding on this topic, I’ll be doing an in-depth post, so please forgive the length.)

    Sometimes a new writer will ask the question: Does my protagonist need to be likeable?

    Major Studios love a likeable protagonist because they like to ensure that a movie has the best chance possible for commercial success and everyone likes a likeable protagonist. The studios feel the more evil and unlikeable your protagonist is it’ll increase the risk that a moviegoer would be turned off, potentially making the movie less commercial.

    When a new writer receives a note that states, “make your protagonist more likeable,” their immediate reaction is going to be, “there are tons of commercially successful films and T.V. shows that possess a bad, anti-hero protagonist.” The new writer makes the mistake of thinking that this note means to strip away, or soften some of the bad qualities that their protagonist possesses, thus hurting their artistic vision.

    (In some cases, because of commercial and marketing concerns the note might mean exactly that, but for this post I'm going to ignore the business side and the potential struggles to retain your vision.)

    In the screenwriting world, likeable doesn’t necessarily mean a goody-good protagonist. It means more relatable, so the audience can care for and root for the character. To be able to identify with and understand a bad protagonist’s actions and behavior, which therefore -- hopefully –- more “likeable” to watch and follow their journey.

    Readers/viewers (audience) love a great anti-hero because their complexity and dimensionality add depth, making them real and believable, intriguing them and engaging them, where they can emotionally connect and relate to this person on a human level.

    The top grossing film of all time (when adjusted for inflation) had an anti-hero protagonist. Scarlett O’Hara in the 1939 release of “Gone With The Wind.”

    According to Wikipedia, anti-hero is defined as:

    “… a leading character in a film, book or play who lacks some or all of the traditional heroic qualities, such as altruism (unselfish interest in the welfare of others), idealism, courage, nobility, fortitude, and moral goodness.”

    The audience wants to live vicariously through your character and have a cathartic experience. To experience an emotional release. They’re investing not only their hard earned money, but two hours of their precious time. For some people, the desire to watch the protagonist act atrociously evil and obnoxious throughout the story isn’t a very satisfying experience, therefore, not worth investing their time and money.

    One technique that screenwriters use to offset an unlikeable protagonist is to make him, her, or them -- fascinating, where they’re so engaging and compelling to watch that the audience is held captive by the character’s actions, behavior and charisma.

    For examples, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “American Psycho,” “Monster,” “Clockwork Orange,” “Scarface,” etc.

    Keep in mind, “fascinating” is subjective. What’s fascinating to one person may not be to another.

    Another technique that screenwriters use is to evoke empathy and sympathy.

    From YOUR Dictionary:

    “Sympathy is a shared feeling, usually sorrow, pity or compassion for another person. You show concern for another person when you feel sympathy for them."

    Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines empathy as:

    “The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experiences fully communicated in an objectively explicit matter.”

    Sympathy is more of a general feeling for someone else’s situation. Empathy is more specific and personal toward a person’s situation.

    For example, Bob punches John in the face.

    Sympathy is Harry, who’s watching, feels concern for John’s suffering from the pain and cares for his well-being, but he does not actually “feels” the emotion of pain himself.

    Empathy is when Harry emotionally feels that pain, by remembering in the past how it felt when he was punched in the face, or if he was never punched in the face in his lifetime, he imagines how that pain must feel.

    Take “North By Northwest” for example:

    The climactic moment takes place on Mount Rushmore where everyday man Roger Thornhill and the woman he loves, Eve Kendall, struggle to climb down its steep side to escape from the chasing bad guys.

    Eventually, Eve slips where Thornhill clutches her hand in the nick of time, but she just hangs there. He clings to the side of the cliff with one hand and holds onto her with the other. She’s too heavy for him to lift up with just one hand. His grip is slipping. He looks back at the bad guy, standing there, watching, and pleads for his help. The bad guy calmly walks over and stamps on Thornhill’s hand that clings to the cliff, grinding into it.

    In this situation, the audience watches with concern and cares for the characters (sympathy), but also, they feel/imagine the same desperate emotions as the characters in peril (empathy).

    From Robert McKee: “The audience’s emotional involvement is held by the glue of empathy.”

    There’s a saying that goes: “Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes.” This is empathy. It means to imagine yourself in the –- situation -- of the character. An empathic person connects on a deeper level than sympathy. An audience feels the same emotions that the character is experiencing.

    The screenwriter strives to create an emotional bond between its anti-hero (or hero) and the audience by getting them to identify with and understand actions and behavior of the anti-heroes from their perspective, experiences and motivations.

    For example, “As Good As It Gets”:

    The anti-hero protagonist, Melvin Udall, is anti-social, a bigot, racist, obnoxious and a hater of adorable dogs. When we are first introduced to Mr. Udall, he’s sweet talking a dog to come to him. He grabs the dog and gets rid of him by shoving the poor thing down a garbage shoot.

    This is not a very likeable man, but after we see him from his perspective, i.e., being mentally ill with Obsessive Compulsion Disorder, we understand his actions and behavior, and because of this it makes him “more likeable,” where in the sense that we can care and root for him to work through his struggles.

    In “Falling Down” the audience understands the pressures of life that drove the anti-hero protagonist to snap. The audience may have disagreed and not approved on how that character reacted, but they understood, which made them care and root for things to work out in the end for him.

    This is how sympathy and empathy work together to show your audience that the anti-hero is a complex human being like themselves, therefore, making them more likeable/relatable.

    An unlikeable anti-hero at the extreme end of a scale from positive to dark/negative is a tough sell to the industry and an audience, though I’m not saying it’s impossible for a story to be commercially successful with this type of characterization, because those examples I mentioned earlier have proven otherwise.

    Let’s take “The Wolf Of Wall Street” for example. In this film, the majority of moviegoers agreed that the anti-hero protagonist, Jordan Belfort, was a loathsome character and it succeeded nevertheless.

    One might ask, why was this movie such a critical and commercial success, winning awards and nominations with such a loathsome protagonist?

    The simple fact is that the audience found the characters and the story of “excess” thrilling, fascinating and funny. In the words of Jake LaMotta, “That’s entertainment.”

    Personally, I didn’t enjoy the film. I understand it was a cautionary tale about the addictions of greed, drugs, sex and wanting the American Dream; The testosterone brotherhood mentality; The drive to be on top and “having the most toys in the room.” But as nmstevens said in another thread, “you can only watch a train wreck for so long.” I lost interest. For me, the fascination aspect wasn’t strong enough to offset my feelings on Jordan Belfort’s unbearable character, though Leonardo DiCaprio’s acting was brilliant –- as usual.

    A technique a screenwriter will use to offset/balance a dark/negative anti-hero protagonist would be to add positive attributes, qualities and character/personality traits that an audience would find admirable that’ll make the character more human, allowing the audience to emotionally bond and connect. Otherwise, he’ll just be a one dimensional evil bastard.

    Of course, I’m generally speaking. Ultimately, any creative choices for character and story will all come down to whatever works to achieve the writer’s artistic vision.

    The list of positive qualities, traits and attributes that a screenwriter could chose from goes on for pages and pages, but over the years I’ve learned from non-pro and pro screenwriters, teachers and professors, screenwriting gurus, practical experience, etc. that there is a basic core group:

    Vulnerability, unjust event, change, skill, hard worker, courage, suffering, altruism, funny, loyalty, honesty, love, in danger and noble.

    For an example of a professional screenwriter adding positive qualities, attributes and traits to an extremely dark/negative anti-hero protagonist let’s look at “Scarface,” which was released in 1983, staring Al Pacino, directed by Brian DePalma and written by Oliver Stone.



    He’s a criminal. The anti-hero, Tony Montana, was a prisoner in a Cuban jail. Castro emptied his prisons and put the criminals on the Mariel boatlift to America. Instead of using this as an opportunity to better his life in a good way, he used it to better his life in a bad way, where he continued with his criminal activities.

    He’s a drug dealer in southern Florida, Miami. A major player in the distribution of the illegal drug, cocaine.

    He's a drug abuser.

    He’s a cold-blooded killer.

    He verbally abuses his wife with insults.


    He hates communism.

    He’s honest and a straight shooter. When a potential Bolivian supplier asks Montana if he could be trusted, Montana replies, “All I got’s my two balls and my word –- and I don’t break ‘em. For nobody.”

    He’s a skilled negotiator.

    He’s a killer, but the people in his world are worse.

    He possesses courage.

    He loves his mother and nineteen-year-old sister who arrived in America years earlier. When his best friend and second-in-command, Manny, showed interest in Montana’s beautiful sister, Montana threatened him to stay away. Montana viewed his sister as pure, unlike him.

    He’s noble. Montana agreed to assist on a hit on a target before he addressed the UN in NYC for the Bolivian supplier. A bomb was attached to the underside of the target’s car, but the target brought along his wife and two young children. Montana told the Bolivian assassin to postpone the hit, but the assassin said the supplier wanted it done now to stop the target from addressing the UN. To stop the assassin from pressing the button and detonating the bomb Montana shot and killed him, knowing full well this act meant his death by the Bolivian supplier.

    The screenwriter’s objective is to get his audience to emotionally connect and root for his anti-hero. To achieve this the screenwriter would want to enlighten his audience by showing what the protagonist is experiencing emotionally through his perspective, such as his world, what caused him to be the way he is, his motivations for his choices, etc.
    Last edited by JoeNYC; 01-08-2019, 09:55 AM.

  • #2
    Re: Creating The Anti-Hero Protagonist

    EDITED TO ADD: This post was in response to TigerFang's post. For some reason it disappeared. I've noticed this happens a lot with his posts. I don't know why. In this instance, TigerFang was giving me a dig, but I didn't take offense. I think he was kidding. I guess a moderator deleted it because it wasn't on topic, which if this is the case, even though it might have been to add some levity, I agree with. When discussions stray from the topic and get personal, things can get out of control. This forum lost a lot of good members because of this. May they rest in peace.

    My response to TigerFang's post was:

    I really don't have the time. I took time away from writing my screenplay.

    All I know is that when I was a know-nothing newbie, I would have loved for the anti-hero protagonist and the likeable and unlikeable factors, empathy, sympathy, negatives, positives, etc. shown to me like this so I could had focused my time and energy on my art instead of struggling to get an understanding.

    In the future, I'll be doing the same with other major topics. Maybe if I have the time, also minor topics in the basic forum.
    Last edited by JoeNYC; 01-09-2019, 02:09 AM.


    • #3
      Re: Creating The Anti-Hero Protagonist

      Thanks for the insights, JoeNYC.


      • #4
        Re: Creating The Anti-Hero Protagonist

        Originally posted by JoeNYC View Post

        He loves his mother and nineteen-year-old sister who arrived in America years earlier. When his best friend and second-in-command, Manny, showed interest in Montana’s beautiful sister, Montana threatened him to stay away. Montana viewed his sister as pure, unlike him.
        I understand and agree with your thoughts on character likability as presented.

        But to the above quoted I would say a big no. Montana does not "love" his sister. He literally wants to f#$% his own sister. And control her. That's why he viewed Manny as a threat. He is a psychopath that views his sister as his personal property. This is not an admirable quality that produces empathy for his character. It creates a memorable character, though.


        • #5
          Re: Creating The Anti-Hero Protagonist

          Originally posted by figment View Post
          Montana does not "love" his sister. He literally wants to f#$% his own sister. And control her.
          Montana's sister accuses him of this because of his over protectiveness, but I think he truly "loved" his sister as a big brother. She was getting out-of-control with clubbing with bad men, drugs, booze, etc. Montana stepped in to protect her because he didn't want her to live in his lowlife lifestyle. Not because he was jealous and wanted her sexually for himself, but this is just my opinion. You're entitled to your opinion.


          • #6
            Re: Creating The Anti-Hero Protagonist

            very nice post JoeNYC.
            "Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist,- Pablo Picasso