Protags: Likable? Relatable? Empathetic? Or is intriguing enough?

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  • Protags: Likable? Relatable? Empathetic? Or is intriguing enough?

    As a writer, I find the characters in the TV series Billions an amazing accomplishment -- especially the co-leads: Bobby Axelrod and Chuck Rhoades.

    Created by Brian Koppelman (who once participated here on Done Deal), David Levien, and Andrew Sorkin -- what they've done with these characters has simultaneously intimidated me as a writer and inspired me to be more fearless in developing characters.

    Do I like or relate to (or empathize with) Bobby Axelrod or Chuck Rhoades? Absolutely not. I wouldn't want to be besties with either of them. I don't even want to have a one-time-only drink with either of them. Both are utterly ruthless, power-hungry men. Yet, damn -- I find them endlessly intriguing -- especially the ego-driven choices they each make -- and they're never, ever boring.

    Let me add, I mean intriguing in a voyeuristic way -- watching these two rams battle and lock horns with each other yet I'm not necessarily rooting for one over the other.

    There seems to be this rule of thumb that protags, even anti-heroes, must be likable and relatable, or at least generate empathy, in some way.

    When I think of the leads in Billions, I see it as an example that this rule of thumb is not necessarily true.

    What say you?
    Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

  • #2
    Re: Protags: Likable? Relatable? Empathetic? Or is intriguing enough?

    My two cents... there needs to be some reason to keep reading or keep watching. Likable protag is one way, but sometimes you want to see how something ends up or watch a train wreck unfold.

    Years ago I read a draft of Wolf of Wall Street and thought there is no one I can relate to nor like. It's one of those stories where you suspect it will end badly for the alleged protag and you stay tuned to see how badly.

    So there are these circumstances where lead characters may not be likable, may not arc, may not redeem themselves at all. I'd say there are a handful of films that make it work, but they do exist.

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    • #3
      Re: Protags: Likable? Relatable? Empathetic? Or is intriguing enough?

      Originally posted by RogerOThornhill View Post
      My two cents... there needs to be some reason to keep reading or keep watching. Likable protag is one way, but sometimes you want to see how something ends up or watch a train wreck unfold.

      Years ago I read a draft of Wolf of Wall Street and thought there is no one I can relate to nor like. It's one of those stories where you suspect it will end badly for the alleged protag and you stay tuned to see how badly.

      So there are these circumstances where lead characters may not be likable, may not arc, may not redeem themselves at all. I'd say there are a handful of films that make it work, but they do exist.
      I agree. That's why I asked if intriguing is enough.

      Wolf of Wall Street is a good example. The Talented Mr. Ripley is another. We just want to see how it works out but we're not rooting for the protag.

      For a rom-com, As Good As It Gets broke the rule. From minute one, Melvin is unlikable -- he throws a dog down a garbage shaft. Later we see he's a homophobic, xenophobic misanthrope. Yet he manages to redeem himself and win the girl.

      Still, it was a risk opening a rom-com with a wholly unlikable male love interest who also needed medication for a personality disorder. Of course, casting Nicholson as Melvin helped a lot because Jack is inherently likable. With another actor in the role it may not have worked.

      Thanks for your thoughts.
      Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

      Comment


      • #4
        Re: Protags: Likable? Relatable? Empathetic? Or is intriguing enough?

        We all know that likeable is not a requirement, relatable is definitely not necessary, and that all that matters is that we're interested. For the record, anti-heroes are my fave and I usually genuinely like them (Harry Callaghan, Snake Plissken, Han Solo, Vic Mackey, RJ MacReady, Porter, Tommy Egan, James St Patrick, John Rambo, Walter White, Phil Jennings, Lenny Nero, Judge Dredd, Godzilla, John Wick, Stacee Jaxx) even though many go against my moral code.

        Even 'good guys' like John McClane, John Matrix and every Stallone/Chuck Norris/James Belushi cop characters are arguably anti-heroes as they all stick two fingers up to their bosses, reporters, the public and the law - dishing out severe, and usually fatal, results to bad guys (and anyone who gets in their way), punching reporters, endangering the lives of the city, breaking the law when it suits and fighting with their bosses.

        I don't like or empahise with Jude Law's character in Repo Men nor Phoenix's Joker, and I certainly hated Joffrey Lannister, but I enjoyed watching them all.

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        • #5
          Re: Protags: Likable? Relatable? Empathetic? Or is intriguing enough?

          I'm looking through some of my IMDb rated films (2000+ and counting) and I'm kinda seeing two categories that are relevant.

          Film Noir in general where nobody is innocent, somebody usually ends up dead and the other in prison. Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum or Double Indemnity (1944, nominated for 7 Oscars) for example, but almost all noirs are train wrecks in progress.

          In color films, perhaps something like a Leaving Las Vegas. A few others from my IMDb ratings list that are b&w...White Heat with James Cagney (1949) and The Lost Weekend (1945) with Ray Milland (4 Oscars including Best Picture).

          The other category is more ensemble where you're curious who lives and who dies. Dirty Dozen, for example...a bunch of drunks, rapists and murderers. But as long as they kill some German officers, they can be partially redeemed.

          I'd say all the above are studies in intriguing characters working their way through interesting plots. Frequently they are doomed to no-win situations and it is a matter of the journey to their destruction. Sometimes their "save-the-cat" moment to make them a bit more likable is actually just before their destruction at the end of the film rather than at the beginning.

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          • #6
            Re: Protags: Likable? Relatable? Empathetic? Or is intriguing enough?

            ...one more... in Rom-Com My Best Friend's Wedding. Julia Roberts is likable, but her character does so many terrible things almost up to the very end of the film. She does do a little arc and redeem herself at the very end, but not until the last moment.

            Comment


            • #7
              Re: Protags: Likable? Relatable? Empathetic? Or is intriguing enough?

              I've heard it said that Jesus Christ was a really really really nice guy. Anyone fancy watching a movie about him?
              Know this: I'm a lazy amateur, so trust not a word what I write.
              "The ugly can be beautiful. The pretty, never." ~ Oscar Wilde

              Comment


              • #8
                Re: Protags: Likable? Relatable? Empathetic? Or is intriguing enough?

                Originally posted by Crayon View Post
                I've heard it said that Jesus Christ was a really really really nice guy. Anyone fancy watching a movie about him?
                Fucking LOL!!!

                Comment


                • #9
                  Re: Protags: Likable? Relatable? Empathetic? Or is intriguing enough?

                  Originally posted by sc111 View Post
                  As a writer, I find the characters in the TV series Billions an amazing accomplishment -- especially the co-leads: Bobby Axelrod and Chuck Rhoades.

                  Created by Brian Koppelman (who once participated here on Done Deal), David Levien, and Andrew Sorkin -- what they've done with these characters has simultaneously intimidated me as a writer and inspired me to be more fearless in developing characters.

                  Do I like or relate to (or empathize with) Bobby Axelrod or Chuck Rhoades? Absolutely not. I wouldn't want to be besties with either of them. I don't even want to have a one-time-only drink with either of them. Both are utterly ruthless, power-hungry men. Yet, damn -- I find them endlessly intriguing -- especially the ego-driven choices they each make -- and they're never, ever boring.

                  Let me add, I mean intriguing in a voyeuristic way -- watching these two rams battle and lock horns with each other yet I'm not necessarily rooting for one over the other.

                  There seems to be this rule of thumb that protags, even anti-heroes, must be likable and relatable, or at least generate empathy, in some way.

                  When I think of the leads in Billions, I see it as an example that this rule of thumb is not necessarily true.

                  What say you?
                  I think Sopranos answered this question long ago. And Breaking Bad I thought ended it for good. Just make your characters interesting. Them being bad -- works better on TV as we get more nuance, but I'm sure sometimes it works in film too -- it's just harder in 90 minutes. We tend to write for heroes and not anitheroes in film.

                  Billions -- funny I find both leads very likable. Not the great actors -- i meant their characters. The whole cast. The least likable character is Chuck's father and we still like him because actor is so good. My favorite character is Mafee and of course Wendy is the star of the show to me. The one thing both men want and can't have just because they want it no matter how powerful they are. Or at least that's how I see it. She's going to win the show when the thing ends.

                  Then again, I was on Walter White's side.

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Re: Protags: Likable? Relatable? Empathetic? Or is intriguing enough?

                    Originally posted by Bono View Post
                    Then again, I was on Walter White's side.
                    Me too. And I'll always insist he wasn't a bad guy.

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Re: Protags: Likable? Relatable? Empathetic? Or is intriguing enough?

                      Originally posted by RogerOThornhill View Post
                      ...one more... in Rom-Com My Best Friend's Wedding. Julia Roberts is likable, but her character does so many terrible things almost up to the very end of the film. She does do a little arc and redeem herself at the very end, but not until the last moment.
                      I loved this film. By her actions she's the antagonist not the protagonist. The story unfolds through her POV. Even though she's a main character, she's the one that constantly subverts what the HERO wants, which is to marry Diaz. It's a buddy flick as well. At least that's how I see it. I guess you could almost, though not quite, say she's an antihero. I'm not even sure labels (protag/antag) are necessary as the film unfolds brilliantly.

                      It's a great example of taking a well-known paradigm, the rom-com, and switching up the audience expectations.

                      She is totally unlikeable, but it is because we can understand/identify with her need to be "the one" that makes us love her still. Her behavior is horrible. Unforgivable really.

                      We identify with parts of her character, because we all know what it feels like to love someone, or have a crush on someone, who is with someone else. Someone who doesn't even SEE us. We can identify with that pain and sting, as well as understand wanting a little "payback." It's in us all. The difference is, Roberts acts on those impulses.

                      We identify with human actions, even if they are wrong and flawed because we are all wrong and flawed at any given point.
                      Last edited by finalact4; 06-20-2020, 05:20 PM.
                      "Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist,- Pablo Picasso

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                      • #12
                        Re: Protags: Likable? Relatable? Empathetic? Or is intriguing enough?

                        Originally posted by Bono View Post
                        Then again, I was on Walter White's side.
                        I was always on The Thing's side, whoever it was.
                        Know this: I'm a lazy amateur, so trust not a word what I write.
                        "The ugly can be beautiful. The pretty, never." ~ Oscar Wilde

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Re: Protags: Likable? Relatable? Empathetic? Or is intriguing enough?

                          Originally posted by sc111 View Post
                          Let me add, I mean intriguing in a voyeuristic way -- watching these two rams battle and lock horns with each other yet I'm not necessarily rooting for one over the other.
                          Your use of the word voyeuristic reminds me of Jon Boorstin's excellent book, The Hollywood Eye (sadly out of print). In it Boorstin posits that we watch movies from three different perspectives: the visceral, the vicarious, and the voyeuristic. The voyeuristic is about our desire to see behind the curtain into a world that we find interesting or important. Shakespeare's plays often had nobility at the center of his plays. His audience had a hard time relating to nobility, and many times an even a more difficult time finding them likable, but the nobility had a huge impact on the commoners lives, much like captains of industry and finance have on our lives. So what they do, and why they do it is interesting to us, or at least some of us.

                          There seems to be this rule of thumb that protags, even anti-heroes, must be likable and relatable, or at least generate empathy, in some way.

                          When I think of the leads in Billions, I see it as an example that this rule of thumb is not necessarily true.

                          What say you?
                          Like many rules of thumb, screenwriting rules, and conventional wisdom the admonition that all protags should be likable is espoused by people who don't really understand what they're trying to do, but they have a rule that they can apply to creative work they don't understand.

                          I think likable protags are genre dependent. Comedies, rom-coms, many dramas, action films, thrillers, disaster films and others rely on likable protags. But tragedies, film noir, some biopics, etc. need only have relatable or intriguing protags.

                          .
                          Just my 2 cents, your mileage may vary.

                          -Steve Trautmann
                          3rd & Fairfax: The WGAW Podcast

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                          • #14
                            Re: Protags: Likable? Relatable? Empathetic? Or is intriguing enough?

                            HAS anyone ever thought that initially Walter White WAS the cat and that's why we felt for him? We wanted to save the cat.

                            Lets face it he was living an absolute **** life of total drudgery annnnddddd then he gets cancer! The poor bastard! Then he was incrementally nudged away from the straight and narrow. The artistry of the story was that we were taken with him for six series as he just got worse and worse
                            I heard the starting gun


                            sigpic

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                            • #15
                              Re: Protags: Likable? Relatable? Empathetic? Or is intriguing enough?

                              Originally posted by KitchonaSteve View Post
                              Boorstin posits that we watch movies from three different perspectives: the visceral, the vicarious, and the voyeuristic.
                              No wonder porn movies are so popular.

                              But seriously, that's a great insight. Satisfy those three Vs and surely you'll have a hit?
                              Know this: I'm a lazy amateur, so trust not a word what I write.
                              "The ugly can be beautiful. The pretty, never." ~ Oscar Wilde

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