Monday, March 04, 2013

The Unlikable Protagonist

Recently, I was working on a thing with a protagonist who's kind of an asshole. It's a story about a man who becomes a better person by the time it ends, so I had to start him off with a real chip on his shoulder. Someone fucks him over in the first scene, and he takes it out on the rest of the world.

The problem, as you might imagine, is that when you have an unlikeable protagonist, sometimes people don't actually like them. And when people don't like them, they don't root for them. And that's what happened. No matter how sympathetic I made my guy while he was being fucked over, it didn't make anyone feel sorry for him enough to hope he got what he wanted. I kept going back and making him more and more pathetic in that scene, and I kept getting the same note.

And then I saw The Americans. Have you seen this show? SEE THIS SHOW. I am now obsessed with it, and with Matthew Rhys, who plays Phillip and is a goddamn acting genius. I want to cast him and his curls in everything ever now.

So The Americans is a show about Russian spies living in the United States in the '80s. Unless you are a young thing, you were brought up to think of Russians as the enemy, and here they are, during our youth, being all enemy like on our soil. We should hate them but we don't. Instead, we root for them. Why?


In the pilot, we got introduced to Phillip as a bit of a coward. His wife is the one with whom we sympathize, which is understandable since she's the one we recognize. She's Keri Russel. We know her. We don't know this other guy.

Phillip cares more about his friend than the mission. Then, when they end up stuck with this Russian asshole in their garage, he cares more about saving their own asses than the mission. He really does not care about the mission nearly as much as she does. We're starting to question this guy's backbone.

Until he finds out that his wife was raped long ago by the guy in their garage. Without a second of hesitation, Phillip kills him. In that moment, we learned that there is one thing Phillip cares about more than his own safety, more than the mission, more than anything else - his wife.

And I immediately developed a theory. If you want to make your unlikable protagonist likable, you have to do two things: have him hurt a worse person, and have someone love him.

The minute Phillip kills the rapist, he attacked someone we wanted to see die. So we support him for that. But that alone is not enough, because it's easy for an asshole to beat somebody up. We need to see him fondly through someone else's eyes. When Phillip kills the rapist, his wife falls in love with him right there. We see it on her face. She had no idea that he cared about her that much, and now she knows what he's willing to do for her. We love him not just because he'll get the bad guy, but because she loves him. Since that moment, I now completely trust him, love him, and kind of want to marry him.

I thought about it from the perspective of my very favorite ant-hero. In Pitch Black, not only does Riddick fight Johns and scary aliens, but there's a kid who thinks he's the bee's knees. We see him not only as a protector, but as a role model of sorts for a young girl who wants to be tougher. and he's nice to her too even when he's intimidating everyone else.

So I went back to my script and applied it. Not long after my protag gets fucked over, he runs into a group of people and is a jerk to them. I added a female character who is picked on by the others. So now by guy is a jerk to them, and thus maintaining his anti-hero status, but has a moment of sympathy for the woman. He beats up one of the guys who's meanest to her. I think that was the piece I needed to make my guy work. He's still a dick, but we get to see a tiny glimpse of sympathy to win us over.

My point is, I learned everything I needed to know about writing from watching The Americans. I was nothing but a hack before.


  1. I like dicks… wait, that came out wrong.

    I like stories with anti-heroes. It gives them license to destroy anything in their path, as long as they stop once in awhile to be good just for a second. I haven’t attempted to write one yet. Looking forward to it.

    I need to add The American’s to my watch list.

    Thanks Emily.

  2. wrt your anti-hero issue, if you haven't seen it, you should definitely watch Payback with Mel Gibson.

    And The Americans... it's not too much of a spoiler to tell you that Keri Russell doesn't need a man to do her dirty work for her. I'm still hopelessly smitten.

  3. IMHO MY BODY GUARD is a great example of this, without the thriller stakes.

  4. I have not seen The Americans, but as you describe it, it is a great example.

    My favorite method (well, I've never actually done this, myself - yet) is in In Bruges. As I watched it, I'm thinking, "How the **** is this gonna work? Two hitmen. Hitman 1 is an ahole. Hitman 2 seems kinda interesting, likes the arts. But still, what's going to make me care about these characters and want to watch this whole thing?"


    Well, we get some reasons to like Hitman 2; or at least, to find him even more interesting, intriguing. And then, we meet their super-ahole boss, who orders Hitman 2 to kill Hitman 1, and then... We see Hitman 2 want to protect Hitman 1. Hitman 2 essentially puts his own life at risk to protect his partner.

    In a way, it's like that method from the Americans, but by proxy - since Hitman 1 is the protag.

    After I saw In Bruges, I had my ultimate/eventual goal in screenwriting: Write something as good as that.

  5. I love In Bruges so so much. I had the exact same reaction - it made me go home and rewrite everything.


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