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Creating a “Likable” Protagonist

Okay. You just finished writing your script. Its action-packed, full of dramatic irony, dripping with eloquent poignancy as well as poignant eloquence. You send it to your agent, your girlfriend, your gardener- and they all love it… except for one thing… They hate your main character.

And not just “kind of” hate. They want your hero to die, be burned at the stake, and then ridiculed for being such a douche.

–And then you think to yourself “Shit, that sucks.”

–And then you think “Oh they don’t know what they’re talking about. Why did I send it to my gardener who knows nothing about screenwriting.?”

–And then you think “Well maybe I’ll just create a ‘Save the Cat’ moment (thank you Blake Snyder) and my hero will be worshipped again.”

Congrats. That is just 1 of 5 tools I have compiled for your blog-viewing pleasure on how to make your protagonist(s) more likable. Because without that key ingredient no will follow your hero to the end of the story… especially your gardener!

Tip #1

Have your hero perform… AN ACT OF KINDNESS

…or as Blake Snyder (B.S.) would refer to it: your hero’s “Save the Cat” moment. Everyone in Hollywood knows this trick thanks to his best-selling screenwriting book. But for all you cave-dwellers it’s when your lead character performs an act of kindness, proving to the audience she has a good soul.

Its important that it occurs early in Act 1 so we jump on board from the get-go. It’s also important that it is an action and not just a nice thing your lead character says; because words are cheap and we all know your characters are liars.

Watch pretty much any movie in the last several years (thanks to B.S.) and you’ll see thousands of examples; some including actually saving a cat from a tree- or an equally perilous structure that appeals to felines who’s courage to climb is quickly followed by their fear of falling.

One particular movie’s entire premise is based on this concept: Pay it Forward. Remember how good everyone thought that was when it came out? Yeah. Not so much.  But the principle is still valid. Good for character development- bad for movie premise.

The example B.S. likes to use is Al Pacino in Sea of Love when he busts a bunch of parole violators at a Yankees game. After the sting operation’s executed this blissfully ignorant criminal shows up late with his bright-eyed son excited to see his first ball game. Al decides what to do… then winks “I’ll catch you later…” and lets the guy go; you know, for the kid’s sake.

So you think “Ahhh, Al’s got a big heart.  He’s a ball-buster; he likes to yell his lines a lot.  But he’s got heart.”

Tip #2

Give your hero… A MASSIVE BEAT-DOWN

This is sorta the opposite of your hero performing an act of kindness. Its basically when you physically- or emotionally- destroy your protagonist so we feel sorry for him and, thus, want him to succeed.

I’ve also heard this concept referred to as “Kill the Cat”… yet I’ve also heard that phrase refer to something your antagonist does (perform an evil act) that gets you to hate him. Screw the phrase. Lets focus on how to get your audience to feel so bad for your hero for being wronged that they want to see him get redemption.

IMAGINE: the opening image of a movie… you find an entire wedding party massacred, bodies everywhere, your heroine sprawled on the ground (wedding dress and all), beaten to a bloody pulp, and a bullet put through her head- oh, and lets say she was pregnant (why not?)…

Some might call that a “Massive Beat-Down”… Tarantino would call that the opening to Kill Bill.

C’mon, how much do you want Uma Thurman to kill this Bill fucker for doing this to her… on her wedding day…?  While she was pregnant…?!  I am immediately drawn in to this story andI have no idea who Bill is… but I want him DEAD!

So congrats to Tarantino for perfectly illustrating this point.

Tip #3

Make your character… FUNNY

I’ll throw “charming” in to this category as well but I think humor is vastly more important for winning over an audience. With some characters it doesn’t matter how many sinful acts they commit… as long as they make us laugh, we’ll follow them to the depths of hell.

Take the doctor of all evils: Dr Evil.

He has no redeeming qualities. He’s a jerk to everyone. He describes a massive beat down scenario from his abusive father but hearing it doesn’t seem to have the same impact as seeing it in action (yet, in the case of the “shorn scrotum” I’m glad we didn’t). Despite all these transgressions- and even outweighing our main hero, Austin Powers- I root for Dr Evil to take over the world and do as he pleases with us as his slaves… because he’s so fricking hilarious.

Tip #4

Make your hero… TALENTED

Why do we like James Bond?

He may perform little acts of kindness but, really–? he’s a pretty selfish guy. He doesn’t really have a massive beat-down (unless you count Casino Royale when he loses his girl- and then apply that to the rest of the series of movies). While he’s certainly charming, he’s really more “cheeky” than “funny”. And when all’s said and done he doesn’t really change from one movie to the next. So why are we on board with him…?

Because he is damn good at what he does. Whether he’s ordering a pimp martini, playing baccarat, picking up femme fatales, or jumping out of a burning plane and onto a jet-propelled wave-runner that’s about to explode in 5-4-3… and he saves the world in time to down his martini, collect his gambling winnings, and bone the hot chick who was just trying to kill him.

How could you not like him?

When I was first compiling this list for my records I had just watched The Social Network, marveling at the fact that on the surface Mark Zuckerberg appears to be a total dick-wad. No acts of kindness. Doesn’t really get beaten down (except for losing the girl out of being an asshole)… and yet, we somehow root for him to win! Why…?

A) He’s funny.

B) He’s good at what he does.

Even without a precious “Save the Cat” moment, this movie proves that combining two other techniques elicits empathy for your protagonist.

Tip #5

Make your hero… RELATABLE

Well this seems obvious. Right? Aren’t all of our heroes relatable, you ask?

I say “No of course not. Why would you think that? Look at Superman. What is relatable about a guy who crash-landed on earth, who can fly, repel bullets, and who wears red & blue tights? I ask you, what, sir?!”  To which you may reply

“Well, what about his very human relationship with Lois, douche?” To which I’ll retort:

“Touché”.

Aside from those romantic tropes, which are cheaply tacked on to every movie, the big problem with superheroes is they are typically “super-human” dudes with “super-human” powers. At least Spiderman originated as a regular dorky kid who gains super powers. From the beginning we relate to his awkward bookishness and inability to interact with women.

(Not me though. Sure, I was equally awkward growing up. But, to be honest, I never liked Spiderman… mostly because of the red & blue tights. “What is with the red & blue tights?!”)

Some might consider Frank Sinatra a sort of “crooning superhero”. He was aware of the danger of disconnecting from an audience who worshipped him, placing him on am unattainable podium. To combat his pristine image on stage he would start a song, purposely screw up the lyrics, pretend it was the wrong song, and start again, apologizing to his audience for his humane mistake.

“We forgive you, Ol Blue Eyes. Mafia ties- Schmafia ties.”

It seems the recent trend of comedies involve people we can relate to; regular guys working nine-to-five jobs who…

  • …have to deal with their Horrible Bosses
  • …get into a “Friends with Benefits” situation with a girl where there are No Strings Attached (yeah, same movie)…
  • …go to Vegas for a bachelor party, forgetting what happened the night before due to.. The Hangover...

Anyway, you get the point. The relatability is built in to their movie’s premise. Even the title screams out “You will connect with this movie!”

Maybe if you combined all five of these techniques you’d have the most likeable character in the history of film. Then all you have to do is write a good script.

Can you think of any more ways to make your hero likable…? (cuz I’d like to know)

~ JW

4 comments

  • PentagonPics says:

    I think “talented” is an aspect of the idea that if you create a character that has qualities you and your audience can aspire to have, whether it be charm, charisma, or caring. Tyler Durden is not particularly talented, but he is awesome. He’s charming, witty, and cuts through the b.s. We want to be him.

    • jwarrenpiece says:

      Good point about what “talented” means to us.
      In the case of Tyler Durden I think he falls under multiple categories.

      1) ACT OF KINDNESS: Absolutely. He gives Norton’s character a place to live.

      2) MASSIVE BEAT-DOWN: I don’t think so. Yes, he actually does sacrifice himself for a beating but its all for show and its too late in the movie to either come on board or jump ship from his character anyway. You don’t gain sympathy for him as much as admiration for being a bad-ass.

      3) FUNNY: Yup. He’s funny, charming, confident. You want to listen to everything he has to day.

      4) TALENTED: I would argue that he is talented because he puts together this exclusive club (or so we think) and successfully gets everyone to join it. If that’s “what he does” and that is given value in our story and he is able to achieve that goal then I’d say he’s absolutely “talented” at executing it. Especially since he seems to be the guy everyone looks up to and follows because of this club.

      5) RELATABILITY: I’d say no. He’s way too cool for most of us to associate with him. That’s the role of Norton’s character. While Tyler Durden is the guy we “want to be.”

      This actually brings up another good point that each of these 5 categories elicit a different kind of emotion from the viewer.
      1) Act of Kindness = Makes you feel like he’s a noble person.
      2) Massive Beat-Down = Makes you sympathetic for his cause.
      3) Funny = Makes you feel like you wanna hang out with the guy.
      4) Talented = Makes you admire him.
      5) Relatability = Makes you step inside his shoes.

      Thanks again for the thoughts.

  • awesome article! it was helpful AND funny :)

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