We read it in all the screenwriting books and we hear it from all the execs in Hollywood. Yes, it’s the one note that everyone turns to because it’s what they feel is important for every story – “THE PROTAGONIST NEEDS TO BE MORE LIKEABLE”… or some version of that. “THE PROTAGONIST NEEDS TO BE MORE REDEEMABLE”… “WE NEED TO ROOT FOR THE PROTAGONIST”.
Depending on your story, not every protagonist has to be likeable. What matters most when you’re devising your main character, or when you’re giving notes on a particular story is that the protagonist is INTERESTING. He/she does not necessarily have to be likeable or possess redeeming qualities so long as it fits the story you’re trying to tell. If one were to tell a story about Adolph Hitler, it would be difficult to make him a likeable person. However, there’s no doubt that, given his unconventional rise to power and his audacious acts of evil, Hitler is an interesting character that audiences won’t likely root for, but will want to know more about.
So what does it mean to be “interesting”? It’s all about your character’s choices. This is what makes your story compelling. Writers often place too much focus on what happens to our main character. But, what makes our story compelling is watching our character faces difficult decisions and make unexpected choices as a result. To read more about how to write compelling characters, check out this previous posting.
In story-telling, we often refer to the “unlikeable” protagonists as the ANTIHERO. These characters, unlike your traditional main characters, lack conventional heroic qualities like morality, idealism and sympathy. It’s been proven time and time again by some of the best movies/tv shows that great stories can be built around compelling antiheroes who are also protagonists. Here’s a short list just to name a few:
Michael Corleone (THE GODFATHER)
Walter White (BREAKING BAD)
Frank Underwood (HOUSE OF CARDS)
Jordan Belfort (THE WOLF OF WALL STREET)
Daniel Plainview (THERE WILL BE BLOOD)
Travis Bickle (TAXI DRIVER)