(SPOILERS: Some Like It Hot, Little Miss Sunshine, The Godfather, Fargo)
One of the concerns you’ll often hear from studio execs is whether the main character is likeable enough. This begs the question: do we have to like the main character to enjoy the movie? Many would say yes. Why do we want to spend two hours with someone we don’t like? Why would we root for someone who we despise?
Good arguments. Luke Skywalker is likeable in Star Wars (written by George Lucas). Elliot is likeable in E.T. (written by Melissa Mathison). Harry is likeable in When Harry Met Sally… (Written by Nora Ephron). And as a result we care about what happens to them and root for them to succeed. These characters are good-hearted underdogs fighting for what’s right. Not hard to get behind that kind of character.
But what about Joe in Some Like It Hot (story by R. Thoeren and M. Logan, screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond)? He’s introduced as a cad who gambles, lies, sleeps around, and generally doesn’t think about anyone but himself. And how about Richard, the main character in Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt)? He’s introduced as a pathetic aspiring motivational speaker who is selfish with regard to his family.
Likeability sometimes runs up against the desire to create a character arc. If a character is going to change for the better, they obviously have to start as less than perfect. So how do you get the audience to root for a flawed hero?
First of all, Richard and Joe’s flaws are not really evil. They do cause people pain, but their intention is not to hurt others. Also, neither is particularly powerful. They are struggling in an inhospitable world, which mitigates their more selfish behavior. It’s easier to root for a character with these kinds of flaws than a serial killer or rapist or corrupt politician or dictator.
We can also show that the characters have hope for improvement. We all have flaws. But if the character’s weaknesses are balanced by strengths, we’ll root for them to overcome their flaws. Richard is a hard worker with a vision he’s passionate about. Joe is charming and carefree.
Another techniques used in both Some Like It Hot and Little Miss Sunshine is to give the hero likeable companions. Jerry is obviously a good guy, and since he likes Joe, we’re hoping that Joe becomes a better person. Similarly, Olive is adorable. We’re rooting for her, and since Richard is key to her success, we root for him as well.
The way you introduce the character is important here. If we see the good in someone first, we’ll be more accepting of the bad. You can also use a “save the cat” scene. These are scenes where an otherwise unlikeable main character does something heroic (such as save a cat) that tells us deep down there’s some good in them.
Joe and Richard are complex, flawed characters we can root for. But Michael in The Godfather (screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola) poses a bigger challenge. Are we really rooting for him to become a mafia kingpin, a coldhearted killer, and a man who lies easily to his sweet, innocent wife?
No, we’re actually rooting against this. But what’s important is that we are rooting for something! Just because the outcome is not what we were hoping for does not lessen our investment in the story. Michael is still likeable because we understand and empathize with his motivation.
It’s no accident Michael is introduced as a war hero. Though it happened before the start of the movie, this is a typical “save the cat” beat. It’s also important that Michael is not planning to become a criminal. When his girlfriend realizes that Michael is from a mafia family, he tells her, “That’s my family, Kate. It’s not me.”
So what is the motivation that changes Michael? Greed? Anger? Meanness? No. Michael decides to commit murder because someone has shot his father. He wants to avenge the attack and prevent another assassination attempt. Love for his father – that’s a motivation we can empathize with. And though we may be heartbroken that Michael turns to evil at the end of the movie, we care precisely because we saw the potential for good in him and yet understand why he’s chosen the path he did. That’s what makes the ending tragic.
On rare occasions the main character of a movie may be completely unlikeable and the movie still works. Fargo (written by Ethan & Joel Coen) is one such movie. Though you probably remember Marge Gunderson best, structurally she’s the antagonist, not the main character. The main character is Jerry, and he’s pretty unlikeable. But here we have a movie where we’re actively rooting against the main character. And we have an antagonist who is likeable who we can root for. Remember, the main character is a structural concept – usually they’re also who we root for, but they don’t have to be.
(For more discussion of Fargo, check out this series of posts.)
The likeability question is one that filmmakers will always wrestle with. It’s certainly a lot easier to sell a movie with a hero who is “heroic.” And it’s easier to get the audience to root for such a hero. But if we limited ourselves to that kind of main character, we’d never get such great movies as The Godfather and Fargo. Or Pulp Fiction or Citizen Kane or Bonny and Clyde or Liar, Liar or Up in the Air…
You get the idea.