(SPOILERS: Breaking Bad, The Godfather, Taken, Elysium, Bad Santa, Low Winter Sun)
With Breaking Bad (created by Vince Gilligan) nearing its conclusion, I’ve been thinking a lot about how writers get an audience to root for an antihero. Before I go any further, let me define my terms: I’m talking about an antihero in the classical sense, as in a protagonist who lacks heroic qualities such as goodness and selflessness. And I’m looking at protagonists, not supporting rogues like Han Solo or Hannibal Lecter.
Admittedly not every story with an antihero protagonist requires us to root for them. Sometimes we are rooting against them, such as in some gangster or serial killer movies. We are fascinated by them, maybe we even find them charming. But we do not want to see them succeed.
You could argue that Walter White of Breaking Bad belongs in this category, but I disagree. I think we are rooting for him to be successful in his meth manufacturing, at least in the first couple seasons of the show. How do you make the audience root for a drug dealer or other un-heroic lead? Here are three techniques:
1. They do bad things for good causes. This is probably the primary tool used by Breaking Bad. In this scenario you create a likeable character and put them in a situation where their decision to do bad things is completely understandable.
In the pilot of Breaking Bad, Walter White is an underpaid schoolteacher who has to work at a car wash part time to support his family, including a son with serious health issues. Then he learns his wife is pregnant (unplanned) and that he has potentially fatal lung cancer. Poor guy! He chooses to start cooking meth in order to leave behind money that will support his family. His descent into evil begins with this decision that is completely sympathetic and understandable given his situation.
The Godfather (screenplay by Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola) works much the same way. Michael comes from a criminal family, but he isn’t interested in joining the family business. He’s a war hero! Then someone tries to kill his father. Michael takes his first step into criminality to save his dad. Who can’t root for that?
2. They’re up against an even bigger, more unlikeable opponent. We will root for a bad guy if he’s fighting an even worse guy. In Taken (written by Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen) there is not much innately heroic about the character of Bryan Mills. He’s a violent, amoral man, a bad husband and inept father. Yet he’s taking on a vicious human trafficking organization. Of course we’ll root for him!
Another example of bad-vs.-worse is Elysium (written by Neill Blomkamp). Despite some charm, Max is basically a selfish criminal. He could easily be the villain in a different story. But in this story he’s going up against an unfeeling, oppressive, unfair bureaucracy of a kind that we’re all probably a little familiar with in the real world. We root for Max regardless of his moral failings and selfish motivation because he’s a little guy going up against a corrupt system.
3. They are helping an enormously likeable character. We’ll root for a bad guy if his success saves a good guy. In Taken, Mills is trying to rescue his sweet daughter from a horrible fate. Similarly, in Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt), the protagonist is Richard, a selfish failure and inattentive husband and father. But in this story he’s trying to help his daughter, Olive, achieve her dream so we root for him to succeed.
Bad Santa (written by Glenn Ficarra & John Requa) has one of the most unlikeable antiheros of all as its protagonist. But early on he befriends a lonely, bullied boy. Sure, at first he’s only doing it to get a free place to crash. But we see how much this kid needs a friend and we root for Willie to step up to the task. Which he does.
That’s another important point: in most of these examples the characters become better people as a result of the story. You could say a fourth technique is to give us an antihero protagonist with the potential for heroism.
For a look at what happens when you don’t give the audience a reason to root for your protagonist, check out another AMC show: Low Winter Sun. The protagonist in this show is Frank Agnew, a corrupt cop who kills another corrupt cop. The show is about trying to cover up the murder. But we’re given no good reason for why we would want him to get away with the crime, or why we would want him to succeed in any way. He’s a bad guy doing bad things for bad reasons.
“Likeability” is thrown around a lot in Hollywood. Many execs and writers think a likeable character is more appealing to an audience. But likeability or heroism is not actually the reason we invest emotionally in the character. Rather, we invest in the character when we can get behind their goals. If your character is an antihero, make sure you give us a good reason to root for their success.