One of the most common pieces of screenwriting advice is that your main character has to be likable. But what does that mean? And why do many of our favorite characters tend to be difficult individuals or anti-heroes? Are they likable, or really just watchable? What makes a character someone we want to see through a story?
The Story Solution by Eric Edson lists nine attributes for likable characters:
- Unfair Injury
- Just Plain Nice
- In Danger
- Loved By Friends And Family
- Hard Working
In order for character to be likable, they only need to have at least five out of nine. Many characters have more, but five is the minimum for us to want to see a story about this character.
I don’t like most screenwriting books, but this list is the best I’ve found for explaining why seemingly “unlikable” characters are so watchable, and why the current trend of “anti-heroes” and difficult characters in film and television is drawing audiences.
Why Do We Like Mean Characters?
Let’s apply this list to one of the most seemingly “unlikable” characters in film history – Ebaneezer Scrooge.
Despite his name being synonymous with mean miserly people, there are more film adaptations and theater productions of A Christmas Carol then any other story. How does a character this mean keep getting his story told and attract such a-list talent (Jim Carry, Patrick Stewart, Bill Murray, etc.) to play him?
Is Scrooge likable? Let’s look at the list:
- Courage – No.
- Unfair Injury – Not really – though one could argue his isolation as a child shown in flashback counts.
- Skill – Yes. Scrooge is a skilled business man.
- Funny – Yes. Even when he’s being mean, Scrooge has some killer lines.
- Just Plain Nice – No.
- In Danger – Yes. Scrooge is being haunted by ghosts.
- Loved By Friends And Family – No.
- Hard Working – Yes.
- Obsessed – Yes.
Scrooge has 5 out of 9. His skills and mastery as a business man actually makes him likable.
In How to Write Movies for Fun and Profit (part comedy book, part screenwriting book), the authors Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant suggest that if you want to attract a movie star, write a character who is perfect, except for one major flaw. Scrooge is the perfect businessman. He’s shrewd and a master of making money. He just isn’t nice. Pretty good flaw for a business man, right?
Most people when they think about likability only look at “is this character nice?” and maybe “are they loved by friends and family?” or “are they funny?” but mastery over a skill can make a character just as likable.
We like seeing people who are good at something so much we’ll forgive them for being mean to others on the way to sucess. See Sorkin’s latest work with Steve Jobs and The Social Network for a great example of this.
Can Characters Without Mastery Be Likable?
What about a character with no mastery? Take for example the lovable losers that populate Judd Apatow comedies and Seth Rogan’s early roles? Are they likable by this definition?
- Courage – Usually yes by the end of the film.
- Unfair Injury – Usually.
- Skill – No.
- Funny – Yes.
- Just Plain Nice – Yes.
- In Danger – Often.
- Loved By Friends And Family – Yes.
- Hard Working – No.
- Obsessed – No.
So if you’re going to have a character without mastery, they have to be funny or thrown into dangerous circumstances over their head where they show courage. Pineapple Express is probably the best example of this, since it has all those qualities.
Lovable loser characters are funny nice people. Maybe something bad happened to them that kept them from success (Unfair Injury). Maybe they rise to the occasion (Courage) of some difficult circumstances (In Danger). We forgive them for not being masters of a trade because they have other likable qualities.
By the way, the action formula in Pineapple Express goes all the way back to Hitchcock in North by Northwest. An average man (Just Plain Nice, Loved by Friends and Family) thrust into a dangerous situation (Unfair Injury, In Danger) must rise to the circumstances (Courage). The horror formula is pretty close to that too.
Is Your Character Likable?
The list is a good diagnostic tool. If your character is going to be mean, he’d better be funny. If he’s not skillful, it better be due to an unfair injury. Likability can be counter-intuitive.
Recently, I used this list on a screenplay I was working on. The main character just wasn’t working, despite being a nice family man. I’d started him in the midst of such great problems that his skills weren’t clear. I had to go back and establish his talent before creating the problems that would overwhelm him, and give him more of a sense of humor when they first begin.
I use this list when editing too. If you’re establishing a documentary character, all the same rules apply.
Like all film advice – take what works for you, and leave the rest. I’m not certain this is a universal rule, though I haven’t found an exception yet. It does explain why we root for seemingly mean or weak characters, and why just being nice isn’t enough for a film hero.
Read More: How to Structure Documentary Openings