I hate the dumbing down of characters. Not every protagonist needs to be likeable.
Sympathetic, yes. But not sanitized, cookie cutter likeable.
So when you get the note, “Character needs to be more likeable,” what the hell does that mean?
(BTW, I don’t like notes like that – it’s vague and simply lazy. It could mean anything from “I didn’t understand him” to “She’s too abrasive.”)
In reality, non-writers (executives/family/well meaning friends) use this as code for: "I don't like your character, but I don't have the time to figure out why, so please just fix it."
GOOD NEWS: You are the master of the universe. You’re the writer, and therefore the problem solver. You can solve this problem.
BAD NEWS: You’ve got unspecific notes from the exec that the character needs to be more likeable. You’re on a deadline. Now what?
I read a good spec script recently that might shed some light on this eternal question.
The story is about a guy who barters with a dating expert for help. The character is unlikeable, a cad, and rather shallow, but it didn’t bother me.
Read that again. Didn’t. Bother. Me.
- He serves up attitude with a side of vulnerability, which keeps it interesting in the usually dead Act 2.
- He’s unrepentant about dating women like kleenex. There are hints he’s protecting a sore spot in the script. The writer did an admirable job of showing it in the subtext.
- Even though I might not agree with his decisions, I sense his motivation (which leads back to me identifying with the character).
WHAT I’VE LEARNED:
On draft 1 - If your character is “unlikeable,” check to make sure we SEE why we should empathize with the character.
On 1+ drafts – If your character is “unlikeable,” always check that you’ve explained WHY we should empathize with the character. Have you laid out or hinted at his motivation clearly enough?