What happens when your character is unlikable?

posted in: Creation, Publishing | 0

I’m a pretty big movie fan.  It’s definitely an exaggeration to say I see everything, or even most of everything, that comes out; but I do see a lot of movies.  And as the years go by, I find myself returning to prior years’ releases for various reasons to catch things I avoided at the time.

Honestly, it escapes me why I never got around to seeing either Waterworld or The Postman.  I like Kevin Costner, a good bit actually.  People trash the hell out of it all the time, but I really do like Robin Hood Prince of Thieves.  Yes, I really do; it’s a fun film.  Plus, how can you bag on Alan Rickman’s turn as the Sheriff?  Dances with Wolves had come out before either of the two films in question, plus Bull Durham, No Way Out, and The Untouchables.  In ’95 and ’97, I had a lot of reasons to have been interested in Waterworld and The Postman, yet I never looked at either.  Chalk it up to mystery.  I had, however, always heard people marking both down as bad flicks.  The word was always ‘failure’.  At best, for The Postman, I’d sometimes hear people talk about it as a cult favorite of theirs.

Well, in the past year or so, I’ve watched both.  While I can’t say what about either film caused me to skip them when they first appeared, I have a thought or two as to why neither worked very well.

To me, the most jarring reason they don’t resonate with audiences is the main character of each.  No, this is not a diss on Costner, or even his performance in either; but rather in the character that was presented on the screen in the films.  Waterworld’s The Mariner and Postman’s The Postman both share something other than their lack of proper names.  In both instances, the characters are effectively unlikable.  They’re self-centered without that heart-of-gold you so often see writers offer up to soften their harsh edges, and at best serve only as reluctant heroes who lack any charm or truly demonstrated desire to help others.  Assholes, in other words.

Characters that aren’t paragons of heroic virtue are not uncommon; in fact, they show up far more often than you probably think.  Antiheroes are a beloved trope, after all.  And, a lot of times, they actually steal the show from the ‘proper’ heroes.

Take Han Solo; a fair argument can be made that he’s possibly more popular than Luke Skywalker; and he’s not only the ‘sidekick’ in the stories, but also a self-proclaimed scoundrel.  Solo goes so far as to run out on Skywalker and the Rebels in their darkest hour.  In comics, The Punisher is a definite anti-hero who most of the ‘real’ heroes in the Marvel universe consider a definite gray area; some of them even consider him an out-right villain.  Yet he’s consistently enjoyed a strong base of popularity.  Look at the most recent swells of cheers when it was announced that he’d be joining the second season of Daredevil.

In Waterworld and Postman, the main character doesn’t benefit from any real sense that he’s actually a good guy.  Most rough-around-the-edges characters in most stories have little bits and pieces about them that give the audience something to latch onto.  Solo does a lot of heroic things in Star Wars before he runs out; and does little that can really be pointed to as actually evil.  In fact, when Lucas tried for years to take the most ‘questionable’ action Solo commits out, that produced cries of despair and outrage among fans.  Solo’s first appearance in Star Wars does end with him killing someone, but the audience felt it was the only option there for Solo; that it was effectively self defense.

Why?  No setup, of any kind, had been done to establish Greedo as bad, or Solo as good.  Greedo appears, sits down, and the two have a fairly seedy conversation that results in a shootout where Solo’s just a bit faster and lives.  Solo does pay “for the mess” on the way out though.  And he helps the heroes, Skywalker and Kenobi, when they really need it; by taking them off Tatooine, and then helping them rescue Princess Leia off the Death Star.  By the time he bails before the Rebel attack, the story has established a base that can be used to point to Solo’s good heart.

It might be the brevity of Solo’s “misdeeds” on the screen; that the shootout is short, and then we move into the movie’s mid-phase where the character then starts racking up some good things.  Yes the character’s sarcastic and reluctant during this, but he’s still helping, still rescuing, and still there fighting the good fight.

The Mariner and Postman don’t have much, if any, of this going for them.  From their first appearances on screen, and as they begin and continue to interact with other characters, they’re not heroic.  They’re not antiheroes either.  They end up doing heroic things, but only eventuallyReluctantly.  They’re coerced into fighting the good fight.  They’re put in circumstances where they basically don’t have any choice but to join that fight.  There’s never really any moments where they have some introspection and put themselves on a path to being not-assholes.  In fact, retooling both stories into character-growth pieces where the assholes start in desperate circumstances, consider their actions, and decide to try and journey towards being better men would help the stories resonate better.

Consider one of Summer 2015’s surprise hits, Mad Max: Fury Road.  Max is definitely an asshole.  To be fair, he’s been through a lot.  When he pulls a gun on a collection of mostly helpless women, it’s sort of understandable that he would.  But he softens, and throws in with them.  By the time the third act rolls around, he’s joined their fight of his own accord and is actively helping them plot and execute towards winning that fight.  The other characters don’t badger or threaten or manipulate him into helping; Max joins their side by his own decision.

Characters and how audiences interact with them is a complicated business.  There’s a zone, usually more narrow than we creators would prefer, they have to walk.  Problems like melodrama and stereotype and disconnection and triteness lurk all around that balance beam the heroes and sidekicks – and yes, even the villains – must walk in our stories.  But when it’s done right, the results resonate across generations as audiences embrace the story.

After all, here we are nearly forty years on from Star Wars’ initial release, and Han Solo gets enormous cheers when he appears in The Force Awakens trailer.  I was at Disneyland earlier this summer, and part of the World of Color show includes a Star Wars segment.  The crowd groaned when the Frozen segment appeared, but they cheered twice for Star Wars; once for Star Wars, and a second time for Solo when he was projected onto the water mist.

The guy whose initial scene shows him killing someone we knew nothing about in ‘cold’ blood.  From that beginning, the legend of Solo built in the minds and hearts of fans.  Even if Lucas’ later actions with the character seem to indicate he perhaps didn’t quite know what he’d done or how he’d done it; the work had been put in and the audience had responded.

What happens when your lead character is unlikable?  Your story flops.  There’s got to be something there for the audience to latch onto.  There are thousands, tens of thousands, heck probably a nearly infinite amount, of things that can be done with a character to provide those hooks for a receptive audience to attach to.  But the work’s got to be in there.  A character that serves as a viewpoint driver of your story, as a main or sidekick character, can’t just be an asshole from start to finish.  There’s got to be more there to balance the scales even a little.  Modern audiences have grown fond of antiheroes and sarcastic leads who defy the traditional ‘knight in shining armor’ style of hero.  There are reasons why current tastes have shifted in these directions, but they don’t preclude creators from needing to remember what the audience truly wants at heart.

They want a hero.

That hero can be grubby, scummy, mean, bored, reluctant, outmatched, cowardly, even out-right resistant to stepping into that role; but, at heart, that hero must be one or the audience won’t engage.  Somewhere beneath all the grime and rudeness, a heart of gold has to shine – even a little – past the haze of antiheroism.