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The Problem of Likability in Protagonists

There are few things which are as critical to movies and TV shows as the main character. Nice or mean, good or evil: stories usually depict a main character, which is why it is essential to clearly and quickly establish who they are. When it comes to creating a protagonist, a common idea is that they must be likable (Lowe, 2022). However, “likability” does not automatically mean “good protagonist.” In fact, numerous good protagonists are unlikable. One such example is Shakespeare’s Richard III (1564-1616). He ruthlessly kills and manipulates people around him to rise to the throne (Spark Notes, n.d.). The concept of “likability” is so prominent that one of the most recommended screenwriting books (Hellerman, 2019; ScreenCraft, 2022) is named after the concept Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need (2005). In other words, “save the cat” is the name given to the scene where the protagonist performs a good action, proving that they’re likable (Snyder, 2005, p. xv). In truth, a protagonist should be interesting. For instance, “if your lead character is not mesmerizingly compelling to the reader, it’s all over but the crying. She can be the biggest jerk in the universe, but if she’s interesting, we’re hooked” (Akers, 2008, p. 40). 'Interesting' is unspecific and mildly unhelpful, making it necessary to analyze how protagonists make their first impressions to become interesting.

Figure 1: Unknown. (c. 1504-20). Richard III [Painting]. British Library.

Main characters must make a compelling first impression as they are a window into the story for the audience (Vogler, 2007, p. 30). Christopher Vogler (2007), author of The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, says: “Each person hearing a tale or watching a play or movie is invited, in the early stages of the story, to identify with the Hero, to merge with him and see the world of the story through his eyes” (p. 30). It is essential to present the hero early on since the movie is guided by their point of view. The audience needs to identify with the hero and “merge with him” (Vogler, 2007, p. 30). Blake Snyder (2005), screenwriter and author of Save the Cat, erroneously suggests that the only way to ensure this crucial merging and identification is through the concept of “likability”, even claiming it to be “the single most important element in drawing us into the story” (p. xv). A more accurate, although debatable, the argument is that the protagonist is the most important as “all stories are ‘character-driven’” (McKee, 1997, p. 107). The concept of “saving the cat” is a “rule” (Snyder, 2005, p. 121) stating that the hero must do something early in the story that makes the audience like them (Snyder, 2005, p. 121). This concept is quickly debunked by many screenwriters and authors (Akers, 2008, p. 40; McKee, 1997, p.138; Trottier, 2014, p.83), including the article that places Save the Cat at the number one spot of best screenwriting book, admitting that the “save the cat” concept is a fallacy (Hellerman, 2019).

Protagonists do not have to be likable: “The PROTAGONIST must be empathetic; he may or may not be sympathetic” (McKee, 2007, p. 138). In this case, sympathetic means likable (McKee, 2007, p. 138). Heroes need to be empathetic since the audience invests part of their personal identity in the main character, putting themselves in their shoes (Vogler, 2007, p. 30). In Squid Game (2021), for instance, the irritable protagonist, Gi-Hun steals money from his mother to bet on horses (00:05:50). In a stroke of luck, he wins and makes over four million won. Right off the bat, this is an unsympathetic character and is very hard to root for. However, a loan shark and his goons ambush him in a bathroom requesting their money (00:09:21). Unfortunately, Gi-Hun was just robbed by a pickpocket moments earlier. The debt collectors assault Gi-Hun and force him to sign a contract in blood stating that he owes a kidney and an eye if he doesn’t pay them back by the end of the month (00:11:30). The protagonist clearly does not evoke sympathy, but his situation does call for empathy since he was robbed, assaulted, and may lose organs (Dong-hyuk, 2021). Witnessing people suffering provokes empathy (Armstrong, 2017). Many people have suffered emotionally and physically, perhaps not to such a high degree, but the idea still applies. In that sense, a good protagonist is one that draws empathy.

Figure 2: Still from "Squid Game" (2021), 00:10:10.

Empathy can manifest in a number of ways. As such, heroes will often display universal qualities, emotions, and motivations: “revenge, anger, lust, competition, territoriality, patriotism, idealism, cynicism, or despair” (Vogler, 2007, p. 30). The universal nature of these qualities ensures that the audience wants to see the hero’s story regardless of whether they like them or not. A good example of this is the anti-hero. An anti-hero is often seen as a villain from the point of view of society, but still draws empathy—and sympathy in some cases—because of their “outsider” nature and everyone has once felt like an outsider (Vogler, 2007, pp. 34–35). Perhaps the two most popular examples of anti-heroes are Deadpool and Wednesday. These two characters function in similar fashions. The first scene of Deadpool (2016), shows a funny, cynical and eccentric character riding a taxi. Deadpool and the driver, Dopinder, talk about love and its mishaps, a universal concept. The vulgar comedy may split the audience in the “likability” department, with some finding it amusing while others find it wrong (Common Sense Media, n.d.). Either way, the conversation ends when Deadpool says he is going to get revenge on the man who disfigured him (00:04:41). In just a two-minute scene, the movie reveals exactly who Deadpool is (eccentric and cynical), his goal (revenge) and backstory (lost love). All three of these contribute to making him a character to empathize with (Vogler, 2007, p. 30). Wednesday (2022) shows a different kind of eccentricity and cynicism with the same result. The very first line 22 seconds into the pilot episode reveals who Wednesday is: “I’m not sure whose twisted idea it was to put hundreds of adolescents in underfunded schools run by people whose dreams were crushed years ago, but I admire the sadism” (Gough and Millar, 2022). She is a person with a negative view of the world, yet embraces that same aspect. This voice-over is laid on top of a shot showing Wednesday in all black walking through students who give her right of way while staring nastily (00:00:22). She is an outcast with a penchant for all things goth. The next two minutes reinforce these ideas by revealing little else. By the end of the teaser (00:02:50), Wednesday took revenge on her brother’s bully by dropping piranhas in a pool during water polo practice. It should be noted that the bully is never anything more than the archetypal bully, giving the audience someone to hate and showcasing the protagonist's good nature (Myers, 2014). In addition, it keeps the audience from alienating Wednesday. If any shred of humanity was given to him, the audience may come to resent Wednesday. Even worse, it would compromise her moral compass as she tries to save lives during the rest of the series, which would be an inconsistency if she assaults people. Thus, by assigning the “bully” title to the character, it justifies Wednesday’s violent actions: “If your central character happens to be a bad guy, make sure he’s morally superior to the others in the story” (Trottier, 2014, p. 82). An outsider with a morally acceptable idea of revenge guarantees empathy.

Figure 3: Still from "Wednesday" (2022), 00:00:43.

A main character does not have to be liked by the viewer in order to be a good protagonist or even for a good story. While it is true that main characters must be established early on, the conception of “likability” or sympathy is misleading. Rather, it is empathy that they must evoke. Unlikable characters can fully draw empathy from the audience by using a universal quality found in all humans such as love or revenge (Vogler, 2007, p. 30). Gi-Hun, Deadpool and Wednesday are all interesting characters that function similarly, using empathy to pull the viewer into the story. Indeed, audience members invest part of their identity in the characters, making empathy an absolute must for a story’s protagonist (Vogler, 2007, p. 30). Whether they are good or bad, likable or not, compelling characters are fascinating and they keep making for good protagonists (Akers, 2008, p. 40).

Bibliographical References

Akers, W. M. (2008). Your Screenplay Suck! 100 Ways to Make it Great. Michael Wiese Productions.

Armstrong, K. (2017, December 29). 'I Feel Your Pain': The Neuroscience of Empathy. Association for Psychological Science.

Common Sense Media. (n.d.). Parent reviews for Deadpool.

Dong-hyuk, H. (Director). (2021). Squid Game. Siren Pictures Inc.

Gough, A. & Millar, M. (Creators). (2022). Wednesday. MGM Television.

Hellerman, J. (2019, October 23). The 20 Best Screenwriting Books You Should Get Right Now. No Film School.

Lowe, Z. D. (2022, January). Does Your Main Character Need to be Likeable? The Storyteller’s Mission.

McKee, R. (1997). Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. HarperCollins.

Miller, T. (Director). (2016). Deadpool. Marvel.

Myers, S. (2014). Character Type: Bully. Medium.

ScreenCraft. (2022, August 16). Top 16 Screenwriting Books. Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616. ( 1981). King Richard III. London; New York: Methuen

Snyder, B. (2005). Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Michael Wiese Productions.

Spark Notes. (n.d.). Richard III: Full Book Summary.

Trottier, D. (2014). The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script. (6th ed.). Silman-James Press.

Vogler, C. (2007). The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. (3rd ed.). Michael Wiese Productions.

Visual Sources

Cover image: Odom, J. (2021, October 20). ‘Squid Game’: How Much Did Lee Jung-jae Get Paid for Playing Seong Gi-hun? Showbiz CheatSheet.

Figure 1: Unknown. (c. 1504-20). Richard III [Painting]. British Library.

Figure 2: Dong-hyuk, H. (Director). (2021). Squid Game. Siren Pictures Inc.

Figure 3: Gough, A. & Millar, M. (Creators). (2022). Wednesday. MGM Television

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Yoran Praet

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