Is your protagonist from the Jerk Store?This is part one of a series on “Edgy Screenwriting” (AKA “Ways to bugger up your script”). The first article in this series asks the timeless question:

Is your protagonist a real jerk?

I’m not talking about a protagonist with a biting wit, or one who sometimes says things they shouldn’t — those can be great qualities for your protagonist. I’m not even talking about those protagonists we love to hate.

I want to know — is your protagonist an irredeemable jackass who we can’t stand at the beginning of your script?

If the answer is “yes” — you may be scriptwrecked

New writers, especially, enjoy creating protagonists who are unlikeable. They consider it to be edgy screenwriting. After all — you don’t see that many movies with completely unlikeable protagonists, so that’s a totally new take, right?

Well the idea is sound, but unfortunately it’s not a totally new take. It’s a take that occurs all too often in spec scripts. And all too often, it’s not well received… which is why these scripts don’t get purchased… which is why there aren’t that many movies like that.

Now don’t get me wrong, your protagonist doesn’t have to be a good person, but…

It’s important that we like, enjoy or respect your protagonist

… especially at the beginning of your script. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. We have to invest about 2 hours of our time with your protagonist — it’s a much more enjoyable ride if we like him or her. We’ve all been stuck on a long car ride with someone who was unapologetically irritating right? Not fun.
  2. We need to develop a rooting interest for your protagonist’s goal, otherwise we’re less invested in the story. We can’t root for them if we don’t care about them.
  3. If the lead is an unlikeable jackass, what star is going to want to play that role? Hollywood is a business after all. Look at your script as actor bait.
  4. You may only have 10 pages to develop your protagonist to the point where the producer or exec reading your script doesn’t toss it on the reject pile. You can’t be in the room to say, “No wait — he becomes more likeable on page 48!” That’s too late.
  5. An unlikeable protagonist means that your movie will most likely not do well at the box office. So if it’s not a good return on investment, your script’s not worth buying and developing.

Is your protagonist thoroughly unlikeable? Tomorrow we’ll look at ways to fix that… as well as some well known protagonists who appear at first to be irredeemable jerks (Billy Bob Thornton, I’m lookin’ at you), and why they work.