Alexander Payne on appealing characters vs. sympathetic characters

In my current Create a Compelling Protagonist 1 week class, the subject came up about writing characters who don’t fit into the conventional role of a sympathetic figure, Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) in Bad Santa for example.

Whenever this subject comes up, I default to an interview I read with Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways). Here is the salient excerpt:

Appeal comes from truthful and complex characters. I hate when movie people say, “Your lead character has to be sympathetic,” which for them means “likeable”. I don’t give a shit about “liking” a character. I just want to be interested in him or her. You also have to make the distinction between liking the character as a person and liking a character as a character. I mean, I don’t know whether I like Alex in A Clockwork Orange or Michael Corleone in The Godfather as people, but I adore them as characters. Besides, “liking” is so subjective anyway. So many American movies of the eighties and early nineties bent over backwards to make the protagonist “likeable” in a completely fraudulent way, and I detested them.

Consider Miles in Sideways. When we meet him, he’s the epitome of a self-absorbed, alcoholic loser. In an early scene, he literally steals cash from his own mother. And there’s his hostility:

Not likeable, not even much in the way of sympathy — at first. But he’s compelling to watch and as we get to know him on this comic adventure, we can’t help but empathize with him. A struggling writer, his passion about wine, his fears causing him to miss an opening with Maya:

We’ve all struggled. We’ve all got things about which we are passionate. We’ve all missed out on golden opportunities. Even though Miles isn’t likeable, we come to find him appealing over time because, as Payne says, he is a “truthful and complex” character with qualities to which we can relate.

Here is an excerpt of what I posted in the forums in my Create a Compelling Protagonist class:

Almost invariably characters who are inherently unlikable or not sympathetic, if they are a Protagonist, a movie draws us in by going into the character’s inner world to reveal something of their humanity. If we can resonate with them, that creates the basis of a ‘relationship’, particularly if the plot circumstance in which they find themselves is itself interesting.

That said, the path of least resistance in Hollywood has been and always will be to work with sympathetic Protagonists. It’s not a rule, just convention, and one we need to be mindful of as screenwriters.

Finally, of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with sympathetic Protagonists. We just need to be sure to give them depth and complexity to make them worthy of carrying a story for 2 hours.

Sympathetic or not, likeable or not, we should strive to make our characters truthful, complex, and possessing aspects of who they are to which an audience can identify.

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