In Defense of Character (excerpt #1)
Posted by Jennine Lanouette on Wednesday, January 16th, 2013
Misconception #1: The Thoroughly Likable Main Character “In order for your main character to be sympathetic, he or she must be likable.”
The function of the sympathetic character is to create audience investment in the story. Writers do this by introducing the character at a power disadvantage. As viewers, we can then relate because we have all felt like underdogs at some point in our lives.
However, getting an audience to sympathize with your character does not mean making that character thoroughly likeable. In fact, once you have the audience invested, you can then have that character go off and do all kinds of mean, nasty, awful things, and the audience stays with him. Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski achieved this in 1996’s The People vs. Larry Flynt. While they were fascinated by Flynt’s bizarre nature, they knew they couldn’t assume the audience would feel the same for one who unabashedly profits from the exploitation of women. So they introduce Flynt in his childhood, with he and his brother Jim selling moonshine in the hollers of Kentucky. Finding their drunken father on the floor of the moonshine shack, Larry throws a jug at him. The father grabs a shotgun as the boys hightail it into the woods. Out of range, Jim asks Larry why he did that. “Because he was drinking all our profits,” says Larry.
Growing up in dire poverty with a drunken, violent father, Flynt is shown at a power disadvantage. But the writers aren’t merely pulling at heartstrings with childhood hardship. We also learn that Flynt is a born entrepreneur. Since he doesn’t have the typical middle class lawn-mowing opportunities, he makes his money distilling moonshine, just as later he will achieve success in the porno industry. The writers are using his humble beginnings and unusual skills to fulfill the audience’s need to become engaged with the character. Once we are on board, they can then go on to explore the flaws and contradictions of human nature that make for surpassing drama.
[Excerpted from In Defense of Character: Creating Surpassing Drama with Character Transformation Stories. For the full article, go here.]