How unlikeable characters make the best protagonist…
This is a very exciting week for me. The final installment into my favorite saga will be presented to the world. I am not talking about the Harry Potter movie that will have little girls running and screaming for the theaters, but rather the final season of Rescue Me, a show that would likely make little girls also run screaming. Unlike Harry Potter, whose moral compass never strays, Rescue Me’s protagonist Tommy Gavin throws the middle finger to morality as he bangs back a shot of vodka, before things really get interesting. He is a foul mouthed, egotistic, womanizing, violent, abrasive alcoholic, and I love him. He is one of many in a long list of anti-heros who have snatched up the hearts of audiences and ran with them. From Bill Munny to Hank Moody, these hugely defected characters have made for some of the most fascinating protagonists.
We learn from the get go that in order to write a script, or even a bedtime story for that matter, you have to have a likable protagonist. This, clearly is not the case. These anti-heros not only win our sympathy, but let’s face it, they’re way more fun to watch. It’s like watching that stupid friend that you have who always get’s himself in trouble. As much as you enjoy laughing as gets yelled at by his parents, you still hope he gets away with it. But the reason that these characters have won our hearts goes much deeper than that.
A major part in film and television’s success is that it provides a fantasy for its viewers, while still offering them something to relate to. What keeps swarms of tweens rushing to the theater (and forkin over the dough), is that recognition of a teenager just like them, doing magical and brave things that they could never. It’s also what kept more mature audiences tuned in to Friends for a decade; the idea of people and friends just like them who lived lovely lives in Manhattan, never had to work, and always got along. Its almost as magical as Hogwarts to be honest.
It is this same principle that makes us so intrigued with these Anti-heros. We recognize that we are flawed, as every one is, and as they certainly are, but they are also doing incredible things. Plus,as far as the female demographic is concerned, no matter what your parents say, girls DO love bad boys. This is a fundamental principle of the anti-hero; they have a substantial redeeming quality. In Tommy Gavin’s case, he saves people from terrifying fires. No matter how devilish he is outside of that inferno, he still drags innocent people to safety by running in to life threatening fires. He also suffers from PTS while mourning the losses of 911, a national tragedy, so he gets brownie points for that as well. So viewers tune in and realize that everyone has a shot at redemption, something that is nice to think about, as they watch him terrorize everyone around him.
(In this scene Tommy just saw his dead son who he sorta killed… yeah, Id fall off the wagon)
What I think attracts me to these characters, however, is that they make for very complex protagonists with very complicated stories. While everyone who’s ever heard of Harry Potter instantly wants him to defeat Voldermort (sp?,whatever…), even the most loyal fans of shows like Recue Me and Californication, who have rooted for this protagonists for season upon season, still have to question where their sympathy lies from time to time. This makes for interesting themes, conflicts, and plot lines. It also keeps those loyal fans tuning in time and time again, as they subconsciously hope that Hank Moody gets away with statutory rape .
So while “likability” may generate some really successful protagonists, Im going to say screw likability. Give me complex protagonists, with the human tendency to hit on the wrong girl, drink too much, but do it all with the best intentions. Put ’em in a complicated situation and I say you have yourself a story!
I’d love to hear who some of your favorite protagonists are (no matter how likable), and what you think makes them so great!