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I'm always hearing that protagonists in spec screenplays have to be likable, even people we respect. Why?
I've seen seen several movies recently and many over the years with main characters who aren't likable or look-up-to-able at all, and some of them are great movies. Or fun movies. And often very successful movies.
One friend of mine didn't like Go because it wasn't about anything, but I had such a great time watching it, I didn't care what it was about or that the characters were not upstanding citizens or that I knew nothing of their past or their character arc.
Another friend didn't like Being John Malkovich because she didn't care about the people, but I found it so surprising that I didn't care that I didn't care about whether the guy selling space in John Malkovich's head achieved his inner or outer objective.
I was disappointed in Blair Witch Project only because it wasn't as scary as I'd heard, but one of my favorite things about it was that the characters were just the three ordinary people who happened to be there.
Are spec scripts judged differently than others? Do all these rules we keep hearing about really make for better or more salable scripts? Or are these rules really there so people can write books and charge for classes?
How's that for an answer?
Spec scripts by lesser-known writers are judged differently than those that are assigned or by known-blockbuster-hitters.
That said, the "guidelines" are shifting some, but we've always had films like TAXI DRIVER and that ilk, even Rhett Butler & Scarlett O'Hara were not totally likable.
The thing about less-likable protags is: actors & their reps. Often, talent wants to play "the good guy." And their rep will only show them roles that they think will benefit career & bank-acct.
However, many actors are looking to stretch. To play the sleazy villain or against ype so they have a larger breadth of options. Many actors are even taking pay cuts to play in indie films, ensemble works &/or even cameos if they think there's something in the role that intrigues them or opens new doors.
So that's the alternative side to this coin.
Of course, the screenwriting gurus still hold to their mantra of character arc & hero's journey ad nauseum. That's their rule. Not mine.
I agree with many of your film assessments & felt much the same. Add RUN LOLA RUN and LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS as well. Intriguing characters, we haven't seen before taking the viewer on a wild ride. Those are better guidleines for a spec, methinks.
If the character's not likable, then we should probably like him being unlikable, i.e., Danny Devito in Ruthless People, Malcolm McDowell in Clockwork Orange, etc. Is he funny? Compelling? What about this person would make us want to spend eight bucks?
IMHO, an unlikable main character doesn't work when he/she is too unpleasant, boring, irritating, whiny to hold your attention. We don't need to someone virtuous, but he should interesting.
To add more to what Allen said,
Characters should be people we can identify with, not people playing the bad guy/girl.
In Pulp Fiction, we identify with Travolta and Jackson, because they're people. They eat at Mc Donald's. They debate over right and wrong, regarding the foot message and other matters. Jackson, we identify him as a character wanting to get out of his rut as a hitman. We even root for him at the diner, during the robery.
In Go (a simple movie I detest), the main female character, most people identify with, because she is someone who is struggling to pay the rent, to save her ass, and yadda, yadda, yadda.
Of course, there is more, but it's late.
I hope you get the drift.
Make your characters real with real problems and real solutions.
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