Unlikable Characters: My Take on Craig Mazin's Take

I recently subscribed to yet another podcast, Scriptnotes, which describes itself as a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

If you've followed me on social media or here on my blog for any amount of time, you know that I'm not a screenwriter. (The screenplay I wrote with my high school friend Sam doesn't count, but it sure was fun and a great learning experience.) I'm a fiction writer. I primarily write novels and novellas. Yet I love this podcast and recommend it to writers of all kinds.

Scriptnotes is hosted by Hollywood screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin. After listening to a few episodes, you can't help but like these guys, even if Craig is full of umbrage (and disdain for religion).

Episode 223, from November 10, had a section about the least helpful notes screenwriters get. Turns out that Craig's least favorite (read: most despised) note is to be told that his characters aren't likable.

Craig argues that movies are filled with characters we don't like, and that characters are supposed to change anyway, so it's okay if we don't like them at first. Plus, we like curmudgeons! Unlikable quirks can make a character more interesting anyway. So stop telling us to make our characters more likable! (Totally paraphrasing here. Listen to his rant; your mileage may vary.)

And he has a point . . . to a point.

He's right that flawed and/or curmudgeonly characters are interesting. We enjoy watching characters like that, while characters who seem too perfect feel flat or fake. Even if we don't like a character, we'll hang on to watch more because we're entertained. We often start liking them as the movie progresses.

Besides, a movie is only a couple of hours long, and chances are, you paid to see this show, so you'll probably stick it out to the closing credits to see how it all turns out anyway.

In other words, Craig's advice clearly works for screenwriting.

Alas, that wisdom doesn't carry over into formats like the novel. I've learned this the hard way. Over and over and over again.

Consider this: A novel takes much longer to read than a movie takes to watch. While some people can devour a novel in a day, most readers read a chapter or two here or there, often before bed. They end up spending days if not weeks or more with the same book.

As the author, you don't have the luxury of assuming the reader will hang on until the character is sympathetic, or that the reader will trust you at all to go beyond the first page or two, that eventually, they'll see that they were in good hands all along. (An exception exists for really big names, who can pretty much break every rule and still sell millions because their name is a trusted brand before word one.)

With novels, readers may well toss a book aside if they hate the characters after a few minutes of reading. Not so with a few minutes of a movie. Readers simply won't devote hours and hours (or days) of their lives to your story. No way. They'd rather re-watch their most hated movie and get it over with in two hours or so.

That said, readers don't want perfect characters either. They want flaws and they want growth, just like moviegoers do. (Two groups with a ton of crossover, of course.)

The result is that fiction writers face a double challenge: Create characters who are human and flawed but still likable enough for the reader to hang on and care enough to keep reading, and make all of that happen on page one.

Oh, and be sure to open at precisely the right moment. Starting a even a few minutes (or, heck, seconds) earlier or later in story time could kill the opening.

No pressure or anything.

If you've hooked your readers with the opening, they'll likely turn the page. If you've managed to carry them to the 25% mark, they've invested enough time that you've got a good shot at carrying them to the end even if the characters start making really unlikable choices. Which they often do, of course.

To get to the point where you've earned a reader's trust, you must somehow get them pretty far into the story. And you get a page or two to hook them initially. That's it.

For me, one of the biggest challenges I've faced is beta readers and critique group members telling me that they hate the main character because she's acting so mean or hateful or whatever. And then I sit back and wonder where they got that from, because in most cases, that's not how I meant to write the character at all. I unravel what made it to the page compared to what was in my head in an effort to figure out what's missing and how to get it to the page.

But in some cases, I did mean to show the main character in a harsher light, although I still hoped the reader would sympathize. In one case in particular, the main character has been through a lot of raw, bitter stuff. The book opens with her being angry and upset. She has open emotional wounds. To make a long story short, I needed to open the book at a certain point in her life, show X, Y, and Z, and then get out of that situation, all by the end of chapter one.

Turns out that "wounded" is really hard to write without coming across as witchy (keeping the blog family friendly . . ). I must have rewritten that chapter fifteen times. In each version, she felt weaker and weaker to me because I had to keep softening her edges. But readers were slowly starting to connect with her.

Even though I wanted to show her realistically angry and pissed off in chapter one, I couldn't. Readers had no way of knowing enough about her at that point to have any kind of sympathy for her. You read vitriol and assume the character is a pretty awful person. So anger and even depression in that context only made her look bad.

My theory is that closing a book after two pages and tossing it to the side is far easier than standing up and walking out of a movie theater two minutes into a film, when you haven't even seen the opening credits. No one walks out that early, and few people walk out ever.

Lots and lots of people give up on books, though.

I could have left the chapter as it was, I suppose, but I can guarantee that by doing so, I would have lost a lot of readers in short order. They wouldn't have held on until they sympathized or even empathized with her.

I've been writing for a very long time (writing seriously for over two decades now), so when I first heard Craig saying that this particular note was pure crap, I wanted to cheer. Oh, how I wanted to. But I couldn't, because for a fiction writer, his opinion doesn't apply. (I wish!)

Sometimes I think I've learned how to write a flawed yet likable character who works from word one, yet far more often than I want to admit, I get the rug pulled out from under me yet again. Betas (had-picked readers I trust) point out why the character isn't working. After initially pulling on my hair and muttering things under my breath, I return to the keyboard and revise yet again. Because when everyone is saying the same thing, they're probably right.

I suppose in some ways, reading about a character in a new book is a lot like meeting someone in real life. You don't tell a new acquaintance about every skeleton in your closet, every bump in your road, every emotional injury. Rather, we get to know people a little at a time, and their personalities and characters are revealed gradually through actions and words. The same goes for characters, even those we've got a tight POV on.

Watching a movie is more like people watching; it's easy in real life to watch completely awful people interact and be nasty. We don't walk away from boredom. (Heck, we'll probably pull out our phones and start taking a video so we can entertain our friends.)

I'll continue working on making my characters just likable enough in the beginning for readers to agree to go on the ride.

But I confess that I'll forever envy Craig Mazin and his fellow screenwriters for their ability to ignore that note, even if the note drives them nuts.

Comments

QueenT said…
While I agree there are some major differences between writing novels and screenplays... I actually don't think it's that different when it comes to the likable thing. I can think of several books that start off with characters that are not likable. You could claim it's because the authors have a certain reputation, but John August and Craig Mazin dispute that theory all the time because the same thing is said in the screenwriting world: "you can't break this and that rule unless you're this person." However, they always argue that if something is brilliant, no one is going to care about certain rules that were broken. I think the word likable needs to be replaced with relatable. There are some writers who are able to make the most hateful people likable by honing into aspects that the average person can relate to. I don't think those relatable moments have to be fluffy... I think it just needs to be human. It's easier said than done... I think accomplishing that balance is difficult. And I think even when you've done it, there will always be some moron out there saying the character needs to be more likable. Which leads to the biggest challenge for writers, knowing when to compromise and knowing when to stick to your guns.

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