Okay maybe love is too strong a word. But how many times have you watched a film and cared about a lead character whose behavior flies in the face of everything you consider moral and just? He’s a bad guy. You wouldn’t want him for your neighbor. You wouldn’t want him for your friend. How do you quell your conscience for hoping to see this guy succeed? And moreover for being willing to spend two hours watching him try? There are plenty of films populated by many bad guys but we’re speaking here specifically about a bad guy who is the star of the film.
Screenwriters know very well that there are certain steps to take when creating a less than stellar main character. Let’s look at a few. Later we’ll see why some of the movie details I’m about to present are so important to how you are impacted by these steps.
Note: There are spoilers in this article but none of these examples involve current films.
The Godfather (1972) is a classic example of bad guys we care about. Don Vito Corleone, and later his sons, Michael and Sonny, were bootleggers and killers. The movie opens at the wedding of Don’s daughter. This pivotal scene is responsible for making the audience like this family. Only after we feel warm and fuzzy about them are we jolted by how ruthless and violent they can be. But they live in a world of violence, where their adversaries are meaner, and not men of their word. What we love about the Corleone clan is that they are loyal to family. The good of the family is their primary concern. We can’t help but see that as an admirable trait. They also have a moral line they won’t cross, although the line kept moving with each subsequent film installment. For Don Vito Corleone, bootlegging and killing was one thing, but he refused to get involved with prostitution. Strong moral fiber indeed!
In the movie The Professional (1994), the lead character Leon, was a professional hit man. Against his better judgment, he gives refuge to a young neighbor girl Mathilda to save her from drug dealers. He tries to protect her because he knows how street people operate and how dangerous they can be. Here’s as dangerous a man as you can find, yet we’re laughing out loud when he dons a silly costume and blinking back tears when he dies.
Bandits (2001) is a buddy film of sorts with two bad guys in the lead. Joe Blake and Terry Collins break out of prison then go on a rampage leaving empty bank vaults in their wake. This comedic duo becomes known as the “Sleepover Bandits”. The last thing they want to do is hurt anyone so they spend the night with the bank managers and their families, then go to the bank in the morning to clean it out with his help. Gotta love’em right?
Some bad guys are really nice guys who make bad decisions. That was the case with Paul Kersey in Death Wish (1974). A mild-mannered architect, Kersey becomes a vigilante and goes on a killing spree that spans five films. Those murders were all based on revenge. He wanted to level the playing field because his family had been taken from him in a most violent way, and this was his way of dealing with it.
When bootleggers, murderers, and vigilantes enthrall us, does it mean we are morally bankrupt? Not at all. The reason people view movies is complex. Overall, we go to see how other people solve problems. If your heart goes out to a despicable character along the way, blame a talented screenwriter. Screenwriters take deliberate steps to build characters with particular traits that they introduce at calculated moments in the film. All these calculations add up to a main character you will reflect on long after you have left the theater. Here are six magic tricks filmmakers use to keep you invested in the story when the lead character is… not so nice.
HOW BAD IS BAD?
If you put human principals on a scale, how bad is your bad guy? Where does he draw the line? One way to gain audience sympathy for him is to surround him with people who are worse, people who make his infractions seem almost reasonable. In the Godfather Don Vito wants to play by rules, but his enemies are untrustworthy men without character, and Don’s hand is forced to protect his family. The Professional also falls into this category. The drug dealers, backed by a corrupt cop, are more ruthless than Leon could hope to be. Luckily, he's a bit smarter.
THEY MADE ME DO IT
Like Paul Kersey, this bad guy didn’t start off that way. He was a law-abiding citizen until someone pushed him to the edge. A main character that experiences a grave injustice, is one the audience will relate to. You will put yourself in their shoes and wonder what you would do under the same circumstances. Hopefully you walk out of the theater knowing you would find a different solution.
HIDING THE UGLY
Remember the heartwarming wedding in the Godfather? Michael even attended in his military uniform, a soldier fighting for American freedom. Is this a great family or what? The filmmakers pulled out all the stops with this one. Up front, they presented the best traits in these characters and tender moments between them so you would be willling to book a ride on the Corleone journey. Once you're on board, the violence is trotted out. But we’re already “in”. It’s too late to hate them so we somehow find a way to tolerate their transgressions.
SHOW SOME RESPECT
And again, Don Vito. In the wedding scene, Don takes time out from the wedding to speak with guests and accept generous gifts on behalf of the newlyweds. It’s clear his admirers respect him. And it’s obvious he tries to repay that admiration with favors. How can you hate a character everyone else respects and adores?
MASTER OF HIS UNIVERSE
No matter how bad your character, no one can resist someone who is ingenious and wildly inventive. One of the best examples rolled into theaters in 2002 when Frank Abagnale demonstrated his creativity in Catch Me If You Can. This guy was extremely good at slipping into someone else’s I.D. Everyone from pilots, to doctors, to FBI agents. He convinced all around him that he was something he was not. There was an interesting message in this movie because Frank broke a lot of laws, but in the end his cunning became the key factor for winning his freedom from prison when the FBI asked him to help them hunt down similar criminals.
People love to laugh and they love people who make them laugh. Joe Blake and Terry Collins were like an Improve act, two funny guys who provided lots of humor and… just happened to rob banks.
The next time you go to a movie and the lead character is a bad guy, you might have a different experience knowing the screenwriter took deliberate steps to get your sympathy. Hopefully, you can put that aside and still enjoy the film.
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