As screenwriters, many of us are attracted to unlikable protagonists. Also called antiheroes these characters go to dark places emotionally and do things most of us wouldn’t ever dream of doing. Robbing a bank, getting revenge and murder are just a few examples. But what happens if your audience doesn’t like your main character? If your antihero isn’t delicately crafted you may risk alienating your audience.
Some fascinating unlikable protagonists include Jordan Belfort (Leo DiCaprio) from The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) from There Will Be Blood (2008) and Travis Bickle (Robert De Nero) in Taxi Driver (1976). We can now add Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) from the upcoming film Destroyer to that list.
Destroyer is a Los Angeles noir film about a cop, Erin (Kidman), who’s haunted by her past after letting her greed get the best of her, resulting in dire consequences. The film alternates between current day and 15-years earlier, a time when she worked on an undercover sting. When a current unsolved crime hits her desk, she’s forced to confront her tragic mistakes.
Erin is a bad cop, a bad partner and a bad mom – which is exciting when you think how few screwed-up, hard-shelled female protagonists are ever seen in film (Aileen Wuornos in Monster comes to mind). Kidman, made to look ravaged by time and guilt, is extraordinary in the role and it’s easy to see why she took the part. It’s one of the few roles where a woman gets to explore her heinous shadow-side.
I chatted with the writers of the film, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (Aeon Flux, Ride Along, Clash of the Titans) about the best ways to approach an unlikable protagonist.
1. Make them flawed yet fascinating.
Erin is one tough bitch. We like that about her because she’s fearless and has a lot of follow through. Early in the film, she confronts one of her former criminal cohorts Toby (James Jordan) to ask for information. He says he’ll give it to her if she performs a sex act involving her hand. Though it may seem odd, it’s at this moment we begin to root for her because doing such a base act only proves how badly she wants to redeem herself and right the wrongs of her past.
“The idea for Destroyer,” says Hay, “came from character. Erin’s a person who fascinated us; we were never concerned with her being likable or relatable. We thought she was interesting and fascinating.” The writers came up with the character about 10 years ago, so they had a lot of time to, “spend thinking and feeling through who she was,” says Hay.
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2. Give them something likable.
Though Erin hasn’t been a good mother, she has a self-awareness about it. She also loves her daughter deeply. This makes her relatable. She also wants her daughter’s life to be better than hers. Manfredi says, “Erin is a parent who is a ‘do as I say not as I do’ person.” Most parents have had those moments and can see Erin’s positive intentions. After all, it’s pretty rare to find someone who’s entirely bad.
3. Reveal their pain.
Erin doesn’t have a lot of dialogue and that was on purpose according to Hay and Manfredi. Her past is just too difficult to speak about. We see her pain in the way she walks, and on her ragged face. The writers invested a lot of emotional subtext beneath the limited dialogue and the silences. They also found an amazing actress to let it bubble up. “We felt more for her than any other character we’ve written. One of the things Nicole said after reading the script was that she’d never seen a character so driven by shame,” says Hay.
4. Give them a sympathetic goal.
An audience will go along with an unlikable character if they have a goal we admire. In this case, Erin wanted to catch the bad guy and also give her daughter a better life.
“We trusted she wants to accomplish something right and good. We had faith in her destination,” says Manfredi.
5. Know that unlikable protagonists aren’t for everyone.
Writing an antihero is a risk and it’s not one big studios will usually bet on (The Wolf of Wall Street is an exception). Most likely your antihero-led script will end up as an independent film and there’s nothing wrong with that. Just know that going in.
Destroyer opened Dec. 25, 2018.
Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera’s Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards