It looks a lot easier than it is. You don’t want a boring, paint-by-numbers protagonist leading the charge in your screenplay, regardless of genre, so you decide to switch things up, create a character with some edge, someone flawed. Not a bad thought, points for originality. But beware of the inherent dangers here. There is a veritable minefield of mistakes awaiting those who want to create the next great anti-hero (especially when there is a desire to keep the story commercially appealing to producers, agents and actors). The writer must skate a thin line between damaged and unsympathetic. Execute things properly and you get the former, go too far and you’re stuck with the latter, and the latter means one thing – PASS.
Flawed protagonists are definitely the most interesting leads in any movie. Why? Because none of us are perfect. We’ve all made mistakes both big and small, and lived to regret them and face the consequences. So, watching someone up on the big screen stumble makes him or her instantly relatable. Look at the movie ‘Jaws’. Sheriff Brody fails to shut down the beach to the public despite knowing of a shark’s presence and the danger it brings. A boy dies because of it and Brody is called out for his mistake and slapped by the boy’s mother. He literally shrinks on screen before us but the audience doesn’t hate Brody in this scene, just the opposite in fact, we feel awful for him because we can sense the regret and guilt weighing heavily on his soul. Brody wants to change things around now and make amends and we root him on every step of the way until he takes down the beast (‘Smile you son of a bitch!). For another example look at the Jason Bourne trilogy. Here we have a man who was trained as a government assassin and went on several missions while working for the C.I.A., executing when orders called for it, even if innocents were harmed in the process. This is a potential deathblow for any lead in terms of audience sympathy. So, why do we root him on? Because like Brody in the example above, Jason Bourne regrets his actions and decides to steer clear of his previous acts and even use his skills against his former employers. Now we have a sympathetic lead worthy of redemption (always great thematically), and more important, worthy of our respect and attention.
However for every ‘Bourne’ and ‘Jaws’ there are a million misses. Writers create lead characters that are gangsters, killers, ex-cons, and thieves. The problem most of the time is that the author gets so caught up in the ‘cool’ factor that he or she neglects to make the protagonist sympathetic so we’re left with a degenerate who is content to stay that way. Who is supposed to care about this lead? This crosses genre lines to comedy as well. The success of a film like ‘Wedding Crashers’ has inspired many scribes to sit in front of their computers and punch out stories about immature men without including any of the key elements touched on above. The characters played by Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson both learn from their experiences and they mature accordingly, leading to an ending where both are committed to the women they love (far from the fast talking womanizers they were in the beginning). See the transformation? The growth? The problem with most of the clones spawned by these movies is that the writers are missing the big picture. Creating an edgy, flawed character is only half the battle. There needs to be an arc present as well and it’s pivotal that we care enough about the lead as an audience to follow him or her through the important transformation and root for them to come out on the other side better for it.
Do it right and you’ll have a protagonist the audience won’t soon forget. Miss the mark and most readers will grow indifferent before act two and toss the script onto the slush pile.