While most of my career has been based in reality television, I co-authored a spec comedy script several years ago that garnered the same note again and again everywhere it was read and covered: “The lead character isn’t likable enough.”
Our lead was a womanizing darts hustler who is forced, through a magical event, to see the error of his ways… but before the realization sets in, the guy burns up a lot of screen time being a huge jerk. Readers worried that the lead character, despite learning his lesson late in the film, was so off-putting at the onset that no one would invest in his later redemption.
I had to admit… they had a point. Who cares if some complete tool learns his lesson or not?
A character who is saccharine-sweet from the outset, however, is just as hard to root for. One major actress I know has a mandate for projects she’ll consider that I’ve always disliked — her characters must never be wrong, never be cruel, and always prevail. Basically every film she’s made since she decided this was the way to go — good girl faces adversity and succeeds in the end through virtue and goodness — has been a predictable morality play.
When characters don’t have flaws, it’s tremendously difficult to elicit empathy from the audience. Look at Forrest Gump… if the likable Hanks character didn’t have such a low IQ, would we have experienced such joy watching him stumble improbably through great achievement after great achievement? Would we cheer on a Horatio Alger character if, instead of poverty, he was merely trying to work his way from rich to richer?
Since storytelling is storytelling, Reality TV has to play by the same rules… going too far in either direction with how castmates are introduced and later interact will lead to audience disengagement. What you need isn’t a Jerk or a Goody Two Shoes, but a Diamond in the Rough who can make mistakes and learn from them.
To that end, I’ve always felt it was important in making initial cast introductions that you establish flaws and personal stakes as quickly as possible in heroes and villains alike. Let’s say the “Jerk” of our show is a Beverly Hills real estate agent bent on crushing her competition, a smaller, friendlier company staffed by a just-married husband and wife team 25 years younger than she is. Seems like a pretty clear-cut setup, right? Well, sure… but it leaves you with nowhere to go. Her background package should include what comic-book aficionados would refer to as her “origin story.”
She’s 55 years old and single, just ditched by her fifth husband and dating a charming silver fox who may well become the sixth. Real estate is the only thing she’s ever been good at, and she’s put so much into her career that she now has two adult children who barely have anything to do with her — and whom she’s trying desperately to cultivate relationships with.
Sad, I know. But it’s just what we need to know about her in order to understand that she’s not some one-dimensional crazy person who just wakes up in a ball-crushing mood every day for no reason. Will she change her approach to real estate over the course of the show? Maybe not. But we’ll be hooked on the developments in her personal life… because she’s a diamond in the rough. Her change will occur on a character level completely different from the stated point of the show — the competition between this woman and her young opponents in the real estate world.
How about our “Goody-Two-Shoes,” that young and perky couple she’s up against? If they’re too nice, they’ll be a snooze to watch, too, so we need to explore their flaws at the beginning, too. Maybe they’ve put everything on the line to sell real estate in one of the world’s most expensive markets and are waaaay overextended financially by his insatiable desire to project success with a snappy (and expensive) office on Cañon Dr. They’ve put their plans to have children on hold, and they often blame their temporary troubles on each other.
Now your goody two-shoes couple has something to overcome independently of their archnemesis, the older, established agent. Suddenly, there’s somewhere to go and your potential for story has expanded exponentially.
And that’s what interests viewers.