This week, I had the pleasure of watching Tell No One, last year’s extremely taut French thriller. It’s a movie Hitchcock would have had a field day directing. There’s a likable protagonist who may as well be Jimmy Stewart even though he looks eerily like Dustin Hoffman. His wife has died—but he thinks she’s alive. And the cops think he killed her. So here we already have the plots of Vertigo, The 39 Steps, The Wrong Man, and North By Northwest squashed together. And The Fugitive, of course, though Hitchcock didn’t make that one.
Did I mention the protagonist is likable? Because he is. And it got me thinking, how do characters become so likable so quickly? I have some ideas. Read on, and you, too, will be likable… assuming you live in a movie.
- Be Accused of a Crime You Didn’t Commit.
Why is it that whenever I see a movie about a man on the run from the law, I automatically assume he’s innocent? Is it because, as a member of the audience, I am following this character, am in his head, and I don’t want to be guilty by association? Is it because these characters are usually played by charismatic actors like Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, and Harrison Ford? Am I just one of those people who sees the good in others no matter what? (Spoiler alert: I’m not.)
Whatever the reason, not only do I find it impossible to distrust the main characters in these “wrong man” plots, but I also let them get away with the various crimes they commit in order to extricate themselves from their original predicament. In Tell No One, the protagonist, Alex, must uncover the truth about his wife’s supposed death to clear his own name. But as he tries to clear his own name, he 1) evades arrest, 2) punches a out a guy, and 3) causes a massive car accident on the highway, 4) destroys a street fair stand, and 5) kicks an innocent rat in the face. In The Fugitive, Dr. Kimble escapes from prison, breaks into buildings, steals important documents and even an ambulance. In Burn Notice, Michael Weston steals cars, causes large amounts of property damage, and indirectly causes criminals’ deaths each week, just to learn why he was unjustly “burned.”
I’ll go even further. I’d bet if I saw a “wrong man” movie, I’d allow the wrong man to murder anyone who got in his way. And I’d still like him.
What is wrong with me?
(Important disclaimer: This may not work in real life. In real life, if you are accused of killing your wife, you probably did it. If you are falsely accused, chances are you will go to jail and people will not like you. If you try to evade arrest, you will probably get in trouble even if you are innocent. Sorry.)
More ways to be likable below…
2. Have a Dog.
The excellent (and addictive) website, TVTropes, calls any moment in which a character does something to make himself more Likable to the audience a “Pet the Dog” moment. It doesn’t have to literally involve a dog or petting. For instance, Dr. Kimble’s act of saving a little boy’s life in The Fugitive shows us he’s a nice guy. In Tell No One, Alex, a pediatrician, pets the dog by patiently teaching a toddler the difference between green and blue.
But sometimes—often—characters become likable because they literally pet a dog. Preferably their own dog. Their own adorable dog. Because no villain would ever own or be nice to a dog. Villains aren’t only criminal; they’re mean old doody heads who hate puppies and rainbows and butterflies.
However! If you want to be a likable character, you need to be very careful about what kind of dog you get. If you get a dog that is too small, you will be seen as gay or a psycho or both. Especially if you name the dog “Precious” or something. Villains can also own big dogs like dobermans or rottweilers, but they’re usually not nice to them. They, like Mr. Burns, will treat the dogs harshly so they’ll be nasty to the hero. Unless they’re Nazis. Then they can treat the dogs well, but only by feeding them human flesh.
No, like Alex of Tell No One, you’ll want a medium to large dog so you’re masculine, but with a cute enough face that women will love you. This is the reason Barack Obama spent so much time picking a dog breed and the reason why he eventually settled on a Portuguese Water Dog. Don’t let him fool you. His daughter’s supposed “pet allergy” is just another one of his socialist lies.
By the way, don’t think you can substitute another animal for a dog. Cats are for classy villains like Bond baddies or the Godfather. Birds are for weirdos (see Psycho for details). Monkeys are too tricky and will sometimes sell your girlfriend out to the Nazis. You have to be very careful with monkeys.
3. Care About the Environment.
Bad guys don’t care about the environment. It’s true. The big villains want to destroy the world—which is usually bad for the environment—and the smaller time crooks litter.
That’s lucky for you, the protagonist. Want to get on the audience’s good side? Care about the environment. And, no, it doesn’t matter if the audience actually cares about the environment or not.
Example. In Tell No One, the police are after Alex for a crime he didn’t commit. In the middle of the film, two cops are in Alex’s house, looking for evidence. Up until this point, I disliked the cops, because they were nasty to Alex and didn’t believe him when he said he was innocent. Why shouldn’t they believe him? He’s the protagonist. Obviously he didn’t do it! Damn cops…
But then an amazing thing happens. One of the cops throws a plastic bag in Alex’s garbage can. His boss—wait for it—takes the bag out of the garbage, and, giving his underling a sardonic look, puts it in the recycling bin.
My first inclination was to chuckle. Haha, the cop is recycling. What a silly thing to do in the middle of a murder mystery!
Then I thought to myself, “Holy shit. This movie has decided I’m going to like boss cop. Up until now, he’s been an antagonist. I guarantee now that he’s recycled something, he will be a Good Guy.”
And, lo and behold, not five seconds later, Boss Cop says, “You know, I think Alex is innocent. No one else believes me, but I’m going to help him and prove his innocence.” Suddenly Boss Cop is no longer antagonist but a secondary protagonist! And a likable one! All because he had the urge to pluck a plastic bag out of the garbage and recycle it.
4. If You’re Going to Kill Someone, Try to Make Sure He’s a Child Rapist.
If you aren’t the “wrong man” in the wrong man plot, you won’t be able to get away with as much as you’d like. Don’t worry too much, though. If you really want to off someone, just make sure that someone is a child rapist. Then you can kill the person without losing your likability. You probably won’t go to jail, either.
This is true in Tell No One, but I can’t tell you who did the killing or who the child rapist was without giving away the big ending. But I can tell you this: the child rapist dies, and the child rapist killer gets off Scot free.
You need to be careful, though, would-be vigilante killer. First, you need to be sure the guy (it’s always a guy) is a rapist. A plain old murderer will not do. Second, you need to be sure the guy is CHILD rapist. Regular rapists fall in a gray area, but child rapists in the movies automatically give you a get out of jail free card. I suppose you can get away with killing a rapist who commits incest, but it’d be better if the rapist was committing incest with a child. (Incidentally, if the incestuous child rapist gets away with it, chances are you are not in a regular thriller but a film noir. Then you’re in trouble.) Likewise, you MAY be able to get away with killing a dog rapist, but you will DEFINITELY be allowed to kill a puppy rapist. Just bear that in mind.
There are many other ways to be a likable character. I’ve only just scratched the surface with this example of Tell No One.
Oh, and I almost left out the most important rule!
5. Be Attractive.
It almost goes without saying. Double points if you look good naked.
Now go out there, friends, and be likable! Or is it likeable? Stupid English language… So unlikable…
RE point 1, I think you automatically assume the protagonist is innocent because, like any acolyte of the rule of law, you won’t declare him guilty until he’s been run through some semblance of due process.
And that’s without taking into account any unreliable narrators.
It’s the film world’s equivalent to our American notion of “innocent until proven guilty.” Of course, that really only applies to the protagonist.
As noted in point 3, it’s the exact opposite for potential antagonists. “Guilty until proven innocent”. Until we’re given the visual cue of the Boss Cop recycling, we have no reason to assume that he’s anything but an antagonist.
Are there any “wrong man” films where the main character actually turns out to be guilty?
@Carlos: I like to think I’m that ethical when I’m watching my movies.
@Wade: The only example I can think of in which the “wrong man” is actually guilty is, for lack of a better word, complicated. In the anime, Death Note, Light (the villain) erases his memory so he won’t be caught for his crimes. Now Good!Light (who now can’t remember all the murders he’s committed) is trying to clear his name by helping the police find the real murderer. Which is him.
But that’s not really a good example, because the audience already knows he’s the culprit. I can’t think of one, but there MUST be an example of a movie in which the audience is led to believe the main character is innocent when he’s not.
@Mlawski: Maybe “The Usual Suspect” is an example of a movie in which the main character looks innocent (to a degree) when in fact he is the main villain or at least appears to be.
@Harry: Yeah, that’s probably the best example out there. It’s not perfect, though. In the traditional “wrong man” plot, the protagonist is usually on the run from the cops, trying to find clues, and so on, not sitting around in a police station looking at the china.
I can’t think of an actual movie like that, but there was that one episode of Lost where some guy had locked up Sayid in a basement and was beating him as he claimed Sayid had tortured his wife. Sayid continually denies it, and as the viewer you obviously take his side and believe him, only to find out in the end that it had been him who tortured the woman after all.
Of course that’s also slightly different, as Sayid’s only denying it so the man will continue to beat him up as he feels this is what he deserves – but it’s the closest I can think to a scenario when the likeable character is actually guilty…
I agree the ususal suspects isn’t your usual “wrong man” plot, but I couldn’t really think of anything else.
It could be an interesting movie though, a real “wrong man” film in which he turns out to be guilty.
You see this guy on the run from the cops trying to find evidence. He does some less noble acts, maybe even kills someone. But hey, it was a child rapist. And he’s such a good looking, dog-owning recyclist, he must be the wrong man! And then, when we have been rooting for this guy for 95% of the movie, it turns out he isn’t innocent after all. He really did murder his wife. He wasn’t looking for evidence, he was destroying it. And the child rapist wasn’t one, he was just a witness to the murder.
That would be a blow to the stomach..
Nick: It was Ben beating Sayid, but at the time we thought his name was Harry (my friends and I called him “Not-Harry” before we could remember his real name). I suppose Sayid is an interesting guilty-man, since we are shown how he keeps killing and torturing people but how much that tortures him on the inside, though. He’s one of my favorite Lost characters.
Harry: That sounds really awesome. It would be a great mindf*ck, for sure. I wonder how an audience would receive it? I think we’re so conditioned to believe/know the person is innocent while doing things like what you described, a big reveal like that may be too much for audiences. It would have to be done very, very well, since it goes against the grain oh so much, but with the right execution, it could actually be a ground-breaking success.
Mlwaski: I got chibi-stylye stickers of Light and L at the comic book convention in Seattle last weekend. Light is sucking his finger. I have the gal’s card somewhere…
Actually, that Korean TV Show you have at end is VERY likable. You can watch all 150+ episodes with English subtitles at http://www.mysoju.com.
Warning – it is very addictive. Well acted, good characters you root for, and story will grab ahold of you quick.
I’ve a vague memory of an episode of one of the Star Treks where Miles O’Brien has to go on the run because everyone thinks that he’s been brainwashed into a terrorist plot. The whole episode is him trying to figure out who the real terrorists are and clear his name. Then right at the end there’s a climactic gun battle and he gets shot… and suddenly REAL O’Brien walks out from behind a pillar, because it turns out that the one you had been watching all along was a robot duplicate and, yes, part of a terrorist plot (although Faux’Brien himself is as surprised by this as the audience is, for about two seconds before he dies).
@Stokes: Marcus. Sorta. Ish.
@stokes: Thanks for helping my argument! You’re right; robot O’Brien was guilty, but since he didn’t know it, and since he died for absolutely no reason, he STILL remained likable. In fact, at the end of the episode I found him even more sympathetic than “real” O’Brien, which is quite hard to do.
Also, thanks for helping add to my lifelong argument that Deep Space Nine (which this episode was from) is the best Star Trek incarnation out there.