Monday, June 8, 2009

Discussing May/June With Andrew Shearer, Pt 2

When I first saw the title of Mystery Man’s recent article I [Heart] Unsympathetic Protags, I was very excited, as I naturally “heart” unsympathetic protagonists. But after reading it, I’m not so sure “unsympathetic” is the right word anymore. (And yes, his name is Mystery Man -- check out his “head” shot in the mag.) On one side of the coin, I think Mystery Man is right on when he talks about how you can enjoy an unsympathetic protag for his “contradictions and depth” and how you sympathize with the people affected by that protag.

Although not a protagonist, I think the substance of that idea is what makes The Joker from The Dark Knight so fun to watch. Ray Morton mentions in his article, Good Examples: Jonathan Nolan on The Dark Knight, that writers Nolan and Goyer left out any kind of definitive backstory to The Joker on purpose. So instead of winding up with forced sympathy for The Joker, we’re left with a Joker maniacally offering contradicting reasons for his scars, making him all the more fascinating to watch. But more often, despite how unsympathetic a protagonist you construct, I think it’s important at some point to eventually feel at least a little sympathy for him or her.

The very first film I think of when I think unsympathetic protagonists is In the Company of Men, the dark comedy by Neil LaBute. It’s a brilliant film about two corporate execs who are so bitter about love, they decide to find a woman, simultaneously date her, then both break up with her at the same time to screw all women over in one fell swoop. See it if you dare. These guys are the definition of assholes, no holds barred, but when one guy starts competing with the other for the girl, we actually start to feel sympathy for the guy losing out. It doesn’t make the guy a “sympathetic” person in general, but having sympathy for him during his pathetic downfall is the only reason the story stays engaging.

Mystery Man cites Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino as unsympathetic, but I disagree. He is flawed, not unsympathetic. His racial slurs, the way he takes things into his own hands, are flaws which make him interesting to watch. But we also know he just lost his wife. If that doesn’t immediately make him a sympathetic protag, then I don’t know what does. I think this last example underlines the point that a deeply flawed protagonist is often one audiences will wrap themselves up in, but not a purely unsympathetic one. I agree with Mystery Man -- down with the wimpy execs and the phony pro-readers! But the movie I want to see, the ride I want to go on, is the one where I’m presented with a protag so flawed there’s no way I’ll ever love him or her, but then by the end, I feel true sympathy for what they are going through. What do you think?


A redneck from Small Town, North Carolina (population 8,000, high school drop-out rate 40%), one day decided to tackle the film industry. Andrew’s film-school short, Son Up, based off his experience teaching at a juvenile hall, ended up winning seven festival awards and made the regionals for the Student Academy Awards. Andrew’s feature script version of Son Up, co-written with Nick Sherman, went on to win first prize at Cinequest. Then one day, the screenwriting gods shined their rarely shown light down from the Heavens and awarded the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship to Andrew and Nick for their feature script, Holy Irresistible. The duo is now repped by Endeavor and Brillstein Entertainment. They have two projects in development and are lucky enough to be co-writing a spec with another writer they’ve admired for years.


  1. You hear this question from agents and CEs all the time: "Why do we like this guy?" Meaning, why would an audience want to hang out for two hours with your main character. But that doesn't mean sympathy. We want to empathize with a character not sympathize. Strong characters resonate internally. Consciously or unconsciously, I'm feeling a part of my self in the character. Jack Nicholson in As Good As it Gets is a decent example. He's unsympathetic, but you empathize with him because he gets to say whatever he thinks, no matter how rude or politically incorrect. As despicable a human being as he is in act one, we want to hang out with him because we want to feel (empathy) that kind of freedom.

  2. I agree - but isn't it really a matter of degree?

    That feeling you get when you realize that you're feeling sorry for that unbelievable a-hole in IN THE COMPANY OF MEN is so intense you really feel the weight that a unsympathetic protagonist can have.

    That doesn't mean Eastwood's character in GRAN TORINO couldn't be classified as unsympathetic - it's just to a lesser degree.

  3. Is Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando a sympathetic or unsympathetic protagonist? He's portrayed not only as sympathetic, but as a hero in the film. His daughter was kidnapped and he went save her from evil men. Of course Arnold killed 81 people along the way and had funny one liners for many of the ways he mutilated them. How do you define that character?

  4. That's a good question, Anon. I had a lot of the same questions about Taken with Liam Neeson. I liked the movie, and it was all done in the "he is justified because it is his daughter and these are bad guys" mode. However, if you've seen the movie, he does some fairly unconscionable things himself -- like with his friend's wife and his daughter's friend. In those moments, he loses my sympathy, even if his ultimate goal is noble.

    I wonder if these avenging-my-family-type action flicks have rules unto themselves?

  5. I'll pipe in quickly to respond to Ken's post only to say empathy is a whole separate conversation. Sometimes we want to empathize, not always, but again, a separate conversation. My point was, at some point in the film, usually, we want to feel SOME sympathy for what the character is going through. I agree with your point about Jack, but I do think at some point in that film, you feel sorry for him for the fact that he keeps putting himself in a position where he screws up his life. Kind of like Mark Ruffalo does in You Can Count On Me. -Andrew Shearer


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