The Good Guy Rule

Whatever your script's heroes are, they had better be likable.

In the book Save The Cat, Blake Snyder talks about ensuring the likability of your hero with a pertinent example: early on, have your hero perform an act of compassion. Like risking his life to save a cat, for example.

While this is good, it's not really enough. Likability is constantly in jeopardy, and depends on every single choice the hero makes.

I got to thinking about this because of a recent story arc on the (new) Battlestar Galactica, where we find Apollo feeling a yen for his longtime pal, Kara Starbuck. The two were split up for awhile, and during that time each married someone else. But then when they came back together they realized they had feelings for each other.

It's a tricky situation, which can be milked for many episodes of quality drama (or melodrama, depending on how you look at it). I realized that when it comes to resolving this crisis, there's only one thing that Apollo can do if he's to remain likable: he must stay with his wife.

The inviolable rules of story dynamics demand it.

In movies, we want our heroes to do the right thing, even if in life, we might not. In movies, the equations are far stricter and the definition of right and wrong much narrower than in life. Though life is made of shades of gray, movies -- no matter how technicolor -- always deal in black and whites. 

Apollo could leave his wife and remain likable only if: 1., she sins, or 2., she dies. If she sins (like, if she cheated on him), then she's no longer good, and she deserves what she gets. If she dies, then she's no longer an obstacle, and Apollo is free to find solace in Starbuck's arms.

But Apollo's wife did neither. She remained alive, and she remained good -- self-sacrificing, she told him to go do what he needed to do. (Self-sacrifice, by the way, is the chief distinguishing factor of the good guy.) She remained good, and thus could not be transgressed upon, if Apollo were to remain likable.

This leaves Apollo with only one option: he must realize the error of his ways, and remain with his wife.

If he left her, that would be a bad thing. He would be doing a bad thing to a good person. And in movies, the good guy cannot do that and remain likable.

To remain likeable, the good guy must do good to good people. If Apollo's wife were to sin, and do bad, then he could do bad in return -- because a good guy can only do bad to a bad person.

This may seem fairly simplistic, but it's the key to making your characters likable. The character who does good to good people and bad to bad people is likable, no matter what else he does.

Don't believe me? Consider The Godfather's Michael Corleone. He does real bad stuff -- he kills people! Why is he still a good guy? Because, as Arnold said in True Lies, "Dey were all bad." All the people Michael kills are bad. He remains likable because all the people he kills have sinned against him. They deserve what they get.

How about Hannibal Lecter? This guy is really bad, worse than Michael Corleone. He's not only a murderer, he eats people! But we like him. Why do we like him? Because he only does bad to bad people -- when we leave him he's heading off to eat the evil psychiatrist. And he does good to our good guy Clarice by helping her out.

There are those who say Hannibal's likable because he's intelligent and charismatic and charming, in his way, and that helps. You may feel that you've got likability sewn up because you had your hero save a cat and because he's kinda funny and a snappy dresser -- but that's not nearly enough. Lecter, Michael, and all the rest are likable because they follow the Good Guy Rule:

The good guy does good to good characters, and does bad to bad characters.

As with any rule, there are likely to be exceptions. But don't be fooled -- "exceptions" to this particular rule amount to stretching the rule rather than breaking it.

For example, a good guy can violate the Good Guy Rule and still be likable, provided he eventually repents. Typically the violations will be done under duress or through ignorance or loss of self-control. To maintain likability the good guy must see the error of his ways and repent, and do right by any he's injured.

Also, the Good Guy Rule can be violated more freely if the good guy HIMSELF is the only victim of his bad actions -- think biopics like Ray or Walk The Line -- but he must wise up by the end. If not, you've got a tragedy on your hands, and while tragedy is a valid dramatic form, it's not a big draw in today's screenwriting market. If that's your story and you're sticking by it, fine -- but bear in mind you'll have an uphill battle on your hands. You're better off leaving that for an advanced maneuver later in your career.

Maintaining likability can be a pain in the ass. Some take it too far, and wind up with shallow, predictable heroes, and that's a shame. There's a lot of room to fool around with this equation, to make characters complex and interesting. Consider the examples we've discussed, and you'll see that you can create any kind of character you like -- so long as he does good things to good people and bad things only to bad people, he will always be a good guy. And he'll always be likable.

The Good Guy Rule: one of the basic laws of screenwriting. Ignore it at your peril!

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