Have a nasty screenplay character? Go for it!
A lot of screenplay courses and books tell you that if you have a character who is unlikeable at the start, you should give him at least one positive characteristic or foreshadow his transformation. There’s nothing wrong with that–in fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve recommended that myself for certain projects. However, it’s not a rule set in stone.
If we look at Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, what is there to like before he first ghost visits? Nothing. However, he’s so extreme in his miserliness and miserableness that he’s fascinating. He asks the charity collectors, are there no workhouses? Yeah, put those urchins to work!
In a more recent work–well, 1991–the film The Fisher King, the protagonist, played by Jeff Bridges, is a totally selfish, vain, arrogant man. There’s nothing to like, but as with Scrooge, the characterization was so extreme that it was fascinating to watch him. (Excellent film, by the way–if you’ve never seen it, give it a shot.).
In As Good As It Gets the filmmakers made a small concession to humanizing the character played by Jack Nicholson. Very close to the start they show him going into the bathroom and opening the cabinet to reveal several dozen wrapped bars of soap. He unwraps one, washes his hands with it, and throws it away. We get that he’s not being cruel just for the fun of it, he has problems. That little scene was added after test screenings because audience members reacted too negatively to his character.
In Bad Santa the character played by Billy Bob Thornton is totally sleazy to start with, which is funnier because he’s playing Santa at a mall. Test screenings led to the addition of several scenes that somewhat soften the character. This is what the film’s director, Terry Zwigoff, said about the process, in an interview on Combustible Celluloid:
“The typical thing that happens is they show the film and they get maybe 20 people to stick around. They pay ‘em each 10 or 20 bucks, and then some guy comes running from the back of the house like in a game show, this chipper, upbeat type. ‘Hey how ya doing! Did you like the film? Did you like the ending?’ And you’re sitting there in the back and it’s truly horrifying. It’s like somebody took your baby and threw him up on the stage: What do you like about this baby? Do you like his nose? Maybe we should give him some plastic surgery, wouldn’t that be fun?!!”
The film, written by John Ficarra and John Requa, is also worth a look if you’re a fan of black comedy. Find the director’s cut, which is actually several minutes shorter and quite a bit darker than the original release.
The moral of these stories: if you have an unlikeable character, make him or her so strongly unlikeable that we will be fascinated and will want to hang around to see whether he or she changes. If there’s no transformation, or not a strong one, be prepared for a fight with the powers that be–and test audiences, but if you prevail you will earn the gratitude of the part of the film-going public that is tired of schmaltz.