Social Network – unlikable characters

A widely held assumption on successful film is that the lead character of a movie should be likable. However this is not always the case. In both “Catfish” and “The Social Network”, the lead character will doubtless be found unsympathetic by many people. Yet those same people may also find the films quite good. This begs the question of whether a lead character should indeed always be likable?

There are many films, and also TV series, in which the lead character is unsympathetic. The German film “Der Untergang” is a biopic on Adolf Hitler’s final days in Berlin in 1945 – in which Hitler is very much the lead character and in no way sympathetic. In “Gran Torino” Clint Eastwood plays a grumpy bigot. In the hit series Mad Men ad exec Don Draper is a philandering, arrogant man – though he clearly has a lot of charisma. In Entourage, Vince Chance, the nominal lead character is a lazy, dimwitted actor who always lands on his feet and/or atop some gorgeous girl, but perhaps finding him unsympathetic betrays some degree of jealousy on my part!

What compels us to watch the adventures of characters we wouldn’t choose to have a beer with on Friday night? Maybe it is precisely their character flaws that make it an interesting experience, perhaps it is the fact that the film will enlighten us in some way about such unpleasant characters that draws us in. Furthermore, it may be that in such flaws we see our own faults, albeit enlarged. Let’s go back to the two films that were set.

In the documentary Catfish we follow a rather glib and self satisfied young man, Nev Schulman, on a journey of discovery. We see him both mocking and developing genuine feelings for a Facebook family and especially the daughter of that family, Megan. By the end of the film we know that Megan does not exist and that Nev has been bamboozled by a rather sad 40 year old woman. I will confess to a certain amount of pleasure in seeing the smug Schulman so fooled. Especially the scene where Schulman fantasises about taking Megan’s virginity in classic high school jock mode, sets him up nicely for the collapse of the entire fantasy. Perhaps the film might have been more effective if Schulman had been a nicer person. That may have made his initial infatuation more touching, and that might have made the viewer more involved in his shock at the discovery of the fraud. Finally I don’t think that the makers intended us to find Schulman unsympathetic. The whole film reeks of the smugness of Schulman himself, as it is very much a family affair. However, his gentlemanly acceptance of the hoax, and his delicate handling of its perpetrator shows us that he is not really a bad guy, nor are his collaborators. In this he does finally become quite sympathetic.

In The Social Network we see (fictionalised) Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg bring his great creation to life. But there is a Frankenstein element to both the end product and the way Zuckerberg achieves his goal. For the purposes of this paper, I have a problem. Despite his obvious flaws, I found Zuckerberg quite likable. He reminded me of myself and even more of some of my closest friends – which may reflect poorly on me….But
I understand that most people may find him annoying to the extreme. But his character defects tie in directly to his quest. He lacks basic social skills and wants desperately to fit in. From this stems his mission and he pursues it, although it doesn’t bring the rewards he wants, because he never addresses his true problems but works only on a artificial solution: Facebook. This clear mission and his way of solving it makes enthralling viewing.

He is, through all his quirks and ambition a very interesting character to watch, and we care what happens to him and those around him. The script gives him many sharp, clever comebacks and some really good wisecracks. Furthermore the “good guys” are a truly annoying bunch, from his whimpering co-founder to the over the top prep boy twins.

For those who really find him unpalatable there is the consolation that in the end he is all alone, the man who connected 500 million people has no real friends himself.

So there we have in a nutshell the conclusion of the question of whether a character should be likable. The answer is no. They do not have to be likable in the sense that we would want give them a hug, or invite them to our birthday party. We do, however, have to care what happens to them. This may seem contradictory but it is not. A believable character, equipped with both flaws and (some)redeeming features, with an understandable dilemma or challenge. That should lead us to want to know where his or her story is headed. It does help if some slightly sympathetic lines or actions are slipped in, to give us a glimpse of what could be or could have been. It may be precisely that we want to see arrogance humbled, or unkindness cured. Or just to see that no amount of success can lead to happiness for those who betray their few friends. Or perhaps even that evil simply wins in the end, as the Coen brothers wanted us to conclude in “No Country for Old Men”. Redemption is not even a necessity – solid believable character and a clear quest should suffice – and that is hard enough.