Home > Movies, Writing > Lovable Losers: How to Create A Sympathetic Protagonist

Lovable Losers: How to Create A Sympathetic Protagonist

While I was in Chicago last weekend, I was able to take in my first Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field. The entire place was ripe with history, and the lack of a scoreboard let you know that this park was meant for baseball. Not spectacle, not show, but baseball, the American pastime.

Wrigley Field

Of course, while thinking about that history it’s hard to not remember that the Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908. But that legacy didn’t seem to put a damper on the fans at all, as everyone showed up to root on the Cubs against the hated cross-town rival White Sox. Naturally, this translates perfectly to film.

Chicago Cubs Logo

As an audience we all want to cheer on the underdog, the lovable loser. All successful protagonists have been a loser of some kind, whether they be a loser in love, business, or any other facet of life. When creating a protagonist, it is essential to set up that they are the underdog in some respect and have something they need to change in their lives. Otherwise, why would we cheer them on?

R.P. McMurphy

Jack Nicholson as R.P. McMurphy

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), R.P. McMurphy is the quintessential loser. To avoid a jail sentence for battery and gambling, he decides to take the ‘lesser’ sentence by feigning insanity and ending up in a mental institution. However, the plan backfires as he ends up under the care of the brutal Nurse Ratched, and begins to sympathize with the fellow patients.

Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched

A classic arc, we can clearly see the growth of the character of R.P. McMurphy. He begins as a loser for being completely narcissistic and working only for his benefit. We root for him to grow and change because we can see the persecution and terrible conditions the patients are living in. McMurphy’s growth is complete when he performs the selfless act of sacrificing himself for the others, ending up in electroshock therapy. The R.P. McMurphy we knew is gone, literally.

Butch and Sundance

Robert Redford and Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

There is perhaps no greater overthinkers in film history than Butch and Sundance from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Legendary for their ability to rob banks and trains, they are losers not because of themselves, but because of the world around them. Times change, and they are having a hard time keeping up. As the law gets closer and closer Butch hatches his final plan: leave America for the greener pastures of Bolivia. Even significant other Etta Place realizes this is a bad idea and leaves Bolivia, stranding Butch and Sundance. In a final act of desperation, Butch and Sundance take on the entire army of Bolivia.

The Final Shootout

The case of Butch Cassidy is an example of a character with a need to evolve and change, but the complete inability to. Where R.P. McMurphy evolved to his sacrifice, Butch fights right until the end. We root for Butch for nostalgic reasons, cheering for a simpler time. We root right alongside him, but we know he cannot win. Nothing can stop the tides of progress, and Butch and Sundance pay the price for that.

Jake and Elwood Blues

Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in The Blues Brothers

I would be hard pressed to not end a Chicago inspired blog without using the example of two of their native sons. From The Blues Brothers (1980), Jake and Elwood are struggling to pull their lives back together after Jake ended up in jail. The characters already know they need to change their lives, but they’re not sure how. Instead of getting on the right side of the law, they end up staying right where they were, but on a ‘mission from God’ instead. In an increasingly rare twist in modern film, Jake and Elwood find religion in their own quirky way, and they take to their new task the same as they used to take to crime. They get the band back together and lead us on one of the wildest road trips to ever hit film. In the end their faith ends them right back where they started, Joliet prison.

Car Chase through a Mall in The Blues Brothers

Another example of characters fighting against changing times, Jake and Elwood embody a bygone era. The rhythm and blues days are gone, but that is all Jake and Elwood know, so they keep ploughing forward, even getting their friends to buy into their illusion. The charade keeps up despite stolen bookings, and an increasingly large hoard of police on their tails. This lack of a change, however, is a change. Unlike in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Jake and Elwood have a reason not to change. They need money to save an orphanage, and this gives us cause to root for them through the entire film. It also gives us and the characters cause to accept their arrest at the end of the film, with their mission having been completed.

All in all, we always cheer for the underdog. The term ‘loser’ may be harsh, and may not apply to all characters, but the rule holds true. Characters need to have something to change internally before they can be sympathetic to an audience.

How do you craft a sympathetic ‘loser’ protagonist? What are some of your favorites? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Zac Hogle is a writer/director who has worked on several nationally broadcast series and documentaries. You can follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/zhogle.

All images and videos are the copyright and property of their respective holders. No infringement is intended.

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Categories: Movies, Writing
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