A PROPHET… And You’re Worried YOUR Character Is Unlikable!
By Jacob Krueger
There are many reasons to brave the shocking violence of Thomas Bidigain and Jacques Audiard’s new film, A Prophet (Un Prophéte). This brilliantly crafted screenplay, which takes you into the brutal world of a French prison through its main character, Malik, makes the prison world of The Shawshank Redemption look like daycare. As you follow Malik’s haunting and deeply affecting journey, you are forced to empathize with people and actions you would normally consider unforgivable, and discover the humanity in characters whose defining traits are not only immoral, but downright horrific.
As screenwriters and screenwriting students, we often worry about the “like-ability” of our main characters. In fact, entire books (Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat for example) have been crafted around the principle that unless your main character is a “nice” person– a saver of cats, a lover of children, a hooker with a heart of gold– an audience will be unable to connect with them or care about them. Writers who cling to this principle often find themselves cut off from their characters, and with them, from their writer’s voice. Much as we often do in our personal lives, such writers find themselves covering up their character’s “true self” for fear of offending some unknown audience who might judge, hate, or worst of all, stop caring about a character who doesn’t conform to society’s ideals.
The result, of course, is boring, lifeless, one-dimensional characters, who neither live, breathe, nor make mistakes: characters who are less real than the people who write them, and therefore not worthy of our attention. Building your movie around a character like this is like taking a cruise in a leaky boat. Without a real character around whom to build your structure, you’re going to spend most of your time bailing out water.
You spend all your time trying to create a character who is likable– only to discover that nobody likes them anyway. So how do Bidigain and Audiard get away with it? How do they manage to make an audience fall in love with a cast of horrible people– while you can’t even get anyone to care about the most noble character in your whole movie? Read on.
But first, a spoiler alert. If you haven’t already seen A Prophet get yourself to a theatre! This movie is way too good to miss. And far too instructive as well. To understand how Bidigain and Audiard can make your heart break for characters who should, by every definition, be “un-likable”, we only need to examine one scene. It comes toward the end of the movie. Cesar Luciani, the white-haired Corsican crime boss, has spotted Malik, our hero, in the yard, standing with his new Muslim friends. This is a huge change, especially in the racially charged atmosphere of the prison. Up until now, Malik has spent every day in the yard with Cesar, forsaking his own Arab people for the protection of Cesar’s Corsican gang. But today, everything is different. Though Cesar doesn’t yet know it, Malik has betrayed him. Cesar’s once powerful connections, both inside and outside the prison, are gone. Malik is the only thing he has left.
Cesar gestures to Malik with a gentle nod of his head to come over. But Malik doesn’t move. Cesar nods again, more desperate now. Still no response from Malik. Cesar makes a decision. He stands up, and walks across the yard toward Malik, crossing the invisible line that divides the Corsican from the Muslim prison population. Malik sends two thugs to intercept Cesar, but the old man pushes right past them. As weakened as he may be, we know what Cesar can do– his limitless capacity for violence. And at this moment, seeing how much power remains in the old man, we fear for Malik. It seems like truly nothing can stop Cesar. And then, one swift punch from a nameless thug, and Cesar is lying on the ground, writhing in agony, exposed for exactly what he is– an old man for whose only remaining connection in the world has just been severed. At that moment, your heart breaks for Cesar.
Even as you feel the emotion, you’re shocked that it’s even possible to feel this way. After all, this is the man who targeted the young Malik, without provocation, and brutalized him until Malik was forced to bend to his will. This is the man who forced Malik to commit the bloody murder that changed him forever, in a scene so shockingly violent that the man in front of me at the theatre started whimpering and waving his hands in front of his face, unable to contain his visceral reaction.
This is a man who has nearly removed Malik’s eye with a spoon, has beaten him, humiliated him, corrupted him, brutalized him, called him an Arab dog, and treated him like a slave. A criminal, a racist, a brutal, corrupt man without a noble or kind bone in his body. How is it possible that you can feel this way about this truly horrible person? Can your heart really be breaking for him? Of course it can. Your heart breaks because you know Malik’s heart is breaking. And of course it is. Because at this moment, Malik is losing the best parts of himself: his compassion, his humanity, and even more. This orphan, this troubled child, raised in a group home without ever knowing his father or mother, is losing the only father he ever had.
Cesar may have been a terrible father. But he is nonetheless a father. He has protected Malik, provided for his physical needs, given him protection, opportunity, power, access, leave-days from prison, and even the possibility of parole. He has bestowed affection and praise. He has turned Malik into a man– and into an image of himself.
In my classes, I often talk about archetypal structure: using supporting characters in a Jungian fashion to reveal the repressed aspects of your main character, and to force your main character to come to terms with the parts of himself that he doesn’t want to even admit are there. In true archetypal fashion, Cesar is both the biggest threat to Malik– the key to unlocking the darkest aspects Malik’s personality– and the loving father Malik so desperately needs. And at this moment, Malik has murdered him. He’s done so literally, by betraying Cesar to the powerful Italian crime boss that Cesar had plotted to kill, and metaphorically, by leaving the old man trembling in the yard at the moment he most needs him. For just as Cesar has been an archetypal father for Malik, so too has Malik been the closest thing Cesar has had to a son. And at this moment, Cesar is losing him.
That’s why, at this moment, you find yourself silently pleading with Malik. Go to him. Go to him. Don’t leave him there, trembling on the ground. A “like-able” character would do it. He’d run to Cesar, embrace him like a father, and the two men would be reconciled, like Billy Elliot and his own terrible father after the final dance sequence. Malik doesn’t. He makes the “unlikeable” decision. And you understand. You empathize. And you care. Because Malik doesn’t have a choice. He has to steel his heart against Cesar, or Cesar will destroy him.
You empathize, because Malik is struggling with the same desire you are feeling as you watch him. The voice in his head saying Go to him. That desperate desire we all have: to reconcile with those who have most hurt us, to be a compassionate person, to have everything be okay. Empathy doesn’t come from like-ability. Just like back in high school. Remember that annoying kid who always wanted to hang out with you? It didn’t matter how nice he was. You didn’t want to spend time with him. Because he wasn’t being himself. He was being who he thought you wanted him to be. Empathy comes from allowing your characters to be who they are, and to pursue what they most want and need, against impossible odds. Empathy comes when you make it hard, and allow your characters to make the decisions, right or wrong, that only they can make.