Characters That Make Us Care
Updated: Mar 24, 2019
Like most people (whether they’re conscious of it or not) I go to see a film hoping to discover interesting #characters to care about, to identify with, people that I can feel empathy for, because in them - I see me. Whether their battling intergalactic aliens or just a noisy neighbor next door the heroes of films are the audience’s proxy for the adventure. We can’t be IN the film, so the hero is the vehicle through which we go on that journey. So I need #heroes that engage me and make me want to follow them. And I need that audience-to-hero engagement to happen fast. Otherwise, I’m checking my watch and headed for the door.
Introducing Your Hero: The Crucial Opening
The first 5-15 minutes of a screenplay (and thus a film) are the most critical part of the whole enchilada. That may seem like an obvious point to make, but it’s worth examining because obviously not every #film or #TV show gets it right. Those opening pages/ minutes are where the everyday life of a hero is revealed. This is their world. The #screenwriter is inviting the audience in to have a look around… and to care.
To get emotionally invested in the hero before their world is turned upside down. Once the inciting incident happens – that moment when the terrorists take over the building/ a killer shark upsets a small-town sheriff’s plans for a peaceful life/ an upstart wannabe-leader challenges the new king of Wakanda’s right to rule his people – we better give a shit about the hero already, or the screenwriter has failed and their audience will be bored.**
**unless you’re of a certain age where special effects are all that matter.
So how, as screenwriters (or writers in general) DO we make the audience care enough to buckle up and take the ride?
How Do I Make An Audience Care?
The most critical part to writing interesting characters lies in how you introduce your character to your audience. Just like in real life, you only get one chance to make a first impression. You have to make it count. Your character can and should become more and more interesting and complex as your story progresses, but the foundation for all that follows is in how you first present the hero to us and make us care about them.
Some of the ways to make the audience care usually involves showing one or more of the following:
your hero’s primary skill in action
that people love or admire your hero
that your hero has a personal code of conduct we can relate to
your hero suffering an undeserved misfortune
your hero caring about someone other than themselves
It’s important to note that the above list is just as applicable to a mob boss like Michael Corleone (The Godfather) as it is to the Black Panther or Happy Gilmore.
For some great insights into how Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) at Pixar writes interesting characters and gets his audience to care, check out this video:
An even better way to learn how to write interesting characters by first giving them great introductions, is to see how others have done it. Below are a few examples that I love.
Introducing Your Hero: Five Great Examples
Breaking Bad – Walter is left out in the desert in his broken down caravan dressed in his underwear. We see how he’s passionate about his job and loves his wife and handicapped son. That’s when he gets hit with the news he has cancer. By then we like him, so WE CARE.
Gladiator – Maximus is liked by his soldiers for being a skilled general who cares about and inspires them. He is liked by the emperor’s daughter and makes the emperor’s son jealous. He misses his family and keeps wooden carvings of their likeness. Then he’s betrayed and must flee for his life. WE CARE.
Casablanca – Rick is the owner of the hottest café in town. People want to know him. Women want to sleep with him. He says he “sticks his neck out for no one”, but he has a warm relationship with his black piano player and helps a young couple desperate for money to win at his casino. Then the old girlfriend who dumped him walks into the bar. WE CARE.
Rocky – He’s a blue-collar everyman, struggling to get by. He gets his face bashed in boxing for nickels, but he loves it and he’s pretty good at it. He collects debts to pay his own bills but doesn’t like being the bad guy. He has a crush on nerdy girl at the local pet store and he loves dogs and turtles. He’s such an underdog, that when the world champ gives him a shot, WE CARE.
The Godfather – Vito Corleone holds a lavish party for his daughter’s wedding. He is feared and respected by all who seek his favors. He holds loyalty above all else and rewards those who show him the same. His love for his family and his status in life makes us (God help us) CARE. Oh, and he likes his cat. So he can’t be all bad, right? (*choking on fur ball)
For some in-depth tips on how #screenwriters can write interesting characters like these, I recommend having a look at Michael Hauge’s book “Writing Screenplays that Sell”.
After reading the examples I’ve given above, the techniques in Chapter 3 – Character Development – will make more sense. They’ll definitely get you excited about making your own #characters come alive.
Now go forth and write, screenwriters! Make heroes and villains and new worlds come alive. But remember this most important of things: