by Douglas Eboch (@dougeboch)
I considered titling this article “7 Ways to Make Us Care About Your Story,” because it’s really the same thing. The only reason we’ll care about your story is if we care about your characters. We stay engaged in the plot of a movie because we want to find out what happens to the people on screen. But too many young writers only think about their characters in terms of how they advance the plot. And as a result, their screenplays are lifeless and mechanical.
So here are seven ways to make us – the reader or audience – care about your characters, and therefore your story.
1. Make your characters feel like real people with real lives.
I read a lot of screenplays where the main character is a loner with no family or friends, so committed to their job they have no hobbies or politics or religion or outside interests. Real people aren’t like this. Real people have messy, complex lives. They have a variety of interests and beliefs. And the more your characters feel like real people, the more we will care about them.
There are a few rare stories that require a monk-like loner lead, but if you could substitute another character in your story and it still works, yours is not one of these types of stories. Give your characters family, friends, annoying neighbors, pets, hobbies, hopes, dreams, passions, worries… all the things you have in your life.
2. Make your character vulnerable.
Giving your character a weakness makes them human. None of us are perfect, so it’s hard to relate to a perfect character, and it’s human nature to root for the underdog. Knowing the character can be hurt (physically or emotionally) makes us fear for them as they undertake their journey. The character’s vulnerability could be a personality flaw, a weakness in a crucial skill, or something they treasure that could be taken away from them.
3. Make your character great at something.
We like people who are talented and exceptional. It means they have value in the world. This may seem like a contradiction to my last point, but it’s not. Many of the best characters have something they’re really good at and something they’re really bad at. Think about the character of Dr. House from the television series “House.” He’s a self-absorbed drug addict, but he’s also the greatest doctor in the world.
4. Give your character personal stakes in the story.
Sure, the world may be threatened by the invading aliens, but what does your character personally stand to lose? If they are a mono-focused loner, probably not much. Something should be at risk in the story that affects the character’s life. This is why it’s so important that they actually have a life (see point #1). What is your character fighting for? Why? What happens to them if they succeed? What happens to them if they fail? In Independence Day Captain Hiller is as concerned with finding and saving his girlfriend as he is with defeating the aliens.
5. Give the character goals we can root for.
Producers and executives often talk about a character’s “likeability,” but just because someone is a good person doesn’t necessarily mean we will care about what happens to them. We care when the character’s goal is something we can get behind. We’ll root for even an unlikable character if they have a noble goal.
6. We care about people who suffer injustice.
Humans have a strong sense of fairness, so one sure way to get us to care about your character is to make them a victim. We will root for that character to get what they are due – to get justice – because we want to believe that the world is fair.
7. Surround the main character with good people who need and/or like the main character.
The likability of the supporting characters transfers onto the main character if the supporting characters’ fates are in the main character’s hands. In Little Miss Sunshine, the father, Richard, is a self-absorbed loser. But Olive is depending on him and she’s so sweet and adorable, we care about Richard because we care what happens to her.
It is not enough to simply set up these things in the first few pages of your screenplay. Throughout the story we need to see how the events of the plot are affecting the character and their life. The more we care about the character, the more emotionally involved we’ll be with the outcome of the story.