We’ve all been there: trying to impress your love interest, trying to convince your parents your tuition money hasn’t been wasted, or even just trying not to be picked last in dodge ball. It’s hard to get people to like you. So how can you convince them to root for your main character, especially if they’re an anti-hero or, well, frankly kind of a jerk? This won’t necessarily solve your problems, but here are a few tips.
Save the Cat
This first one comes straight from Blake Snyder’s highly recommended Save the Cat. Simply put, have your protagonist save a cat or do some other altruistic thing to endear them to your audience. You could have them literally save a cat like Ripley in Alien, give bread to starving children like Aladdin in Aladdin, or take on charity cases like Lucy Kelson in Two Weeks Notice. In cases like Aladdin where you protagonist is a thief, your “save the cat” moment might be more necessary. But no matter what, people will find it easier to root for your characters if they actually seem like decent people.
Even though we need to like them, your protagonist can’t be perfect. Generally, your protagonist’s going to have some major flaw. That’s the source of their “unconscious goal.” The thing that they need to fix that they don’t know they need to fix. Lightning McQueen must overcome his ego (Cars), Dianna must overcome her naiveté (Wonder Woman), and Alan Grant must overcome his fear of children (Jurassic Park).
But your characters also need smaller quirks whose primary function is to make them more human. In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder calls this the “six things that need fixing.” In Kramer Vs. Kramer, Ted Kramer needs to learn to be a good father, but he also needs to learn how to cook and struggles to find a new job. He goes through the same kind of shit we do. Indiana Jones may be the coolest professor ever, but he’s terrified of snakes. These character flaws don’t always affect the plot, but they do make your characters more endearing.
This is another Save the Cat tip. Snyder uses it in reference to the premise, but a relatable premise creates relatable characters. As Snyder explains it, your premise should be easy enough to explain to a caveman. It’s primal: revenge, trying to impress a love interest, trying to escape a monster. These are things we can all relate to. Maybe you’ve never had to run from a T. rex, but you may have had to run from Rex. It was terrifying, and you can relate.
Ever been a renown neurosurgeon by day who transitions into a destructive narcissist at exactly 8:25 every night? Me neither. I’m not saying it’s the only reason Do No Harm had the lowest ratings for a primetime drama premier ever, but it certainly didn’t help. It’s hard to relate to a character that’s so specific and so bizarre.
Familiar in Fantasy
But that doesn’t mean that you can’t do fantasy. Far from it. Fantasy and science fiction give writers immense creative freedom to explore new worlds and examine what it means to be human in unique contexts. Otherworldly characters do risk alienating the audience. I mean, who knows what it’s like to be a vampire or a hobbit? But there are still ways we can relate to these characters.
The key is to focus on the similarities between your audience and your subject matter. I don’t know anything about the blood feud between vampires and werewolves, but I can relate to forbidden love. I’ve never had to throw a ring of power into Mount Doom, but I’ve had to face difficult situations that even my closest fur-footed friends could not help me with.
A few months ago, Merriam-Webster posted this fantastic article looking at the different artistic approaches between Star Trek and Star Wars. Trust me, I know a lot of trekkies, but Star Trek doesn’t have quite the same mass following as the Force. The article’s definitely worth a look (and it really emphasizes the importance of diction, which I discuss here).
All of these tricks have one goal: building empathy between your characters and your audience. You want your audience to go on an emotional journey with your characters. That’s empathy. And it’s different than sympathy.
If you hear about a successful lawyer who was diagnosed with AIDS, outed for being gay, and then fired for being outed, you might feel bad for him. That’s sympathy. But you don’t know what it’s like to be him. In 2017, AIDS isn’t as scary as it used to be and most people really don’t care if you’re gay. But when you watch Philadelphia, you go on a journey with Andrew Beckett. You learn what it was like to get AIDS in the early 90s. You experience the fear and the stigmatism. That’s empathy.
To illustrate the point further, consider two of M. Night Shyamalan’s films. In The Sixth Sense, we feel empathy for Dr. Malcolm Crowe. We go on a journey with him. We, the audience, learn that Dr. Crowe is (spoiler alert) dead at the same time he does. It’s just as shocking to him as it is to us. That’s why it works.
In The Village, however, something felt distinctly off. There was just something about The Village that didn’t add up. Most of the characters knew that the village and the monsters were a trick. You know who didn’t know? The audience. It was a gimmick.
Audiences felt taken advantage of and they didn’t like it. Ivy Walker, the blind main character, never learned the truth. It’s hard to go on a journey with someone who doesn’t go on a journey. Sure, you might feel bad for her. You may have sympathy for her. She does live with a bunch of delusional, conniving sociopaths, after all. But it’s difficult to experience empathy with her because you’re going on completely different journeys.
“But wait!” some of you are saying. “Isn’t that just dramatic irony? You know where the audience knows something that the main character doesn’t?” Why yes. Yes it is. In this clip from Harold Lloyd’s 1930 film Feet First, you can see dramatic irony in action. While he’s stuck in the sack, he doesn’t know that he’s being hoisted up on scaffolding. The same is true about the cigar that is thrown out a window and later dropped in the man’s hat and the bucket of paint that is knocked off of the scaffolding.
But you only get an effective emotional payout—you only get empathy—when Lloyd and the other characters come to the same realization as you.
Othello is one massive play of dramatic irony. We all know Iago is trying to ruin Othello’s life. Othello has no idea. When he finds out, his life is destroyed and Iago gets his comeuppance. If Othello was just about someone’s life turning to shit, it wouldn’t be a very good play. It’s the emotional journey and Othello’s realization that he’s been duped that make Othello a great tragedy.
If Ivy Walker learned the truth about her asshole parents, flipped them the bird, and wandered out of the village into the real world like Truman Burbank at the end of The Truman Show, it might of worked. Probably not, but it would have been better.
When you get right down to it, it’s hard to get people to like you, especially with all of your flaws, if you’ve only got ninety minutes to do it, and you’re not even a real person. But these tips will point you in the right direction.