It’s often argued that for a script to work, the main character or characters need to be likable. Now, there are a lot of examples of successful movies with unlikeable characters (Nightcrawler, The Social Network, Inside Llewyn Davis), and no small amount of dissenters willing to bring them up at a moment’s notice.
But the fact remains that the vast majority of beloved, commercially successful, and technically proficient movie scripts have a character or characters that audiences love to love. So, instead of settling for a vague idea of how a character can charm the audience, here are four reliable ways of making a character likable.
One method that won’t be discussed here is the idea of “Saving The Cat”, the famous cinematic device involving a character doing something “nice” and showing their best aspects to the audience. A character doing something good (when organically connected to the plot) is useful for making a character seem noble or kind or moral, which not everyone finds likable or interesting.
The following methods deal first with a character’s situation, and then with how a character behaves, who they are. Perhaps it would be more precise to write: here are four tools through which a character can endear themselves to an audience, rather than have a writer create an endearing moment for them. Using these tools will get an audience invested in your leads and side characters, in your heroes and villains, without requiring you to burn pages saving cats.
Characters who are in difficult situations tug on our heartstrings. Whether it’s underdogs like Rocky or the misfits from Dodgeball, or people in truly dreadful circumstances featured in war or horror films, audiences feel sympathy for people in distress. We naturally want the heroes of a story to succeed, and the more difficult their journey, the more badly we want them to achieve their goal. This isn’t a new technique, but clarifying our understanding of what’s difficult in a person’s life helps us understand what we specifically want them to overcome. Be specific. Harry Potter’s home life isn’t just difficult, he lives under the stairs. His story might be about good and evil, magic wands and Muggles, but we care because he finds a new home and a new family for himself.
When we identify with someone, we root for them. Think about Falling Down or God Bless America. Both are movies where ordinary people commit violent or destructive acts, but we support the main characters because we understand exactly how they feel about the difficulties of life that pushed them too far. When a character loses their job or their relationship ends for a relatable reason, we empathize. We think “they are like me” or “I feel their pain”. This is why there are so many films about “ordinary people”. Film has the ability to make us feel what a character feels, and in so doing, encourage us to follow their story. This principle works for drama, romance, comedy, and so much in between. When someone expresses a thought we had privately, we rejoice that we’re not alone.
It’s a fact of life and of chemistry that people like people who make us giggle or guffaw. Even when characters do irresponsible, illegal, or inconsiderate things, we’ll still root for them if their banter is witty. It’s the difference between a crime and a caper, a scallywag and a scumbag. If the Guardians of the Galaxy aren’t as funny as they are when we meet them, we might not as readily get behind these killers and criminals. Consider Dr. Gregory House from the critically acclaimed and long running House. He was acerbic, selfish, lazy, and arrogant. But he was funny. Even when his jokes were at the expense of others, we appreciated that he was making jokes. He would lie, betray his friends and patients’ trust, and do an incorrigible amount of drugs, and we would still like him, because he made us laugh while he did it. And speaking of House…
If a character is exceptionally skilled at something, we can forgive a lot of their failings. There is a cavalcade of talented but terrible characters headlining some of the biggest hit shows of the past ten years. Don Draper is an unfaithful liar, but he’s a great ad man. Sherlock is callous to the point of cruel, but he finds out who done it. Walter White peddles meth, but like, the best meth. Admittedly, this tool works better when someone’s talent positively contributes to the public good, even if they misbehave in their private lives. Whether it’s cops or doctors, being talented provides a lot of leeway for bad behavior.
So there you have it. Write funny, talented characters who face difficult situations in a relatable way before eventually succeeding. Not that hard, right?