Two Keys to Creating Compelling Characters

A good story is driven by its characters. But if your characters are not compelling, the audience simply won’t care if a character achieves his or her objectives: destroying the Death Star, becoming a real boy, getting back to Kansas… or in the case of The Dude (Jeff Bridges), seeking restitution for his ruined rug, because "that rug really tied the room together."  

In order for us to care about a character, the writer must create a compelling character for whom we will hope and fear, and this is accomplished essentially two ways: 

(1) First, the character must have a clear GOAL; this is his or her objective or desire, and depending upon whether the character is a protagonist or antagonist, we should hope/fear they accomplish the objective or hope/fear they will fail. 

(2) Second, LIKABILITY becomes a key ingredient. When we like a character, we naturally begin to hope and fear for them. However, when a character is not likable, which is often the case with anti-heroes and villains, we at least need to be able to sympathize and/or empathize with them along the way. 

LIKABILITY

When a heroic protagonist is created, he/she is usually likable from the beginning. In most genres, the hero who fights for good is introduced with charm, appeal, or magnetism. Moreover, if a character is likeable, sympathy and empathy follow close behind. 

In Elf, it's nearly impossible not to like Buddy immediately. He's a 6'3" man-child. We like that he's so innocent, and we can't help but feel sympathy for him when the truth is revealed that he's not really an elf.

However, when a character is not likeable, such is the case with anti-heroes or villains, empathy and sympathy are created in other ways. 

Sympathy can occur when something awful happens, and it’s out of the character’s control. For example, if a young street thug robs a store and runs out only to be hit by a car, we will probably feel sorry for his injuries, despite his act of thievery. 

Empathy, however, goes deeper by incorporating the audiences’ understanding. 

In Monster, Charlize Theron’s character, Aileen, is a serial killing prostitute. She’s about as unlikable as they come. But when we learn of her past, and the horrendous rape and abuse she endured, we empathize with her situation. It doesn’t mean we condone her acts or feel pity for her, but at least we can fathom why she might commit such awful crimes. 

GOALS & OBJECTIVES

Caring for a character means nothing unless that character has a goal. We don’t care that she walks in a room, talks to a neighbor, or washes the dishes unless those actions affect her in achieving the objectives towards her goal. 

If she is fighting to gain custody of her son, we will care that she washes the dishes because she needs to impress the custody lawyer, who is coming over for dinner.

Remember, creating a likable character who has a clear goal means nothing unless we hope and fear for them. In Taken, for example, we hope that retired CIA agent Bryan Mills is able to save his daughter before it's too late, but we fear that if he fails, she will be lost in the sex slave trade and her life will be ruined.

If the protagonist is able to capture the audiences’ empathy, sympathy, and has an interesting journey to take us on, hope and fear will follow. 

Forrest Gump is charming and kind (likability), has no control over his handicaps (sympathy) and his actions are forgiven by his innocence (empathy). He wants to win Jenny’s heart, and we both hope she will return his love yet fear that she won’t. And this audience connection takes place because we care about Forrest.

 

Michael Schilf, co-founder of TheScriptLab.com, is an acclaimed screenwriter and highly sought after script consultant, with nearly twenty years of experience teaching screenwriting at the collegiate level. His latest work, a memoir, The Sins of My Father, hits bookstores later this year. Visit his blog for insights on story, character, and structure, and follow him on Twitter.