In mainstream screenwriting, great emphasis is placed on creating characters that are “likable” to an audience. This emphasis comes, more often than not, from studio higher-ups (read: the people with the money), who are interested above all else in protecting their monetary investment. If the audience doesn’t like the lead character then they will feel distanced from the film, and nobody will see it, and the people in charge will not make their money back. Or so the thinking goes.
As far as what it means for a character to be ‘likable’ in the first place, well, there are many variables. There are a lot of little industry tricks and tips that get passed around as advice on this front, of which “Save the cat!” is probably the most common. This saying originates in the book Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, a pretty informative (though rigid) guide to Hollywood formula storytelling, and advises one to introduce their character doing something nice, like saving a cat from a tree, so that the audience knows to like them.
Personally, I find tips like this nothing short of groan-worthy and condescending, that we should need to be force-fed the fact that a character is blandly “nice” in order to care about them. This is an area where I think a lot of people get depressingly literal about defining what “likable” means to an audience. We don’t necessarily like people that are nice and kind; it doesn’t hurt, certainly, and plenty of the most enduring movie protagonists exemplify these characteristics. But it’s the shortcut that bugs me, the obviousness of the maneuver. It almost always reeks of inauthenticity, of a studio note. We can feel the screenwriter placing that cat in the tree so the character can save them.
More important than a character being nice in order to inspire identification is that a character possesses some vulnerability. They have weaknesses (like us!), probably some that they aren’t even aware of, but that we can spot from a mile away, privileged in perspective as we are. Think of Tony Stark in Iron Man, and the way he uses his wealth, status and humor to mask his fears and insecurities about his role in destructive global conflicts. Or Marlin in Finding Nemo, and the way his love for his only surviving son crosses the line into a sort of overprotective fear complex.
These characters are dynamic and interesting for us to attach ourselves to precisely because their negative qualities give them shading, not despite it. A common concern of studio executives is that characters be seen only in positive light, otherwise, the audience will reject them. In my opinion, this thinking does far more to distance an audience from a character than any typically “unlikeable” characteristic. Characters must be allowed their weaknesses, their pettiness, their smallness, in order to seem human to us. A character seen only in positive light comes across to an audience as a brick, dead weight at the center of a film.
It should be said, however, that if one wishes to safely craft a character that will be likeable and identifiable to large swaths of moviegoers – in other words, a character to lead a high budget film that will be seen by many different kinds of people all around the world – then one must avoid too many complexities in the construction of their inner workings. Characters such as Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, Jake Sully, or any given Disney Princess™ will be drawn in broad strokes; ones that leave a lot of room for individual audience members to project their own complex, multifaceted selves onto these boldly, simply conceived heroes.
I do not mean to sound disparaging in any sense about this type of characterization; there is a delicate art to creating a character that can be broadly identifiable in such a way. The films these characters occupy (Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Avatar, etc.) are not about the interior lives of said characters in any significant sense. Rather they are about the worlds they inhabit, the adventures they go on, the colorful side characters they encounter, the broad lessons that they learn. True, all of these characters go on an internal journey that in some sense mirrors their outer journey, but their arcs are placed within stories that are designed to emphasize the things around the characters: effects, action, movement. Their arcs are a necessary part of the enterprise, the hidden machinery that animates the outer workings, that keeps the whole affair from feeling hollow. But again, their inner workings are not the focus.
These characters are our eyes: we look out through them at the worlds they inhabit. They are our conduits. They are us. In order for this type of character to really work we need to learn everything, there is to know about them just from watching them be themselves. And if the character is simple and well-defined, as they should be, then we’ll get it relatively quickly. Think of Luke gazing out at the binary sunset in Star Wars. We understand everything there is to know about the character in that single image: his longing for a world beyond his own, the depths of his desire butting up against the constraints of his little farm in the middle of nowhere. We need to know what the character wants, and why they want it, but more than that we need to feel these things when we watch them, not simply be told the what and the why. If you need to dump a paragraph of exposition on us in order for us to understand who they are as people, then you have not done your job as the screenwriter.
But this is just one type of characterization; that of the accessible, mainstream blockbuster. The principles are clear and outlined for this type: draw the characters in bold, simple, immediately identifiable strokes. Give them some vulnerability, a weakness, and craft their journey in such a way that forces them to confront that weakness. If we understand who they are and where they’re coming from, then we’ll like them almost no matter what, because audiences are hungry to identify with fictional characters to begin with. We are hungry for vicarious experiences, which is what these characters and stories provide us with. The screenwriter need only break off a piece of real humanity and place it at the heart of the character, and the rest will follow.
I’d like to touch briefly on a different type of characterization, that which underpins more serious drama, in which the focus is not on the worlds but the characters themselves. These are stories directly about the complexities of humanity, and for that reason, I hesitate to offer any fast and true principles of characterization when working in this form. Think of T.E. Lawrence, Norman Bates, Oskar Schindler, Lisbeth Salander, Michael Corleone. Nothing specific unites these characters except for the fact that their inner workings are complex and fascinating to us, and that the movies they occupy are structured around their complexities as people. We are not looking out through their eyes at the worlds they inhabit, as in more escapist entertainment. Rather we are looking through them, into their hearts and minds. Thinking about how to make a character like this “likable” is to miss the point. Michael Corleone is a vindictive monster, yet our hearts break for him when we look upon him hollowed out by the lake in Part II’s closing shot. There are no tricks, tips, guidelines or shortcuts to creating a fascinating, multilayered human being. You simply must have a feeling of what you are trying to convey, and possess the craft to convey it.
But I think what I’m ultimately getting at here is that it’s far more important for an audience to identify with a character than to like them. To merely like a character is cheap, easy. But to identify with a character we must recognize some piece of ourselves in them, some part of the great mystery of being human, even if it’s something as small as a desire to keep someone they love safe, or a sense that they are putting on a social mask, or a weakness for something they know they shouldn’t have. The key to making likable characters is this: stop thinking of them as characters and start thinking of them as people.
Brian Magid is an NYU graduate and screenwriter, with an interest in the supernatural, the macabre, the past, and the future (the present can get lost). He lives in Brooklyn with his cat, Nymeria.