How do writers get their readers to identify with their characters?
One method is to make the character as basic as possible. This way the reader can fill them with their own details. Have you ever played a role playing game where you get to select your character’s class, hair, and armor? This is taking the default option: the bland blonde fair skinned male human, the rice cake of warrior classes. This option keeps the character so empty, the audience has no choice but to fill him with their own back story.
Another option to make a character identifiable is to give them a strong moral code. The problem with making your hero too wholesome is you run the risk of drawing out the audience’s cynicism. Your lead will come across as a salesperson smiling through an up-sell, designed to be relatable, but scripted to a fault. If your character is too big of a boy scout the audience will expect him to do something evil.
So what do you do when you want to write a fleshed out character that your audience can relate to? You make them sympathetic.
Jennine Lanouette, of screentakes.com, made a great video essay on how character vulnerability is more important than character likability. She explains how disadvantages make us root for characters. These disadvantages could be the circumstances the hero was born into, like Oliver Twist, the situation they find themselves in, like Andy in The Shawshank Redemption, or an inherent affliction, like Alice coping with Alzheimer’s in Still Alice.
What if your story doesn’t star an underdog? What if your lead is a suave spy that always lands on his feet? In this case, you’ll need to engineer a moment where they’re brought down to earth. Think James Bond getting shot off the top of a train at the beginning of Skyfall, or every time Indiana Jones gets bumped in the noggin.
Lanouette says, “You can portray an unlikable character if, rather than straining to make them likable, you simply introduce them in a position of vulnerability.”
I propose there are ways to make unlikable characters relatable and sympathetic at the same time. Here’s how:
Mine Your Embarrassment for Gold
The opening sequence of A Life Less Ordinary is designed to make the lead sympathetic. Ewan McGregor’s character gets fired, finds out his girlfriend has been cheating, and gets evicted. This succession of losses makes the screenwriter’s intention obvious. Each plague upon the protagonist is almost too universal.
A hero’s humble beginnings don’t guarantee sympathy, especially when their afflictions seem inauthentic. If an audience feels their emotions are being exploited, they’ll turn on the story. This is where the writer’s own life experience should replace these stock shortcomings.
Every writer is sitting on a treasure trove of untapped embarrassment. We all have first hand experience with the subtle side of awkwardness. We’ve all had moments when we had to keep our humiliation hushed for fear we’d make it worse, where we had to save face when we already had egg on it.
Remember that time your card was declined on a first date, or when your date spent the evening looking at a zit on your forehead, or when you realized your date had used the pretense of romance to pitch you a pyramid scheme?
Make a note of all those moments your ego wants you to forget:
- That time you smiled at someone across the bar and they repositioned themselves outside of your sightline.
- That time your sneeze went unblessed in a crowded room.
- That time someone pointed out how you misused a word, when you were trying to make yourself sound well read, then made you repeat it so the entire dinner party could have a laugh.
The world dumps on us all the time. We might as well reuse some of that waste for our own purposes. This is an instance where it’s alright to mine real life for inspiration. Fiction writers should excavate their embarrassing stories, mix them with their friends’ adventures, and exaggerate the combination. We’re digging for universal experiences that audiences haven’t seen a thousand times.
There’s something endearing about someone willing to fess up to the things we all do, but dare not admit. There are no holds barred when your characters beat themselves up. Your first person narrations should be as shameless as a good comedian.
Third person stories shouldn’t respect your protagonist’s boundaries either. Just because the point of view is on the outside doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be able to peek in at their embarrassment. Your hero shouldn’t get the luxury of dignity.
Personal Failure is an Excellent Starting Point
While moral codes make characters likable, strong drives make them engaging. Heroes can be driven long before the story’s call to action. Some of the best protagonists start their stories convinced they’re nearing the end, only to falter. Spectacular failures are more compelling than characters who are the victims of a series of accidents. Failures make their own fate instead of being at the mercy of it. We root for them because they get back up again. They’re confused, but never defeated.
If you’re a writer, you’re bound to have a slew of personal failures to draw from. Isn’t it time you did something productive with them? Put them on the page. Make your character carry the load, and maybe they’ll get the sympathy you deserved all along.