Monday, July 26, 2010

How to make your character more relatable?

It was about a year ago that I first wrote about empathy and identification in relation to fiction in this blog. A year and many mega-bytes of downloaded articles later, the problem still captivates me. (That's the thing about being in school. You have access to research articles so that you can waste your non-school time on them.) I'm kinda making my way to my own view on this matter, and hopefully, I will write it all up in one neat paper someday... (I've learned recently that I'm an incorrigible dreamer. And I thought I was just young.) Until then, I'm jutting down some ideas in my other blog.

Anyways, just as I read and think about empathy and identification as an academic subject, I'm also dealing with the same problem as a practical matter in my writing. The question is how to make my character easier for the audience to relate to.

Maurice Field, the protagonist of my feature-length noir/sci-fi script, is a hard-to-know character by design. He is a repressed man shrouded in mystery. (The story is about his journey to discover his inner self). Especially because the story is about Maurice's personal and internal struggle, it is crucial that the viewer builds a strong bond with him from early on. So here is the conundrum: How do you get the viewer to connect with a character like Maurice, who lives in a shell within a shell?

In the following, I go through some miscellanies and sundries in the attic of my mind in search of potential solutions to the problem of creating an "identifiable" character:
  • A popular trick - the puppy factor. Here is an old screenwriters' trick: Have your protagonist rescue a puppy (or do something to that effect) early in the story. The viewer goes "awwww..." and your protagonist will have an easy ride from then on. [[Note to self: Should I just get over with the feeling that this is a cheap trick and adopt the method?]]

  • An even cheaper trick - a desirable hero. According to psychoanalytic theories of cinema, the viewer wants to "identify" with a desirable character. They watch a film for that illusion of being the hero on the screen. I'm not a big fan of this theory. I think the presence of such an illusion is an illusion. But still, I can't deny there's something in this old adage. It is of no doubt easier to form a fast alliance with a handsome, intelligent, successful, and loved person than with somebody who is average, unpleasant and lonely. [[Note to self: True, my protagonist Maurice is not a hero, but a very much flawed character. Still, perhaps I can emphasize some of his attractive traits to charm the audience?]]

  • "Just like me." But here is yet another old adage: The viewer needs to feel the protagonist is "just like" him. This sounds contradictory to aforementioned psychoanalytic theories. Surprise... Perhaps the trick is to make viewers feel that the hero, while possessing highly desirable qualities, is still very much like them in a certain regards. Is that why Superman had to have an alter ego of an ordinary nerd and Spiderman needed to be an actual geek? [[Note to self: Is Maurice simply too different from the living people of the world? Is his problem something too esoteric for today's movie-goers? Let's just hope not. If they're not and the script is still salvageable, what I need to do might be to create a few moments in which the audience can see that Maurice is just like them in a certain very concrete and specific way. Hm, like what?]]

  • Identification fostered by its subcomponents. Gaut (1999) suggests that seeing what the character sees (perceptual identification) and knowing what the character knows (epistemic identification) help the viewer form a full-fledged identification with the character. According to this view (which lacks any type of proper support but sounds plausible), imposing the character's perceptual and epistemic point of view on the viewer will help him to connect with the character. (Is this how we formed a bond with the protagonist of Memento?) [[Note to self: My script probably is fairly strong on this front.]]

  • Empathy through sympathy. Gaut (1999) also suggests that sympathy (the emotional response to another people's suffering) and empathy (the emotional response to "identifying" with another person) enforce each other. This is another of Gaut's claims that was never properly supported but sounds reasonable. If you feel for somebody in distress, you are likely to align yourself with him, and that probably is a good position to initiate the process of "identification." If this is true, you might want to make your character suffer so that he would earn the viewer's sympathy. Pathetic, isn't it? [[Note to self: Maurice suffers plenty already. But in order to get the audience's sympathy, his suffering needs to be apparent and external. Maurice's internal suffering will appeal to viewers only after they have established a sufficient connection with him. Can sympathy be one way to get there?]]

  • Having the viewer invest their interest in the character. I'm thinking about the very first episode of Mad Men. You can see from the get-go that Don Draper is not a good man. But he is interesting enough to keep you watching to learn more about him. So you invest your time and attention on him. What a good film does is luring the viewer to invest more by rewarding him just enough at the just right times (Tan, 1997). I suspect such cognitive investments could translate to emotional ones. Wouldn't it be natural that we get attached to somebody on whom we had devoted our time and energy? [[Note to self: I tried make Maurice an attractive puzzle, but did I succeed?]]

  • A tricky trick. In a study by Davis, Conklin, Smith and Luce (1996), some college students were asked to take the perspective of the character while watching short movies (by imagining the perspective of the character, or imagining themselves to go through what the character is going through), while others were asked to just watch the character. The perspective-taking subjects were found to ascribe more of their own personal traits to the character (particularly the positive ones) compared to the non-perspective-taking subjects*. In interpreting their findings, Davis et al. suggested that the act of taking another person's perspective involves "repeatedly activat[ing] some or all of the observer's self-schema" (p. 722). They called this process "merging of self." If only a writer can find a way to lead the viewer to engage in perspective-taking rather than simple spectating... Another interesting finding of Davis et al. is that when people watched movies under a significant cognitive burden (when they were asked to remember a nine-digit number while watching the movie), the observed difference between the perspective-taking and non-perspective-taking subjects disappeared. This suggests that a brainteaser (such as this noir/sci-fi script of mine) may have an inherent difficulty in fostering viewer "identification" and "empathy."
* More precisely, the perspective-taking subjects used higher proportions of the adjectives they used to describe themselves when describing the character, compared to the non-perspective taking subjects. The overall overlap between the words used to describe the character and those used to describe self was similar across conditions.

Work cited

Davis, M.H., Conklin, L., Smith, A., & Luce, C. (1996). Effect of perspective taking on the cognitive representation of persons: A merging of self and other. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 713–726.

Gaut, B. (1999). Identification and emotion in narrative film. In C. Plantinga & G. M. Smith (eds.). Passionate views: Film, cognition, and emotion. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Tan, E. S. (1996). Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film: Film as an Emotion Machine. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


Gnasche said...

One "trick" is to simply have your character laugh with another person that they don't have a bond with (yet). A decent example is LA Confidential. Guy Pierce's character is the least unethical, but also one of the least likable. After the incident in the bar, when he confronts the woman about trying to look like Lana Turner...and it turns out to be the actual Lana Turner, his laugh with Kevin Spacey in the car afterward generates a huge amount of endearment for the character. It's a simple trick, and the character they laugh with can even be a complete stranger.

Norrie said...

I think you over-think.
Or maybe I over-think your over-thinking?

Interesting article Kate, but I have to say "who cares?"

One could write from the mind and heart: character, conflict, resolution, etc.
Or one could write in the hope that others find it relatable.

By the way: the word relatable is now on my list of terrible adjectives.

Write what you feel because you trust what you feel. Anything else is a cop out.

Armanus said...

I agree with Norrie to a degree. Creating some sort of relation between audience and character is important. The best thing to do is not overthink it. Right what you know, what you feel, what you believe and people will identify with that.
When creating your characters you know them better then anyone else. You know what YOU would like about them or dislike about them, so you can use those things to create identity between the character and your audience. Inevitably there are going to be people who will follow that line.
Unless you are willing to make your characters 'everymen', I wouldn't focus too much on trying to make the character perfectly relatible to everyone. Everyone is different, so it's in the same pit as "pleasing everybody all the time". Just right characters you understand in ways that excite and engage you, and the audience will follow.
On a side note, the whole "desirability" trick isn't a theory. A recent scientific study found that people are naturally inclined to favor attractive people more then average or unattractive ones when creating a first impression. This even extends into relation to them past the first impression...people are also more inclined to forgive slights or minor boorish behavior from them as well. That's part of the reason media always tries to cast attractive people.

But of course you can make powerful endearing characters who are average or even repulsive. Frankenstein's monster was a sympathetic character. People loved Sloth from The Goonies. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was also sympathetic. It all depends on the writing :)

Chat Noir Studios said...

Correcting my own grammar... Here it goes again.


What an interesting observation! That's brilliant! (I wish I knew who you are!)

Norrie and Armanus:

You have no idea what kind of nerd I am, do you? In any case, I have this urge to ask you....

What's wrong with you?!

Sometimes, I write up a blog entry to organize my own thoughts, not to pain other people. You don't HAVE TO read it when my blog post is boring and/or about something you don't care about! I'll still like you (as long as you don't react like this)!

I still like to publish the blog because (1) having an imaginary listener somehow helps me to think more clearly, and (2) there might be somebody out there with interesting and helpful insights (which turned out to be the case for this blog).

Re writing: When you've been working on a piece of writing for a long time, it can be a good thing to step back and take a very different approach. Thinking about Inward Bound (that's the title of my noir/sci-fi) this way was absolutely helpful for me.


Gnasche said...


I'm working on my first movie in iClone; it's a 30-min comedy spec pilot I wrote called "Stay the Course". You can see my progress here: Mallet Prop Studios.

As far as the "have your character laugh" idea, that's not my insight. I can't remember where I read it, but it was either:
John August
Alex Epstein
Terry Rossio

By the way, Terry Rossio's columns should be required reading. They're fantastic.

I disagree with Norrie and Armanus about letting the character flow naturally. It would be nice if people wanted to watch character development, but they don't. I'm talking about mass appeal here. I like a good character study play as the next guy, but I wouldn't want to watch one every night. The events of a story have to be very tight or you're going to bore the audience. The only exception to this is if you can write small talk like Tarantino. The rest of us have to use tight plotting.

This means you have very little room on the page to get your audience to identify with your character. If you deviate from the plot to do it, it better be fun. The majority has to come through action directly related to the plot. You might get ten lines of dialogue in the first act to do it. You need to have a plan and some tricks up your sleeve.


Armanus said...

I know I don't have to read the blog, but I found it interesting so I did ;)

I was going for the "helpful and/or insightful" bit, and if what I said helped, great, if not, well, poo! lol

Chat Noir Studios said...


Nice to meet you. A 30-min. iClone movie! That would be lots of work! You have a very nice Web site, and thank you for those other links too! I'll explore all of them more when I come back from our vacation trip. (I'm in the middle of packing.)


Old Folkie said...

@Gnasche: Neat trick, I believe we can file that as an off branching from the "Puppy/Desirable Hero/Just like me" theorem:
By showing the character as being able to laugh about himself, showing humour, that's how I read it anyways, the viewer can see him having a desirable trait, which I think we all like to believe we possess, too.

Another popular Puppy trick would be to show him interacting with a child, most of us feel strongly for children and the message is that a character that loves children can’t be bad, even if at first we might not understand him.

Gnasche said...

@Old Folkie:
Yeah, I'd agree with that. The "laugh" trick doesn't seem cliched, yet, because it's not used often. Helping a child or puppy is just too obvious to audiences. They think you're cheating, and that's death to your story. But, if you add some depth to it:

1) "Save the Baby" - The Untouchables: I believe it's Andy Garcia's character - In the train station, they start the shootout and the woman lets her baby carriage go. It starts tumbling down the stairs. Andy Garcia is crucial to the gunfight and his friends need him...but he has to save the baby. There's a lot of dramatic tension as he attempts to do both. It feels like an unfortunate obstacle, rather than a "like this character" moment.

2) "Help the orphan" - Leon (The Professional): Jean Reno's character really doesn't want to help Natalie Portman. But as she's standing there, pleading for him to just open the door...he can't resist. It's an unfortunate obstacle. Jean Reno isn't just a cold-blooded assassin. He's suddenly a character you like on multiple levels...and he has a new problem.

So, if you're going with a cliched theme, you can still get away with it if you make it a source of conflict.

Old Folkie said...

"1) "Save the Baby" - The Untouchables: I believe it's Andy Garcia's character - In the train station, they start the shootout and the woman lets her baby carriage go..."

Ah, the classic Sergej Eisenstein homage, great moment.

"2) "Help the orphan" - Leon (The Professional):"

Oh, I like that example.
Leon seems to me much the character, that is strived to create and get to the core here.
A very closed up, alien personae, that is at first difficult to indentify with.

I would add the excellent movie "Gloria" here. Not for the character but for how the kid cliché works absolutely in favour of the movie (apart from a rather weak end that always feels like a easy cop-out to me).
But a weak end can't spoil a truly great movie. :)

Gnasche said...

Wow. I almost referenced Gloria (obviously the Cassavetes version, not the remake). I thought the ending was okay, but the only problem I had was that I hated, hated, hated the actor playing the kid. That's my own problem though. Something about that kid made me want him to die. :)

Chat Noir Studios said...

How to make something cliché fresh and compelling... A very important point. An art of its own! :)

BTW, my character, Maurice, talks with a kid on page 7, but rather awkwardly. (Because of his personality and personal issues.) I had briefly considered making him more fatherly and skillful with children (a clichés solution to make him more likable). The discussion here reassures me that not making that change probably was a sound decision!