MAKE YOUR CHARACTERS LIKEABLE

Characters in a story do not have to be good or even likeable. They can be ruthless villains (like Al Pacino in Scarface), serial killers (like Michael C. Hall in Dexter), and blood thirsty vampires (like Tom Cruise in Interview with the Vampire), yet audiences will still root for them.

There are twelve ways to craft characters that audiences will care about and whether you use only one device or a combination of several, should depend on the story and plot they serve.

1) Characters who are likeable: This is perhaps the easiest character to make, because nice guys are easy to like. In The Big Hit, Mark Wahlberg’s character is a hit man, but one who is courteous and kind. He is being taken advantage of by his girlfriend, as well as by the other members of his hit squad. Despite his line of work, we are charmed by his character, and find ourselves on his side.

2) Characters who deeply love another: No matter how obnoxious a character is, if they openly love another in the movie, then we feel that it exonerates them in some way. In Face/Off, Nicholas cage plays a villain who deeply loves his son and girlfriend. By contrast, the good guy who’s played by John Travolta is cold and detached. We find that despite Cage’s role, he comes off as more human, and therefore, someone we can relate to more.

3) Characters we can relate to: There are two ways to make characters relatable to an audience. The first is to make them ordinary people whose lives are similar to the vast majority of us: there is nothing remarkable about them, and they simply get by as best they can.

The second is to put them in situations we’ve all been through: an applicant who is struggling to find a job (like Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich); the unpopular plain Jane who has a crush on the school Jock (Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles); the divorced couple suing for custody of their child (Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer).

When an audience can relate to the situation, they identify with the character more easily. They think to themselves: “that could be me,” and settle in better to see what happens.

4) Characters who are funny: Funny protagonists are other audience favorite, even obnoxious ones who are villains. Johnny Depp’s character in the Pirates of the Caribbean series is a rogue who cares only about himself, but because he makes us laugh, he can be forgiven for almost anything.

5) Characters who are the best at what they do: People admire excellence. It is the reason they go to circuses, watch professional dancers, and attend Philharmonic concerts. We admire those who have devoted their lives toward the mastery of a certain craft, and who are able to demonstrate their skills.


In Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are both professional assassins who have no qualms about their jobs, whatsoever. But because they are so good at what they do, we can’t help but admire them. We therefore sympathize with their plight when the tables are turned, and they become the subject of a hit.

6) Characters who get into trouble: People sympathize with those who find themselves in over their heads in trouble. In the Rambo series, Sylvester Stallone’s character is always being hunted down and shot at, making him the one to root for.

7) Characters who are the underdog: Everyone likes the idea of the little guy coming up on top eventually, because it strikes a personal chord in us all. In The Princess Diaries, Mia Thermopolis plays the role of an ordinary, somewhat clumsy girl, who ends up becoming a princess. This theme of the obscure person making a spectacular rise to the top is what has made stories like Cinderella a classic, and in part what has made Harry Potter such a commercial success.

8) Characters who struggle to deal with their flaws: People root not only for the underdog who manages to rise above their circumstances, but also for the protagonist who overcomes their flaws. In The Basketball Diaries, Leonardo di Caprio’s character struggles with his heroin addiction, destroying his life completely before being able to turn his life around again. Though his character is hard to like, we find ourselves rooting for his success, and cheering for him when he finally manages to kick his habit.

9) Characters who struggle with regret: A major flaw many successful characters have is the baggage of their past, especially those which they regret deeply, or are ashamed of. Just as people root for the underdog, or for the person who struggles to overcome their flaws, so they root for the person struggling to overcome guilt or shame.

In Vertical Limit, Chris O’Donnell’s character has to save his team of mountain climbers from disaster, but he is crippled by the guilt of saving his own life at the expense of his father’s. By the end of the movie, he realizes the value of sacrifice and the need to go on, thereby laying his guilt to rest

10) Characters who break the rules: There is something about those who dare to be different (regardless of the cost to them), that sparks sympathy in others. For some, such a character is an outlet for their own rebellious tendencies, while others simply like the idea of seeing the status quo questioned.

In Bend It Like Beckham, Parminder Nagra’s character wants to be a football player. This goes against her traditional Indian Sikh background, however, so she is forced to rebel and to practice in secret. When her family finally finds out, she has to choose between them and her dreams.

11) Characters who fulfill a fantasy: Movies of superheroes fulfill childhood fantasies of great personal power, making them very popular. These don’t have to be aliens from another planet with inhuman powers like Superman, however. Those like Batman or James Bond can also fulfill this role.

12) Characters who are amoral: While characters like Superman are uncompromisingly good, not all have to be. Dexter is a perfect example of a character who is hard to like, but because he is someone who kills bad guys only, we sympathize with him. We even cheer him on his kills, because we know that there are some people who slip through the cracks and avoid justice. Though dark, Dexter’s morbid sense of justice is one we can understand.

Serge Kozak is the founder of Edictive, film production software. He has decades of hands on commercial, end to end project, business and technical solutions experience within media space. Integrating an array of project management methodologies in to film production management.

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