Have you ever received the note on your screenplay that your protagonist or a character in your script isn’t “likable”? I’ve had writers come to me, seeking help in how to interpret that note and how to address it in their revisions. If this is you, keep reading for some pointers.
When it comes to offering notes on a script, shorthand words or phrases are often used to save time. There are two definitions for “likable” in the development world. It doesn’t just mean likable; it also means relatable. In my opinion and from my experience, a character being relatable is more important than likable. It means we feel some kind of connection with a character.
If the audience doesn’t feel a connection with the protagonist or flat out doesn’t like her/him, then it will be difficult to stay engaged in the narrative. We want to hang out with our friends, because they’re people we like and can relate to. They’re people we support and want to see succeed. Similarly, if we like and/or relate to a protagonist, we’re more likely to stay engaged in the script and more likely to want to see the protagonist achieve her/his goal. If not, the pace of the screenplay suffers.
“HOW TO I CREATE LIKABILITY?”
Remember, “likable” means either likable or relatable. The great news is that there is more than one way to establish that in your writing. Here’s a few:
- Vulnerability – In short, this means a character has feelings about events that occur. A character is conflicted inside or is hurt, sad, or scared by something in her/his life. We’ve all felt this way, so it’s something the audience can relate to. As an example, when we’re first introduced to Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man, he’s bullied. He’s hurt by it, so we feel for him. We feel for how difficult it is to be the target of ridicule and to not feel confident in standing up for ourselves. It would be different if Peter was bullied and we don’t see him hurting. Without that vulnerability in seeing the inner pain and emotional effect on a character, the same scenario wouldn’t be as effective.
- Kindness & Compassion – When a character shows kindness, compassion, or empathy for others, for the world, for animals, etc, we tend to like her/him. Everyone wants to be treated kindly, to be understood. When we see a character show those traits, we tend to be fond of her/him. Kindness and compassion is more relevant to our liking a character rather than creating relatability. As an example, let’s say your protagonist is in the city, rushing to work on a winter morning. She walks by a homeless man and finds herself unable to just pass him. She offers him the coat off her back. The kindness that she shows and empathy she feels for him moves us into liking her.
- Flaws – An issue often with “unlikable” characters is that they’re perfect. There has never been a human being that’s ever existed that’s perfect. When a character lacks flaws, it’s difficult to connect with him/her and the character is under-developed. Flawed characters might deal with their emotions in unhealthy ways, like drinking, doing drugs, over-eating, or smoking. A flaw I often see in male characters is their having an anger issue. Flaws can also be physical. Perhaps a character has a massive scar or birthmark on her/his face. Forrest Gump has an intellectual disability and overcame a physical disability. These flaws are factors of his development that make him relatable.
- Foster Empathy – The strong screenplays that I read establish empathy with the protagonist early on. That can be done in a variety of ways, and I’ve already mentioned some above. The most common way I see this done is that a character close to the protagonist dies. This makes us feel for the protagonist and become invested in her/him. In “Spider-Man,” Uncle Ben dies. We feel for Peter, as we’ve all had to go through the heartbreaking loss of a loved one in our lives. Tapping into that deep, universal pain is just one way to foster empathy for a character.
Here’s a homework assignment to help you even more with this. Watch the first couple episodes of a recent season of “American Idol” and pay attention to how they introduce the contestants. The show is masterful in quickly establishing likability and/or relatability with contestants they want you to be invested in. Reality shows have honed the art of hooking in the audience, so we want to root for the contestants and tune in each week.
Watch how each contestant’s backstory and/or pre-existing life is offered within just a couple of minutes. Before we know it, the singer is standing in front of a panel of judges, which we already inherently have empathy for because that’s tough, and now we want to see him/her succeed. Why? Go back and see how the contestant was introduced for how the audience has been moved into rooting for and relating to each contestant.
Having a likable protagonist is important to any screenplay and applies to all forms of storytelling. When the audience is invested in a protagonist, they’ll want to keep watching. Producers want to make films about characters they like, and when the audience is invested in the protagonist, that means more money on the backend. This is why creating a likable character that the audience wants to go on a journey with will elevate your screenplay above the rest.