Wendy Kram is a producer and the owner of LA FOR HIRE, a consulting company for screenwriters, filmmakers and production companies needing script development to sell and produce their projects. Follow Wendy on Twitter @wendyla4hire.
There are the moments in every great screenplay or TV series when we the audience are pulled into the character on an emotional level and say to ourselves, “Ah, I know that feeling. I’ve been there.” Last month, I wrote about the importance of writing characters who have great longings and desires. Intertwined with that yearning and another essential ingredient to creating memorable films and TV shows -- is the ability to elicit from your audience emotional engagement, identification, and empathy with your primary character(s). So even if we have completely different lives than the characters in a particular story, we can relate to what they’re going through.
J.K. Rowling in her first introduction of Harry Potter immediately pulls us into the boy’s plight. We have immediate empathy for the orphan boy who’s kept in a tiny closet by his rich aunt and uncle. On top of that, they spoil their own son, feeding Harry a few peas while their boy gets to consume delicious desserts. They’re constantly telling him he’s no good. This mythically bad treatment makes Harry relatable because we all have felt like an underdog. So when Harry learns that he’s a wizard, in fact a very special boy with special powers, and he’s invited to the school for wizards, we are elated for him. We get to vicariously feel rescued from a horrible place where no one could see his full potential. When eventually he learns to fly, we as the reader or audience get to feel an expansion of our own powers and potentials.
When I saw the movie, The Wrestler, I was so moved at the end, I sat in my seat and cried. Later, I asked myself why the film affected me so much. I have nothing in common with an aging wrestler. But it didn’t matter, it was the human experience of a character’s strong want to redeem himself for past failures. We all can relate to wanting another chance to mend a broken relationship or do something better. We can all relate to being outside of the ring, an outsider, wanting to be an insider.
Not every character needs to be likable to be engaging. There is a difference between creating likable characters and engaging the audience’s empathy. We might not like or approve of what a character does but we can have an understanding of their motives.
In the case of Walter White in Breaking Bad, we can all relate to a good guy, a family man, who’s done everything right in his life, has a noble profession as a teacher, a wife and special needs son and a new baby on the way – when he just can’t seem to get ahead when others less good are swimming in money. When he finds out he has terminal cancer, and realizes he’s going to leave his family with debt and terrible prospects, well, what would we ourselves do? Maybe we wouldn’t have become a meth manufacturer and dealer, but we understand the temptation that takes him down that dark road.
Kevin Spacey’s character in House of Cards is ruthless, scheming, Machiavellian. He does terrible things. Why do we empathize with him? In large part because of the intensity of his desire. He wants to be an insider. He is fiercely driven, ambitious and smart, yet he’s been screwed over by some of his colleagues. He also is so close to be the ultimate insider by being in Washington’s most inner circles, when suddenly that’s taken from him. Being on the outside is intolerable to him, so doing whatever he can to be on the inside is what drives every atom in his being.
When writing a character, make sure that we can identify with some aspect of his or her personality or situation. Even if we are not like him or her or don't approve of what they do, we need to be able to empathize with them and their plight. Characters that strike a universal core attract us like flies to honey. We sit glued to our seats. if it's a TV series, we become addicted to watching them. Our engagement and ability to identify and empathize with these characters makes us obsessed with tuning in to see what they will do next, how will they survive, will they get caught, and so on. It's another key ingredient to writing a successful screenplay or series, exciting executives' imaginations where they become engaged with the characters, identify with them themselves, and as a result see the potential to attract key talent, hook viewers and want to buy your project.
- More articles by Wendy Kram
- Articles on creating characters by Michael Tabb
- Creating Characters: The Behavioral Paradox
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