3 THINGS – Creating Characters You Can Connect With
People cry during the opening ten minutes of Up. How did Pixar make that happen? We’re moved when Katniss volunteers herself in Prim’s place in The Hunger Games. Why? Why do we root for Gordon when he’s sent to Gotham in Batman: Year One? I mean it’s not like these characters are real, and yet they can affect us as though they are. Somehow, we connect with them and they become real. The writers did that. How do we create characters that people will connect with in our own writing?
Karl Iglesias, screenwriter and teacher at the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program, provides a tool in his book, Writing for Emotional Impact, that I have found very helpful (unfortunately, he doesn’t have a name for the tool, so I’ve just been calling it the 3 THINGS — very creative, I know).
In his book, Iglesias argues that to create a story that makes a strong connection, a writer must utilize 3 things when introducing the characters: pathos, humanity and admiration. If these 3 things are there — the earlier the better — the audience, whether they are viewing your story on a screen or reading it in a book or listing to it in a song will be much more able to connect.
1. Have your character(s) be unjustly wronged. Iglesias refers to this tactic as invoking pathos, though I’ve heard others express it as sympathy. Basically, we feel sorry for the character. This can be seen in Finding Nemo when Marlin’s entire family is eaten by a barracuda, then his only remaining son is kidnapped by a scuba diver. In Toy Story, Woody is replaced as Andy’s BFF by a loony space-toy. In Batman: Year One, Gordon is assigned to work in Gotham, a place rot with dirty cops, dirty authorities and dirty criminals. The character doesn’t even have to be wronged by another person, like in the animation short, The Saga of Biorn, the lead character is wronged by simple bad luck.
2. Have your character(s) care about a cause or something other than themselves. Iglesias calls this showing a character’s humanity. The more selfless their love, the better. How often have you disliked a character that truly loves someone or something else? It’s really hard to hate them and it’s really easy to get behind them, especially when their love is not returned or put in danger.
Note: It doesn’t take a Romeo-&-Juliet level of love for this to work. The character Bob in What About Bob? is an extremely narcissistic person, BUT he has a pet gold fish, Gill, which he cares for throughout the movie. And in Hot Fuzz, Nicholas Angel — who has trouble loving people more than he loves his job — loves a house plant. That’s all it takes.
Note 2: If your character cares about a cause, relate it to people as quickly as possible. Otherwise, they care about an abstract, which is difficult to love. See my last post for more about this: Keeping It Personal.
3. Give your character(s) an admirable quality. This quality could be a skill, like Will Hunting’s mathematical abilities in Good Will Hunting, or it could be a trait like Fone Bone’s hopeless romantic nature in Bone. Iglesias calls this admiration, where your audience sees your character is good at what they do or is shown as powerful, attractive, smart, witty, etc.
Another example of a trait would be in Pulp Fiction, when Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta talk about roy-ales with cheese and how dumb the French are for putting mayonnaise on fries. They’re funny. Then, we like them even more when they’re on their way to kill people because they argue about whether foot massages are sensual or not. By all the information we’ve been given about the lifestyle of these two characters (guns, organized killings, a boss that throws people off balconies), these two are bad men, but we like them because they’re funny.
Look at your favorite stories and see if the 3 THINGS tool can be applied.
In your writing, does your character have all 3 THINGS: pathos, humanity and admiration? If not, try it out and help your reader connect with your characters.