Making the main character likeable

All great books and movies seem to have a great lead character that the reader or audience can identify with and root for. How do authors and screenwriters do it? Think about the books and movies you love. What aspects of the lead character’s character did you like, and what attracted you to them? Were they:

• Courageous / heroic
• Feisty/adventurous/ambitious
• Steadfast/resolute/tenacious
• Unpretentious/modest
• Selfless/Caring
• Humorous

Probably not all these at once; or at least not when you first met them at the start of the story. No one is perfect, and perfect lead characters are, well, frankly boring. Usually at the start of a good story the character has some flaw that they will need to overcome to fulfil themselves, and reach the story goal. The hero might be reckless, or arrogant, or juvenile; the heroine might be self-centred, weak or easily led. They need to learn what’s important during the course of the story. This is character arc: the change a character goes through in the course of the story. Think of Hans Solo the arrogant space pirate that only thinks of himself. Except of course at the end where he comes to the aid of Luke Skywalker. Think of Luke Skywalker and his development from a farm boy to Jedi knight.

In some cases, we may only see the lead character’s true self when he/she is finally put to the test during the later stages of the story. There may well be glimpses of the true character during the course of the story; but it is only in the final test do we discover who they really are.

Not all main characters necessarily change. James Bond, John McClane, Jack Reacher, Harry Potter, Robert Langdon are all pretty much the same character from story to story. Serial stories may therefore be the exception as the story has to continue beyond the current storyline.

In other cases, it might not be the lead character that changes; but someone else close to the character. In “Back to the Future” (one of my all-time favourite movies), it is Marty’s father that changes. There are therefore no rules about character arc.

In my previous blog, I wrote about how character and plot are interwoven. Character is revealed by the actions the lead character makes. Blake Snyder, in ‘Save the Cat’, talks about the importance of the ‘save the cat’ scene. He says it’s a scene at the beginning of the movie where the hero does something small – like saving a cat – that defines who he is and makes the audience like him. Snyder says this scene is less common in movies these days. He quotes the example of Lara Croft 2, which in spite of a big budget didn’t resonate at the box office. His explanation was that the Lara Croft character, although ‘cool’, was ‘cold and humourless’. What she needed to do was something kind – a ‘save the cat’ scene.

Perhaps a good example of actually ‘saving the cat’ is the scene from Alien, where Ripley goes back to save the ship’s cat. Although the scene is at the end of the movie it has a similar effect. Ripley has a heart after all. In Aliens 2, she goes on better trying to save a little girl.

Other more dramatic examples might be Katniss’s action to volunteer for the Hunger Games to save her younger sister. (That pretty much trumps saving a mere moggy).
Heros and heroines are not defined by how they look or what they say. They are defined by the heroic actions they carry out. Some of these actions might be quite small at the start of the story, but they give us a glimpse of what is to come.

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