Monday, 18 January 2010

How do you create lovable characters?

A while ago I received a comment on this post about lovable characters. I talked about the TV characters I love and why. It was more a personal thing than anything focused on writing. I hadn't even begun to think about what the writers did to create such characters. Nevertheless, this was the comment:

What exactly can a writer do to make a character lovable? In your post you say, and illustrate, a few techniques: Show the character loving others. Show others loving the character. Make the character a real die-hard and energetic, like Angel. Let the character say intelligent and noble things, and make her actions match her words.

So these heroic people are heroic through and through. What are your other ideas about how, specifically, a writer can best make a character lovable?

My short answer was: not a clue!

I tried to answer with a series of jumbled thoughts all about identifying with characters and sympathy. But I've been thinking there must be more to it than that. What is a lovable character, after all? Please forgive the below response to the question:

I think the most important thing to remember is that to love a character, you don't have to like them. A great character isn't always a good person.

Yes the ones I listed are pretty much good, but I also love the character of Dexter (in the show 'Dexter'). I think he's amazing, but this is a guy who kills people in very ambiguous ways.

A character has to have flaws. They say we like people for their qualities but love them for their vices. If a person is good through and through, we may like them, but something just isn't there. By seeing their flaws, we are able to identify with them to some degree - we are able to see that they are people - real people with real qualities and flaws.

We don't always have to love their actions (I've hated the actions of some characters) but what we need to be able to do is sympathise with their decisions. I use "sympathise" here not as a "I feel sorry for you" kind of think, but a way if identifying.

Sympathy is essential for every story and character. At one point, Spike tried to rape Buffy. It's an irredeemable act. But the thing is - I understand why he chose to do it. That's not to say I agreed with his decision, but it was his way to reaching out - he would do anything to make things the way they were.

If you can make the audience identify with a character and his decisions, you're half way there, i think.

So you can show people liking him, but you can also show people hating him.

Two great ways to get people to identify with a character:

Save the Cat - make your 'hero' do something likable (like save a cat).
Take the Shit - put them through torture at their intro. In the Matrix, Neo gets so much stick from his boss - we've all been in similar situations - we empathise with him at that moment and consequently identify with him.

Hopefully there's something above that can answer your question. But the short answer is - not a clue! If you make people identify with the character (on some level) they may not say they "love" them but they would no doubt agree they're amazing characters (Hannibal Lecter et al)

I'm not sure I know. So I'm putting the question out there:

How do you create lovable characters? say whatever you want - should you create them? Is there such a thing? Is there any sort of standard formula? Am I spouting complete nonsense? I'm genuinely curious now after thinking about that question, so please comment away. If you want, you can always email me - everyone has email!

1 comment:

Scriptwrecked said...

The thing is, we don't need to make characters loveable -- we need to make characters that we love to spend time with. That usually means that the character is loveable, but not always. Villains are far from loveable people -- but we love to watch the best ones.

There are a few standard ways to build characters that people love or love to watch:

1. Show them to be a likeable person (set up a Save The Cat!) type of scene. If we like the hero, we're more likely to get behind them and develop a rooting interest for their success.

2. "Take the Shit" -- I like that. We need to either sympathize with them (i.e. We can't relate to them, but feel bad for them) OR we empathize with them (i.e. We completely relate to what they're going through).

3. We don't have to "like" a character if we respect them. Linda Fiorentino's protagonist character in the Last Seduction was evil through and through -- but we respected her because she was really smart.

4. Lajos Egri believed that if you show a character as being tridimensional (what they are like physiologically, psychologically, and sociologically) that will make them a full fledged person with real wants and needs, and make them engaging on screen.

That's my quick take anyway. :)