Another helpful post in SSN Insiders’ remarkable Screenwriting 101 series:
by Michael Schilf
A good story is driven by its characters. But if your characters are not compelling, the audience simply won’t care if a character achieves his or her objectives: destroying the Death Star, becoming a real boy, getting back to Kansas… or in the case of The Dude (Jeff Bridges), seeking restitution for his ruined rug, because “that rug really tied the room together.”
In order for us to care about a character, the writer must create a compelling character for whom we will hope and fear, and this is accomplished essentially two ways:
(1) First, the character must have a clear GOAL; this is his or her objective or desire, and depending upon whether the character is a protagonist or antagonist, we should hope/fear they accomplish the objective or hope/fear they will fail.
(2) Second, LIKABILITY becomes a key ingredient. When we like a character, we naturally begin to hope and fear for them. However, when a character is not likable, which is often the case with anti-heroes and villains, we at least need to be able to sympathize and/or empathize with them along the way.
When a heroic protagonist is created, he/she is usually likable from the beginning. In most genres, the hero who fights for good is introduced with charm, appeal, or magnetism. Moreover, if a character is likeable, sympathy and empathy follow close behind.
In Elf, it’s nearly impossible not to like Buddy immediately. He’s a 6’3? man-child. We like that he’s so innocent, and we can’t help but feel sympathy for him when the truth is revealed that he’s not really an elf.
However, when a character is not likeable, such is the case with anti-heroes or villains, empathy and sympathy are created in other ways.
Sympathy can occur when something awful happens, and it’s out of the character’s control. For example, if a young street thug robs a store and runs out only to be hit by a car, we will probably feel sorry for his injuries, despite his act of thievery.