Why You Don’t “Care About the Characters”

(My business partner at Catharsis, Vicki Peterson, and I, are working on a book of salient points about visual storytelling. I spent most of today writing about character. Here’s a tease for the upcoming sure to be classic, “Little Gems”…)

One of the most frequent notes that gets bandied about in Hollywood about a bad script is, “I didn’t care about the characters.” It’s really the most annoying note because it has been said so much that it doesn’t really mean anything tangible any more and all a writer hears behind those words is, “They hate it.” Television and movie viewers are also expressing this when they make comments like, “There was nothing about these characters that made me want to spend time with them,” or the more sub-textual, “I was really bored at that movie. I never cared.” This is the death knell for a project unless a writer or director figures out how to fix the problem and make their unloveable, uninteresting, necessarily flawed but dramatically dead characters come to life.

Aristotle’s The Poetics has had the formula for fixing the problem for going on 2500 years. If only more writers would start believing again that story – like, say, marriage – has a nature, and then start respecting that nature in their work. The secret of creating relatable characters can be found in one teeny little paragraph in The Poetics. It carries within it all the necessary wisdom for storytellers to silence the dam-ned “I don’t care about the characters” note forever. (I’m editing it down even further here so we don’t lose the storytelling forest for the conventions of the ancient world trees.)

In respect of Character there are four things to be aimed at. First, and most important, it must be good. Now any speech or action that manifests moral purpose of any kind will be expressive of character: the character will be good if the purpose is good. The second thing to aim at is propriety. Thirdly, character must be true to life: for this is a distinct thing from goodness and propriety, as here described. The fourth point is consistency: for though the subject of the imitation, who suggested the type, be inconsistent, still he must be consistently inconsistent.

[All bow..... Okay, back to work.]

You could write a whole book nibbling on that little truffle of storytelling wisdom. Applying it in a project, well, there’s the break-your-brain-and-smash-your-laptop rub. Here are a few thoughts that might help.

The essential concern for creating characters is “relatability.” If the audience members do not connect with the characters, then they will spend the whole story witnessing the action as opposed to experiencing the action. There is some emotion to be had in witnessing events, but it doesn’t make anywhere near the formative impact of participating in events.

The cathartic effect of storytelling depends on the main character representing the audience. The viewer needs to feel so united to the main character, that the journey unfolding on the screen may as well be unfolding in the viewer’s own life. If successful, this means that the audience will travel the emotional journey of the story along with the characters and come away steeped in the same wisdom that the character has imbibed.

Achieving this level of connection between the audience and the main character is the sum of several elements. All of them are important or the cathartic impact will be lessened.

Character not Characterization

A character has two levels of qualities: those on the level of character and those on the level of characterization. Fascination for and understanding of the character are found in characterization. Relatability is found in character. This is ironic because it is details of characterization that are most common between people. But commonality doesn’t lead to trust. In the end, it is matters of an individual’s character that are the most defining and hence make for more profound connection between people.

Characterization includes all the necessary details about the backstory and reality of the character. A good story lets us know where the character grew up and how smart he is. We need to know he drives a ’78 Camaro and that he has a PhD in Chemistry. It can be helpful to let us know that he roots for the Red Sox and that he does a lot of bird-watching in his free time.

All of these facts about the character set up the world around the character and lay out a lot of tools with which he will be handling his oncoming crisis. And while a lot of these can make the audience feel more comfortable with the character, relatability is not necessarily to be had in any of them.

Ultimately, relatability has to do with trust. And while a degree in engineering may make a person trustworthy to design an elevator, it won’t factor in at all if someone is trying to decide if she should let that engineer babysit her kids. Deciding whom to trust as a babysitter has everything to do with knowing a person’s character. It’s the same with an audience allowing themselves to associate themselves to a main character.

So, early on in a story, the positive defining values of the character must be revealed so that the audience can trust him or her. Defining values include the answers to questions like, “For what would this person die?” and “To what would she dedicate her life?” and “How does he act when he is alone?” and “How does she act in a crisis?” The writer needs to have thought through all of these things.

Interestingly, it isn’t necessary for the viewers to share the defining values of the character to take that character to heart. But they need to understand that the character has defining values and that he or she is ultimately oriented towards the good.

Aristotle’s Four Qualities for Relatability

1. Goodness – Unless they are complete psychopaths, most people think they are basically good people. The illusion of fiction depends on this, well, illusion. The audience makes choices out of a basic desire for good for themselves and their circle of influence. They can’t put their trust in a main character without a similar certainty that the character has a basic orientation towards the good. The saying in Hollywood is, “The audience will care about characters who care about something besides themselves.” Implicit in this is that the character is not a narcissist and has the welfare of others at heart somehow.

It’s important to note that the character can be wrong in his understanding of morality, but that he needs to be sincerely pursuing the good even in his ignorance. An example of this is the character of Sully in Monsters, Inc. In the beginning of the movie, Sully shares the prejudice of all the other monsters as to the dangerousness of humans. He also is too trusting of his bosses in the scare factory, and so is being manipulated by them. We see all of this as we meet Sully, but we also intuit that he is still basically a good guy. He really cares about his friends and he would be loathe to do harm to anyone. His scaring of humans is coming out of his ignorance and not malice.

It’s a HUGE point. Relatability requires that a main character’s flaws be found in his folly, ignorance or weakness, and not in a real attachment to evil. As Aristotle says, “The most effective plots are those in which a good man suffers bad fortune through weakness or folly.”

The folly of a character needs to spring from a character’s struggle with darkness, which is most easily thought of in terms of the Seven Deadly Sins. It is the very struggle with the darkness that makes the character good. A villain is one who has embraced his darkness. A hero is one who hates his darkness.

A character who is wed to evil may be fascinating to watch, as in the case of Hannibal Lector, but if we are going to learn from Silence of the Lambs, we need the basically moral and eventually heroic Clarice through whom to journey in the story.

2. Propriety – As our society strays more and more from any sense of tradition and moral norms, it becomes harder to explain this very key aspect of relatability. In essence, saying that a character needs propriety means that the character will be trustworthy to the audience in that they will be basically sane. Propriety means that even with his flaws, a character has a good grasp on the world and the reality of good and evil before him. The character is not hallucinating or making up reality to suit his own needs.

In order to establish propriety, the audience needs to see the character early on correctly assess the reality of the world around her. We need a bit of resolute grit and truth. This is Nemo’s daddy, Marlin, in Finding Nemo, fearfully but correctly warning his son about all the dangers lurking beyond the reef. This is Dr. Richard Kimball saying early on in the first act of The Fugitive, “I didn’t kill my wife.” This is Chaplin’s Little Tramp, understanding immediately in The Kid, that the abandoned child has an innate value and dignity and so he takes it in.

3. Consistency – A huge part of being trustworthy is the quality of living up to expectations. In a story, the audience needs to have access to the main character’s motivations, so as to be able to follow why he does the things he does. Nothing messes with an audience’s slipping into a narrative like an unmotivated choice. Characters need to be consistent in the “better than the real” way that most real people are not.

Part of consistency in creating a character is that he or she is almost obsessive about their particular goal in the story. A story world offers the luxury of every scene and choice being geared to the character’s principle desire or need. Aristotle calls this “unity of plot,” and it is essential for preserving cohesion to the story. A consistent character will be working on one main internal problem during the story even if her external problems are many and varied.

It’s important to note that even when a character’s flaw is inconsistency, Aristotle notes that that character needs to be consistently inconsistent in order for the audience to understand them.

4. Truth – Another key element that determines trust is commonality of experience. So, if you have been diagnosed with cancer, it means everything if someone comes to you and says, “I know what you are going through. I am a cancer survivor.” Suddenly, that person carries a voice of authority that other non-cancer patients simply cannot have. You trust that their testimony to you about the disease will be true.

A relatable character will be one who, at the core, is struggling with a universal human dilemma with which the audience can assent. The character’s folly needs to be a particular application of the general struggles with which all human beings are tempted regardless of culture, era or demographic. This is Luke in Star Wars needing to idolize his absent father, even though his story is set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” This is Salieri’s crazy-making struggle with jealousy in the royal court of 17th Century Vienna in Amadeus. This is Rick’s need to overcome the bitterness which has shut him down in WWII era Casablanca. The audience will trust a character in so far as that character is struggling with something that the audience knows is real and serious.

A true character will point the audience towards whom they could be, and who the society needs them to be if we are to achieve our common destiny.

  • Jackie Vick

    The next challenge is putting all of this into the character and the story without being “on the nose”. Subtlety is so difficult.

  • Mark Banks

    Excellent article – thanks Barbara!


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