For the audience to care about a character, they need to feel what the character feels and vicariously experience the emotions they experience. The quickest way to get them to do this is to provide them with insight into the way the characters interact with their world, before they see them making important decisions.
It sounds obvious, but to ensure that the audience has the information necessary, the screenwriter must include it in their screenplay. If it’s not in the screenplay, it will not make it to the audience. The screenwriter initiates the character, first providing the actor & director, and later the audience, with the information they need to understand both their world and how the character interacts with it.
So what intelligence exactly is required for the audience to feel that they are close enough to the character to care about them?
Solving the Puzzle with the Trifecta
For both the actor and the audience to understand a character, they need to know three things;
- their motivation,
- the reason for their passion, and
- their thought process.
For a character (and the screenplay) to be authentic and believable; the communication of these has to be clear as they are handed down the value chain, and a screenwriter only has two tools available to them to make this happen;
- actions and
It is through these that the audience must comprehend the thought process and motivation of a character. If they have all the pieces, they can assemble the puzzle, and then they will understand and empathise with every decision that character makes as we follow the story. You will find that even if they don’t “like” the character, they will still have compassion and follow their every move with interest.
In addition, there are also four techniques that a screenwriter has in their craft-basket that will help to create engaging, if not likable, characters;
The idea here is to create Secondary characters that serve to point out faults or qualities that your Primary characters have. (A natural un-made-up beauty; in contrast to the protagonist who always wears way too much make-up.)
Set up things early in the screenplay that are going to foreshadow what happens later, and plant secondary characters that reveal the consequences of being on the wrong side of the stakes early on in the screenplay. (An unruly homeless drunk when it is revealed later that the protagonist has a drinking problem.)
Goals & Stakes
If the goal of a character is clear (and we believe that it is possible – even if it’s not probable,) then we are in a good position to understand the frustration of not achieving it. The higher the stakes are the better. Keep in mind that everyone loves an underdog, and this is an easy way to earn empathy from the audience. (The deep-in-debt gambler, who spends their last few cents on a lottery ticket instead of buying food for their family.)
Every action a character takes must have consequences, and lead to a suitable, (usually opposite) reaction. When this doesn’t happen, the story starts to no longer make sense and loses credibility. (When a cop is corrupt he should get caught and pay the price.)