Four Keys To Creating A Likable Character

By Mark Alpert

Novelists can learn from filmmakers, and vice-versa. For today’s lesson, I’d like to direct your attention to a short film written by Rotem Weiner (see photo above), an actress I met last month at the 2017 Video Art and Experimental Film Festival in New York City.

For the past few years I’ve served as an emcee and panel moderator for this festival, which showcases a wide variety of short, provocative films. The event is organized by video impresario Dan Fine, who receives hundreds of submissions every year from filmmakers around the world. Dan and his team of curators view all the submitted videos and select the best ones for screening at the three-day festival. Many of the works are experimental and abstract — they’re more like artworks than traditional movies — but some are short narrative films that tell quirky stories. A good example of the latter is Rotem Weiner’s film, “Bench,” which was selected for this year’s festival and screened at the Downtown Community Television Center on Lafayette Street.

Born and raised in Israel, Weiner came to the U.S. to study acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, which is famous for teaching and promoting the techniques of method acting. In “Bench,” she plays the role of Emma, an eager young woman trying to find a job in New York City. The film is nineteen minutes long, but I want to focus on just the first three minutes, which show Emma waking up in her apartment and preparing for a job interview. This is really just the introduction to the film; there’s no dialogue during this sequence except for a few curses muttered by Emma while she brushes her teeth and puts on her makeup, and upbeat guitar music plays in the background. But the brief sequence does an excellent job of introducing the character of Emma and making her likable. This is also the primary task of the opening pages of any novel, and as with any other task, there are some basic rules for doing it right. So let’s analyze how Rotem Weiner creates a likable character. (You can view the video here.)

A likable character has to want something very badly. In the introduction to “Bench,” the main things that come across are Emma’s hurry and worry. We see her running late, rushing through her morning rituals, and practicing a businesslike greeting in her bathroom mirror. By the end of the three minutes, it becomes obvious that she’s rushing off to a job interview, but before we even realize what her goal is, we’re already rooting for. That’s because the specific goal doesn’t matter; what makes the character likable is the strength and fervor of her desire. In The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby wants Daisy; in Moby Dick, Ahab wants to kill the eponymous white whale; in The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen wants to save her sister; in Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen wants to sit on the Iron Throne. Some of these desires may be obsessive or irrational, and the objects of the desires may not even be worth all the fuss, but as long as the characters yearn desperately for their goals, readers will yearn along with them. It’s a weird human instinct that probably got incorporated into our DNA during the Paleolithic Era, when a crucial trait for survival was the ability to sense when our fellow hominids had discovered a new source of food; an ape-man who took a lively interest in his comrades’ quests for sustenance could share in the rewards by following his more adventurous companions to the newly discovered berry patches or zebra carcasses. We have evolved to be eager followers of our comrades’ passions.

She has to face obstacles. It wouldn’t be much of a story if the main character gets what she wants right away. And if she achieves her goals too easily, we might even start to resent her. The obstacles make the quest more interesting and involving; when they arise, the reader shares the frustration and disappointment that the character is feeling, thus strengthening the sympathetic bond between them. In “Bench,” Emma’s first obstacle is that she doesn’t have enough time to get ready for her interview, and then her problems multiply: she sticks herself in the eye with her makeup applicator, there’s no coffee left in her kitchen, and when she runs to the neighborhood coffee shop to pick up an iced latte (or whatever), someone bumps into her and spills the stuff all over her shirt. (This last disaster has become a bit of a cliché — didn’t it also happen to Emma Stone’s character in La La Land?) The overall effect is to create a likable character through the viewer’s involvement in her struggles. We know nothing so far about her background or political beliefs or moral qualities, and yet we automatically like her.

She has to overcome those obstacles through her unique skills, resourcefulness, and bravery. The character’s attitude toward her problems is also important. If all she does is complain about her troubles, then the reader won’t want to spend any time with her. If the obstacles subside because of mere luck or assistance from other people, then the reader won’t have any reason to admire her. But if she cleverly overcomes the challenges, ideally in a way that the reader would’ve never thought of, then the admiration for the character will be enthusiastic. We see some of these qualities in Emma in the latter part of “Bench,” when she befriends a homeless man in a park next to her office building. (Yes, she gets the job!) In The Hunger Games, we admire Katniss’s archery skills and impertinence; in Game of Thrones, we admire Dany’s fierce charisma and determination (not to mention the way she rides those dragons). If I may return for a moment to my “hungry ape-man” metaphor: Who would you rather follow on a dangerous hunt across the African savannah? A hapless, hopeless hominid headed for extinction, or a big-brained, tool-using Darwinian winner?

Her challenges have to be relatable. In “Bench,” the viewer has extra sympathy for Emma’s dilemmas because they’re familiar. At one time or another, we’ve all worried about being late to a job interview. And most of us have also experienced that mad “chicken-without-a-head” feeling that overcomes you when you’re running late and making a mess of things because you can’t think straight. But a good writer can also make extraordinary problems relatable by connecting them to more mundane troubles. For example, the young hero of the science-fiction novel Ender’s Game faces an unprecedented galaxy-class challenge: he has to save human civilization from destruction by learning how to vanquish the space fleets of an insectoid alien species known as the “buggers.” His training, though, takes place at a space-station facility that feels a lot like a high school, albeit one with cutthroat competition among the students and a lot of manipulative, tough-love teachers. Ender has to face down violent bullies and turn a group of nerds and losers into a championship-winning team. Sounds familiar, right?

I’d like to wrap up the discussion by addressing an issue that applies just to female characters. Recently, my editor at St. Martin’s Press noticed something odd in my fiction, specifically an early draft of my next novel. The book’s heroine, in a moment of tension, starts “fidgeting.” Although there’s nothing wrong with feeling fear or anxiety, this particular expression of the emotion seemed a little unbecoming. After my editor pointed it out, I asked myself: Would I ever write that a male hero was “fidgeting”? Wouldn’t this physical action make him seem less heroic, less competent, less deserving of admiration? And if it was uncool for a male hero to fidget, why was it okay for a female to do it?

I was being sexist. It doesn’t matter whether the character is male or female — heroes don’t fidget. So I changed the wording in the next draft. (The novel will be published about a year from now. Working title: SUPERHUMAN.)

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014) and The Six (2015). Next books: The Orion Plan (coming February 2016) and The Siege (July 2016). His website: www.markalpert.com

13 thoughts on “Four Keys To Creating A Likable Character

  1. Every time I read a Kill Zone post, I learn something new. While reading this post, in my morning stupor, I actually tried to underline a sentence on my computer screen! Thank you so much. I’m already thinking up ways to show my young heroine yearning for her goal even more, and to make her more relatable.

  2. I agree with Priscilla. Every post has great tips and suggestions. Your examples are excellent. I can see now that I will not only be looking closer at my own work, but viewing movies differently.

  3. It’s interesting to me to see the opening scenes of Bench, with all the cliche trivia of waking up and getting ready for doing something.

    My first published writings were in confession magazines. The editors used to scream at us–on paper as there was no e-mail in those days–NOT to begin stories with a housewife or young office employee waking up and starting her morning with toothbrushing (wouldn’t that be teethbrushing?), make up application, or the struggle to exist without hot coffee, and certainly nof the cliche bit of spilling the caffeine-laced, dark liquid down one’s favorite blouse.

    But my thought always was–which I was certainly not going to say to someone whom I hoped was going to sign a check authorization for $250, to be made out to me–is that the first minutes of a person’s day are a great vehicle for setting mood, establishing the character’s flaws or strengths early (how would she handle the coffee spill? Calmly? Screaming? Swearing off coffee again?), and giving us a chance to see her personage in the raw, before the addition of layers of cloth, chemicals, colorings, and her personal cooties. I still believe those things.

    Seeing them played out here in Bench thrills me more than a little bit. I am certainly a fan of great character-building, and what better way than to hearing the alarm go off, and a young woman or guy struggle to turn it off to establish her baseline character? Does she reach for it, yawning, frowning, does she slap at the button, throw the clock? Does she throw the clock, and then realize it’s the only clock she has?

    Those things will tell us so much about her, I think. I still use the awakening character as I can.

    Great short, excellent column. Thank you.

  4. I’m watching the movie Interstellar as I read this, Mark, and everything you said about characters is playing out on the TV right now. The farmer-astronaut Matthew McConnaughey is recruited by a secret NASA mission to save the dying Earth. (talk about high stakes!)

    What does he want? He really wants to stay back on Earth with his kids, especially his daughter Murph. But the larger “want” triumphs — he wants to make sure she has a future.

    Obstacles galore: a trip through a worm hole, a near crash on an alien planet where a giant tidal wave drowns one crew member and almost kills the rest, and I’m only 90 minutes in. The obstacles ahead are formidable…I won’t list them here in case you guys haven’t seen the film, which I think is brilliant.

    So your rules for characters hold true, whether over the course of a 12-minute short film or a 3-hour epic.

      • It has taken me three viewings to get it. I flunked science but always wanted to be an astronomer. Wanted to be a Rockette too but my legs are too short.

  5. Great post, Mark. And thanks for giving me extra homework. Now I need to go back and look for red flags regarding my female characters! BTW, I just finished watching the excellent new Netflix series, ‘Dark.’ I could be wrong, but the women in that show seem very real to me. Not sure how sympathetic they are, though.

  6. This topic came up in my critique group recently. One thing I think is valid is that your character can do unlikeable things and still be likeable. Nobody likes someone who’s perfect all the time. It’s a matter of justifying those moments.

    I don’t think my characters fidget, but I fear they may have squirmed a time or two.

  7. One of my characters described himself as trying to snivel. He was doing it to get himself and his mate out of a spot of bother – they had been pounced upon by two women who were angry and rightly offended. He reasoned that if he looked pathetic and sorry enough, the ladies would let them away with a warning.

  8. Pingback: Writing Links 12/11/17 – Where Genres Collide

  9. Thanks, Mark, for your article. I picked up a couple of quick rules of thumb to make my characters more “relatable”, and I can see now how at least one of my stories has a heroine who is hard to relate to.

    I will take issue with these lines, though: “I was being sexist. It doesn’t matter whether the character is male or female — heroes don’t fidget. ”

    I disagree that you were being ‘sexist’. You didn’t create a character who was fundamentally unloved because she was a woman and therefore fidgeted. You may have, however, been ‘stereotypist’, and indicated that your female character ‘fidgeted’ while a male character would not.

    I don’t think that’s a bad thing. In fact, it would probably have made your character even more relatable, because for as much as we may hear that there are no differences between men and women, there objectively are. Stereotypes exist for a reason; they are generalizations of the real world around us.

    And I would also disagree that heroes can’t fidget. What, heroes don’t get nervous? Worried? Fearful? Any of those qualities make them absolutely more human and, in that sense, more relatable. We like Superman and Wonder Woman because we can see ourselves in their faults, not because they are absolute perfection we can never attain.

    So, I, for one, would recommend letting your heroine fidget as much as she needs to. She seems more real that way. And therefore I’m more invested in her when she overcomes the obstacles ahead. Best of luck.

    • Hello, Stephen! You’re right, I shouldn’t generalize. The fidgeting isn’t something that the heroine in SUPERHUMAN would do (which is why I cut it out), but now that I think about it, I can imagine heroes who fidget a lot. (I’m thinking in particular of the Geoffrey Rush character in the movie “Shine.”)

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