Wednesday, August 10, 2011

No Reservations: Four Techniques to Create a Likeable Character

One of my favorite chick flicks is No Reservations. It's one of those movies that makes me laugh, cry, and swoon over the on-screen chemistry between Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart.

The thing that jumped out to me the first time I watched it was how unlikeable Zeta-Jones's character, Kate, was in the beginning. The movie begins with her talking to her therapist, and we quickly learn she's a focused, hard-lined person who could be described as prickly (and that's putting it mildly). The only thing she seems to care about is the food she creates at her high-end restaurant.

But despite those traits, I still found myself hanging on for the ride, waiting to see how she would redeem herself later on. And as I analyzed the movie further, I noticed specific techniques the screenwriters used to evoke empathy from the viewer early on.

In fact, those techniques come straight from a book on my shelf called Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias. This book is written for screenwriters, but there are some excellent takeaways for the novelist as well.

Karl devotes an entire chapter to characters and has a section titled "Techniques for Instant Character Appeal and Empathy." As I analyzed Kate's character in the movie, I pinpointed four specific techniques from Karl's book.

1) Physical, Mental, Health, or Financial Handicaps: Remember how I mentioned that the movie starts with Kate talking to her therapist? We immediately recognize that she's got some sort of mental or emotional hang-up, and that keeps us engaged to find out what it is and whether it can be fixed.

2) Exclusion and Rejection: After a hard night at work, Kate comes home to her apartment and presses the button on her answering machine. It beeps and says, "You have no new messages." This short scene shows us that she's excluded from life and doesn't have many friends, making us empathize with her and long to see her connect with someone.

3) Showing Humanity in Private Moments: There's a scene toward the beginning of the movie where Kate goes to the docks to hand-pick fish at a fish market. Even though it's not technically a "private moment", she's away from her usual circle of people, and she's very open and genuine with the fishermen, showing that she has a rapport with them and visits them often.

4) Loving Other People: We quickly discover that Kate has a good relationship with her sister. It appears to be the only good relationship she has, but that little window gives us hope that she has the capacity to love other people.

As the movie progresses, the writers use other techniques to further enhance Kate's likeability, but these are the specific ones used within the first ten or fifteen minutes of the movie. And this list barely brushes the surface of the techniques listed in Karl's book. If you haven't read it yet, I highly recommend adding it to your library!

Can you think of a book or movie where the main character wasn't entirely likeable in the beginning? What kept you reading or watching?


Wendy Paine Miller said...

I want to see this movie now. Excellent points! I like plain humanity and vulnerability in my characters. Not weakness, but the real stuff.

Your question made me think of As Good as It Gets...I think I wanted to have hope for the characters in that.
~ Wendy

Sarah Forgrave said...

Funny you mentioned As Good as It Gets, Wendy. Karl Iglesias uses A LOT of examples from that movie in his book (and the character empathy chapter specifically). Masterful writing in that movie!

Beth K. Vogt said...

I've only caught bits and pieces of "No Reservations," Sarah, but now I am determined to watch it. And I also have another book to add to my To Be Read (TBR) pile. I already clicked over to Amazon to look at the book you recommended.
I can't think of another movie example, but I am thinking of a friend's work in progress (WIP). She keeps getting feedback that her character isn't likeable at the beginning of the novel. The heroine is going through some heartbreaking challenges and has made some really, really bad decisions.
I'm going to send my friend the link to this post to help her mull over how to craft her character better.

Silent Pages said...

Apparently, one of my main characters isn't very likable. XD

But that's what revision is for! 8D

Great post. ^^ Lots of interesting things to think about.

Stacy Henrie said...

I love this movie! Great list, Sarah. I really like the one about show humanity in private moments.

When I think of unlikeable characters I think Scarlet O'Hara from Gone with the Wind. While she is pretty horrible in a lot of ways, there are those moments (like when she helps Melanie, though her motives may not always be pure) and so I stick out the ride.

Sarah Forgrave said...

Beth, I've gotten plenty of feedback like your friend's, which is exactly why I got Karl Iglesias's book. I wouldn't say I've arrived by any means, but I'm getting closer to likeable characters. :)

Silent Pages - Great perspective! You're right...Revisions can redeem our characters and our books, can't they?

Stacy, Great example in Scarlet O'Hara! Talk about someone that everybody loves to hate. :)

Casey said...

It's been a long time since I watched this movie, but I agree, she is very unlikeable in the beginning, but the writers did a great job of drawing her out, esp. when her neice comes to live with her. Good post, Sarah!

Julia M. Reffner said...

I haven't seen this one, yet. But now I want to see it. I have to agree with Wendy here. The first one that came to mind was As Good As It Gets as well. Another would be Tom Hank's character in You've Got Mail although I have to admit I was inclined to like him from the beginning simply because he's Tom Hanks...

Sarah Forgrave said...

Casey, I agree. Every new circumstance or challenge starts to thaw her out more. :)

Julia, Good point about You've Got Mail! Another favorite movie of mine. :)

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Sarah, what a great post! I've never heard of the book you mentioned, but I'm adding it to my list of books to get and read.
Right now, my tired brain is trying to remember a book or movie where the main character started out as a not-very-likeable, but I've read and seen some. Reading this post gives me some insight as to why they might be this way. I love how you shared some things to consider for making characters likeable/memorable: I need to use these for my own characters. :)

Sarah Forgrave said...

Jeanne, I totally understand that tired-brain feeling. Mine is feeling a bit fuzzy right now, too. :) It's funny how I used to be able to enjoy a movie or book before I became a novelist. Now I find myself analyzing and nitpicking, LOL. I guess that's when I know I'm watching or reading a winner...It makes me forget to nitpick. :)

Cindy R. Wilson said...

I love the show versus tell ideas from this, Sarah. I'm reading Something Blue right now, the sequel to Something Borrowed, and I'm really hoping to see the mc make some character changes by the end of the book.

Sarah Forgrave said...

Cindy, Good point that this is all about showing versus telling, isn't it? I haven't heard of those books you titles! :)

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Love this movie! And I see that I am definitely need to purchase that book! I've had it said that one of my main characters wasn't all that likable.

I think Mr. Darcy is a bit unlikable at the beginning Pride and Prejudice. But he too, loves and takes care of his sister, showing he has the capacity to love.

Ianto said...

I'll be honest: In Toy Story, I couldn't stand Woody at first. By the end of the film, I adored him XD

Anonymous said...

The main character in the movie "TiMER" is searching for "the one" with the help of a gadget that tells you when you meet the person who you're destined to be with. In the beginning she drove me crazy when she pushes her new boyfriend (of only one month) into getting a TiMER too (it only works if the other person has one). In this stage of the movie, she's seems extremely impatient, hard to please, and generally uptight to the point of making others around her uncomfortable. I found myself saying "I really don't like this girl", but I kept watching because to a certain extent she reminded me of myself and how I used to be, so I wanted to see her loosen up and learn to enjoy the process of life.