Wednesday, August 10, 2011
No Reservations: Four Techniques to Create a Likeable Character
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.
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?