June 13, 2014

What Makes a Character Sympathetic? This Video Essay from Screentakes Explains

One of the most challenging aspects of screenwriting is creating multidimensional characters that your audience can identify with, relate to, and be entertained by. Many times when I get hung up I ask myself, and maybe you do too, "Is my character likable enough to make the audience want to root for him/her throughout the entire story?" However, this video essay by screenwriting instructor, story consultant, and founder of Screentakes, Jennine Lanouette, explains why that may not be the question you should be most concerned about when dealing with characters.

There are plenty of characters from our favorite films (they're often the ones that made them our favorite in the first place) with qualities that we admire. They're witty, in control, selfless, deliciously evil, courageous -- there are so many things that make characters likable. And what I've found in my own experience is that this is the path of least resistance in storytelling -- the go to method for crafting characters: writing about people, qualities, personalities that we like.

But instead of being concerned with making your character likable, perhaps a better approach would be to make them sympathetic. This is more than a matter of semantics, though. Being likable and eliciting sympathy can be two very different things (though they can still exist in the same character à la the "every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square" rule), and exploring what makes a character sympathetic in the eyes of your audience as opposed to simply likable.

For example, I guess I like the guys from Dude, Where's My Car? -- they're silly, dumb, and completely unaware which is sometimes adorable -- but I really couldn't care less about their journey to find their car. Conversely, I absolutely loathed Edward Norton's character in American History X. Derek Vinyard represented so many things that are deplorable and disgusting about the dark side of humanity; he was racist, hateful, vengeful, arrogant, and wanted to recruit others, even his own kid brother, for his malevolent cause. However I stayed with the story, and I ended up sympathizing with him -- him. Why? Let Lanouette explain in her video essay below:

The point Lanouette makes on vulnerability is one of the most important factors in making your characters dimensional -- maybe because that's one way we as a human race relate to each other on a deep level. And I think that's the key -- vulnerability reveals the pain that caused the bad that hid the good. (Ya follow me?) Seeing vulnerability in characters is one of the reasons why we can potentially end up sympathizing and rooting for a disgustingly wealthy, philandering, hooker booty cocaine snorter like Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, because we can relate to his naiveté at the beginning of the film -- because at one time, he was just a good guy. We're all just "good guys", right?

Of course, there are so many other areas of storytelling that require your attention, too, and if you want a resource to learn more about what those areas are and how to master them, then you might want to take a look at the Kickstarter campaign Lanouette is currently running. She's putting together a series of eBooks chuck full of interactive media to help guide you through script analysis. Check out her campaign here.

Links:

Your Comment

22 Comments

LIkable characters = boring...
just write interesting characters
and audience will be interested in them.

June 13, 2014 at 6:18PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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sammy

"just write interesting characters" is about as useful an advice as "just make awesome films, that's all there is to know". "Write sympathetic characters" is a bit fluffy too, but at least it is an attempt to break down the general to specific parts, which is what is needed for any kind of improvement.

June 14, 2014 at 1:41PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Frankordon

Interesting in terms of what interests you.
All you can do then is hope other people will
be intereted in that. For example most of the
characters on reality tv are more interesting
than who and what you typically see on big screen.

June 15, 2014 at 1:45PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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sammy

You could swap the word "likable" with the word "interesting" and her analysis would stay the same. Don Draper is not a very "likable" guy, but he's interesting, and he's at his most interesting when he's in a power struggle against his own demons. The same for Tony Soprano, Han Solo, Walter White, Hannah Horvath, Sarah Connor, Sterling Archer, and Liz Lemon. Don't look at it through the tired film school student lens.

June 14, 2014 at 1:45PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Totally off-topic but was the opening sequence in Wolf of Wallstreet the dwarf throwing? I thought it started with Leonardo snorting cocaine and his voice-over? Otherwise very interesting video essay.

June 13, 2014 at 6:20PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Robert van Barlingen

No its the midget throwing then helicopter scene then the breaking the 4th wall sequence.

June 13, 2014 at 9:41PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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stephen

Wow really interesting take on Save the cat moment.

June 14, 2014 at 2:50AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Jesper

Great article made greater by the phrase "hooker booty cocaine snorter."

June 14, 2014 at 12:48PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Lopez

I'm a poet :)

June 15, 2014 at 5:19PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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avatar
V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor
Writer/Director

These bite sized tips are brilliant. Keep them coming, V.

June 14, 2014 at 7:02PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Ben Howling

Thanks Ben!

June 15, 2014 at 5:16PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor
Writer/Director

What you are after is Empathy not Sympathy. With sympathy you feel sorry for the character. With empathy you feel through the character, feeling the emotions the character is feeling. It is a subtle but important difference. It is the difference between connecting with the character and not connecting. Ed Hooks has a lot to say on this subject, check out his books or website.
Vulnerability definitely allows the audience to empathize with a character, not sympathize.

June 14, 2014 at 10:13PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Brocknoviatch

You can't write characters that every audience goer will empathize with. Sympathy is the correct terminology here.

June 15, 2014 at 12:24AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Anon

I actually agree with Brocknoviatch. They way it is described here is indeed empathy, not sympathy. Being able to connect with a character because you've been in a similar situation is empathizing with them. It is much easier to feel sorry for (sympathize) with a character than empathize. That's why writing characters with whom you can empathize is more difficult. And that's why if you can create empathetic characters, it's more important than likeability.

June 15, 2014 at 9:37PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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EMPATHY literally means "feeling into"; SYMPATHY literally means "feeling for". The two words are often misused, even by the most well-read and literate people. The term EMPATHY did not appear in English until the mid-1920's, which partly explains the confusion. Until then, the word SYMPATHY was the correct one when describing an empathic response - because there were no other choices. The distinction between them is important, however, because we tend to empathize with efforts to survive, and we tend to sympathize with people and characters who give up, quit, back away, feel sorry for themselves etc. At any rate, the goal for writers, actors, animators should be to evoke an empathetic response in the audience.
Ed Hooks
Acting for Animators
http://www.edhooks.com

June 20, 2014 at 9:44AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Wolf of Wall Street missed the point by trying to make Leo such a likable do gooder. It would have been better had they played him more realistically as a spiteful misanthrope. Rather than being Robin Hood, he should have been Patrick Bateman.

June 16, 2014 at 10:28PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Jake

You know, I didn't think of him as likable at all. I think that's a move Scorsese did in Goodfellas: Henry Hill is a terrible person but you have so much fun watching the gangster lifestyle for the first half of the movie that you don't notice how terrible he is until his final monologue.

June 17, 2014 at 12:10AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Coty

you sir missed the point of Wolf Of wall street.

July 30, 2014 at 10:26AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Johan

I like the valuable information you provide to your articles.
I'll bookmark your weblog and check again right here
regularly. I am moderately sure I will learn a lot of new stuff right here!
Best of luck for the following!

June 17, 2014 at 5:49AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Despite the post above me being total robospam, I actually agree with it 100%

June 18, 2014 at 7:19PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Doug

Sympathetic could be only a good guy, empathy is totally another world. A serial murder could be so interesting and to provoke an empathy to audience, which is much more valuable than sympathy!!!

July 30, 2014 at 5:38AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Well said Brocknoviatch, Ron Dawson and Ed Hooks. In life we met many people, we could not care for.

The driver who cuts you up etc. We have no sympathy, but we have a strong emotional feeling- particularly when we have experienced or can imagine the effect of their actions.

Life offers a stage for so many of the characters we see in films, as supplanted into the text or as composites. e.g. Zero Dark Thirty. Emotional connections are more often than not to be found in empathy. and not sympathy, otherwise you'd be liking the bad driver, for even the wrong reasons.

Lanouette's characterisation explanation is best understood in its broadest terms of what scholar David Bordwell calls semantic fields e.g. David and Goliath, the corporation against the loner person. In other words, anything that opposes our perceived notion of a character, can be really interesting e.g. Citizen Kane. Kane had it, but loses it.

Cinema is a forever evolving pupae in a web of fixed and fluid meaning. So, we'll always agree/disagree because it's culturally bound. Neorealism differs to Hollywood. Finally, how to construct cinema in real life?That's what we explore in videojournalism-as-cinema

David
Westminster, London

July 30, 2014 at 6:55AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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We need to get the audience to *identify* with the character. Showing vulnerability can work, but no one likes Bond because they feel sorry for him that his boss called. That's just trying to fit the screenwriting theory and I don't buy it. Bond creates fantasy identification--the idea that what he does is exactly what the view would do in the same situation. You create this by showing a character use resourcefulness, courage, spunk, to get out of tough scrapes that seem inescapable.

There are all kinds of identification you can create with a character--showing vulnerability is just one tool. In the course of a movie, you need to use a variety of techniques to establish and constantly re-establish this identification. More techniques creates deeper identification that doesn't feel one-note.

September 9, 2014 at 3:22PM

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