The 3 Key Psychological Hooks to Creating Compelling Characters

What does the writing behind film's most successful characters have in common?

While artificial intelligence has been busy identifying the most successful story arcs in film, I’ve been focused on the one thing that algorithms will never understand: human characters. In particular, I’ve found three ubiquitous yet distinguishing features that all compelling characters share in successful screenplays and films.

What makes these three characteristics so significant is the psychological effects that they have on an audience, as well as their functional effects on story. In short, all three characteristics contain a universal principle that resonates with us as individual characters ourselves.

Distinction is the unconscious prompt that draws us into a character’s world.

1. Distinction

Distinction is whatever makes your character different and unique to the audience. Although it may seem that people gravitate toward the comfortable and familiar, I’d argue that we’re actually predisposed to the concept of distinction without being conscious of it. People by nature are organically drawn to anything that is new or different—sights, sounds, experiences, etc.

This psychology also plays out with respect to the characters in our screenplays. Distinction within a character is what piques our interest and causes us to want to know more about the person. It’s the unconscious prompt that draws us into their world. And it can come in many different forms. It can be a specific personality, a contradiction, a talent, an aspiration, an idiosyncrasy, a job, a character flaw, or an amalgam of several things.

Ryan Gosling in 'Drive'
Ryan Gosling in 'Drive'

Ryan Gosling’s character in Drive is a terrific example of this at play. He’s a Hollywood stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver. That unexpected twist is what made him totally distinctive to us as an audience. It’s what draws us to him right from the get-go and generates the requisite intrigue that aroused our interest in him as a unique individual.

Or take Steve Carell’s character in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. His distinction lies in the title itself. A normal, kindhearted man who hasn’t had a sexual encounter, not for some specific personal or religious reason, but because he just gave up trying, is curiosity Valhalla. It compels us to want to know more about him as a character.

Or think about Clint Eastwood’s character in the Academy Award-winning film, Unforgiven. He’s a former outlaw and killer who has been transformed by marriage. Being a repentant murderer trying to do right by his children by collecting a bounty, coupled with his violent past, is an aspiration and backstory that coalesced into a truly distinctive character. One that coaxed us into the story and caused us to want to know more about him.

In order for the audience to connect with your character, they have to connect with something in themselves that knows what your character is feeling.

2. Empathy

People connect with other people through empathy. Our innate ability to sense other people’s emotions, as well as to imagine what someone else might be feeling, is hardwired in us as a species. When we see a child crying tears of joy as they reunite with their returning military mom or dad, and we notice ourselves choking up, that’s empathy. When we see someone struggling with a problem and feel a need to help, that’s empathy.

Empathy is what moves us to share in another’s struggle, to really see the world through their eyes. It’s our capacity to identify with the feelings and concerns other people have. It allows us to look at others and feel that they are somewhat like…well, us.

Understanding this facet of intrinsic human nature is the key that unlocks your character’s relatability to an audience. How so? Because in order for the audience to connect with your character, they have to connect with something in themselves that knows what your character is feeling. Simply put, your character gives you the ability to create empathy, and empathy allows the audience to personally connect to your character and their story.

Steve Carell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin
Steve Carell in 'The 40-Year-Old Virgin'

Let’s go back to our example characters, starting with Ryan Gosling in Drive. His desire to help his neighbor out of a violent situation, despite the fact that he’s falling in love with the man’s wife, is something we can empathize with. That sacrifice and emotional duality is what causes us to relate to him as a human being and creates a personal connection with us as an audience.

After learning that Steve Carell’s character in The 40-Year-Old Virgin is, in fact, a virgin, his friends rekindle his desire to get back into the game again. However, he wants more than sex; he’s looking for companionship. And that’s a universal human need that we can all relate to. It’s what produces an empathetic connection in us as an audience.

Externally, Clint Eastwood’s character in Unforgiven desires to provide a better life for his motherless children by doing one last killing and collecting a bounty. This allows us to easily empathize with him. Internally, his fear of collecting a bounty by having to kill two cowboys, which in turn might cause him to revert back to being the man he used to be, generated an additional level of connective empathy. The power of empathy is evident in that we still empathized despite the fact that he was a known thief and murderer.

Distinction, empathy, and impetus are the psychological cornerstones in crafting a compelling character with emotional resonance

3. Impetus

A character’s impetus is defined as the “why” behind their desire; it’s the thing that is personally motivating them to attain that desire.

As mentioned above, Ryan Gosling’s desire was to help his neighbor out of a violent situation, despite the fact that he’s falling in love with the man’s wife. So what’s his impetus? What’s personally motivating him to want to attain that desire? What’s his “why”? The answer lies in a key scene where Gosling had dinner with the neighbor, the neighbor’s wife, and their young son. It’s here Gosling sees a hint of happiness in the man’s wife as her husband reminiscences on how they became a family. This is when we as an audience realize Gosling wants the man’s wife to be happy, but he recognizes that part of her happiness lies in wanting to keep her family together because her son loves his father. And that’s the personal motivation that causes us an audience to invest in Gosling’s character.

Steve Carell’s Virigin character wanted to get back into the game in hopes of finding companionship. So what’s his impetus? It’s rooted in the fact that he’s been alone for so long that he’s filled his world with inanimate man-child objects in order to make his life happy. Except he has no one to share his stuff with. His only friends are an old couple he watches Survivor with. The desire for more intimate companionship is the impetus that drove him to get back in the game. It’s what endeared us to him and made us invest in his story.

In Unforgiven, the desire of Clint Eastwood’s character was to provide a better life for his motherless children. His impetus is both simple and thoughtful enough for us to invest in. Like most parents, he wants his children to have a better life than he had—and a better life than they’re currently living, eking out a struggling existence on a tiny, failing, pig farm in the middle of nowhere.

Distinction, empathy, and impetus are the psychological cornerstones in crafting a compelling character with emotional resonance. So as you begin to develop your character, keep in mind: Distinction draws the audience in. Empathy makes the audience relate. And Impetus keeps the audience invested.     

Tim Long is a screenwriter who has sold, optioned, and pitched feature film projects at the studio level, and has had original screenplays in development with Academy Award® winning and nominated producers. He’s also a nationally recognized screenplay consultant and taught screenwriting for nearly two decades at the MFA level in a top ranked University film program. He’s currently Founder of PARABLE, a game-changing screenplay development process. Follow him on Twitter.

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Your Comment


Thanks Tim, a really good article. While I agree with your thoughts about the element of distinction - I want to add a thought. All of the characters you describe are distinct, but they also share something that audiences crave - they are outstanding at what they do or what they are as people. Clint Eastwood was a hateful man, but he was exceptionally good at what he did - even while drunk he was a peerless killer. Ryan Gosling had an amazing ability to control a car, and to think and act strategically while he did it. Steve Carell was a great collector of memorabilia, but much more than that, he was totally pure as a person - surrounded by interesting and amusing, but distinctly flawed individuals. Katherine Keener was a much more worldly person, but essentially had the same pure, hopeful heart as Carell. That these characters demonstrate the potential to use their abilities and qualities for good makes us want to follow along, to see how it works out for them.

Another important aspect - I believe as an audience we crave the extraordinary ability or quality they possess - as people among us in the crowd - not superstars or celebrities. I can't disappear into the skin of Pele, or Kim Kardashian - but I can into Pacino's Michael Corleone. He is an extraordinary individual - cool under fire, decisive, brave, a leader - but when we meet him, he is, to the world, an ordinary man. Same goes for Sam Worthington's Jake Sully in Avatar - he has greatness in him, but no one knows it yet. The scene where he, as a paraplegic, takes on a partner-beating bully in the bar on earth - is intended to establish that (even though it's only in the extended cut). I suspect that's why, very often, biopics of real-life superstars don't really get a lot of traction in the box office.

Just some thoughts.

July 15, 2016 at 7:39PM, Edited July 15, 7:48PM

Nigel Traill
Director, Camera, Editor

I think you're spot on Nigel in articulating how these characters may not all be likeable but they are interesting. To piggyback on your Clint Eastwood character opinion it's important to note how we learn William Munny is a bad dude. Through prologue text and dialogue from "The Scholfield Kid" and Ned we learn of Munny's horrific past but the actions we see of him from the opening portray a loving father trying to do the right thing by his two children and late wife. There is a terrific internal conflict established by his duality within the first 10 minutes of the film which I consider to be the best western ever made.

July 15, 2016 at 9:18PM, Edited July 15, 9:18PM


Trace, you're right. It is beautifully done, and sets the scene for a complex and textured story that is simultaneously modern and epic.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that we know what Eastwood as a character has been capable of in other films. Can't imagine Steve Carell pulling William Munny off so easily. Best western for me too, btw.

July 15, 2016 at 9:56PM

Nigel Traill
Director, Camera, Editor

Great insight of this topic! The article is magnificent and unique, writing style quite innovative.

July 19, 2016 at 4:58AM


so handy!

July 19, 2016 at 11:36PM


That is some good info...all good movies. I never really understood till now.

thx you.

July 20, 2016 at 12:10PM

charles Anthony gallardo
director, producer

While I generally agree with the theory of this article, the analysis of Unforgiven is so wrong.

To say that: “the desire of Clint Eastwood’s character was to provide a better life for his motherless children” is not the impetus of his character.

As a father of two young children, the fact that he leaves his children to go and run off into a violent confrontation on the basis of some gossip is not empathetic behavior. In fact, think about the most compelling evidence we see when his character is introduced.

He tries shooting at some cans and misses, finally relying on a shotgun to do the trick.
He falls trying to mount his horse.

This tells us he is no longer the man he once was. Can’t shoot or ride his horse like he used to. William Muny is driven (selfishly) to become the man he misses, his true self, the cold hearted killer even if it means he might die and orphan his children. Surely, he must know what a harsh would he is leaving them to - to fend for themselves, at the mercy of the elements, and a cruel world full of bad actors. And yet he’s willing to risk their lives so he can have just a taste of his former glory.

Now most of us can’t relate to someone who is a cold hearted killer but we all understand what its like to not be living out our true selves and this is what is compelling and relatable about him as a character. But hardly empathetic.

July 30, 2017 at 4:11PM, Edited July 30, 4:11PM