Points of identification – identifying with the audience
For an audience to get into a story they need to be able to identify in some way with the main character in the movie. It does not matter if that character is a villain, is some sort of psychopath, or is even an alien from another planet. If there is something about them that the audience can relate to, then they can sympathize with that character in a way, and sit through till the end of the story because they care enough to want to see it through.
There are three ways to do this. The first is by making the character just like anyone else: the regular guy no different than the rest of us. This is probably the easiest way. The second is by making the person someone we can sympathize with, or at least feel sorry for. The third is by making their motives something we can accept.
In the movie “Precious” the main character (who’s played eponymously by Gabourey Sidibe) leads a life of such incredible abuse that we may have a hard time relating to it per se. We may have a hard time putting ourselves in her shoes, but this does not mean that we can’t sympathize.
At the start of the movie, Precious’ character is hard to like: she is fat and ugly, as well as surly, withdrawn, and hostile to even those who genuinely want to help her. She is not, therefore, a regular character, and her circumstances are alien to most of us (hopefully).
As we begin to see the suffering and hardship that she endures, however, we begin to understand that her personality is the result of the brutal way her family has treated her. We realize that her behavior is a defense mechanism she has created in order to protect herself. And so we sympathize.
Difficult as the movie is to watch, we do so anyway. We want to see the end because we find ourselves rooting for her, desperately hoping that things will get better for her. Who doesn’t want to see the downtrodden hero win against all odds, or to at least find out that someone’s suffering has ended?
“Dexter” is a perfect example of how an audience can sympathize with a villain, so long as they have motives we can understand. The protagonist (played by Michael C. Hall) is incapable of feeling, and needs to kill in order to function. We cannot relate to this, but since Dexter only slaughters serial killers like himself, we conveniently forgive him.
There is a poetic justice in serial killers being preyed upon by one of their own, after all, and who doesn’t like seeing the bad guys get their just deserts? It is a primitive form of justice, but it is still something we can appreciate and understand.
On screen we approve of his murders rooting for him on and hoping he never gets caught by the authorities. We may not like him or his methods, but we approve of his results because we understand them.
The active versus reactive hero
In every movie there are two types of heroes. The first is the active type, the one who’s gung ho about solving the problem, and is both physically and emotionally equipped for the task. The Batman and James Bond films would fall into this category, as would every other superhero genre.
The second is the reactive one, the reluctant hero who’d like nothing more than to be left alone in order to lead an ordinary life, but is forced by circumstances to act. In Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe’s eponymous character finds himself wanting to lead such a life in the wizarding world, but constantly finds himself having to fight Lord Voldemort in order to save that very world he wants so much to be a part of.
It is only in the end with the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows does Potter find himself becoming the active hero. To do so, he leaves the very school he loves, and instead of waiting for Voldemort to bring the fight to him, he works to take the fight to his nemesis instead.
For heroes to be either active or reactive, however, a protagonist is necessary. Had Voldemort actually died (completely) in the first book, there would have been no more Harry Potter series. All the other threats in the wizard world could have been handled by the others, after all. Since Potter is the only one who can successfully confront Voldemort, however, the two define each other. After all without Voldemort, Potter would have been just another ordinary wizard indistinguishable from the rest.
Goals provide meaning and direction
Just as heroes need villains in order to define them, so the main character needs a goal in order to give their story a sense of purpose. Without such a goal, there would be no story, no direction, just a meandering and aimless description of someone’s life and circumstances.
Goals can change. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker’s original goal is to escape his boring farm life on the dreary desert planet of Tatooine. Then he sees the holographic recording of Princess Lea and wants to find out who she is.
Then his farm gets destroyed and he wants revenge. Then he meets Obi Wan Kenobi and he wants to become a Jedi Knight. In the end, his goal becomes loftier yet: to bring down the evil empire which rules the galaxy. This final goal provides the excellent setting for the series which follows.
Though his original goal was simple (and one many can surely relate to, for who doesn’t dream of escape every once in a while?), it is tied in to his penultimate goal: that of struggle against oppression.
At the start of the movie, Luke seems himself in a dead end life under what he believes to be the tyranny of his uncle Owen. In the end, he ends up becoming a key figure in the fight against the powerful galactic empire.
Stretching over several series, Skywalker achieves most of his goals in the end: he escapes the farm, learns to be a great fighter pilot, becomes a Jedi knight, and topples his government in the end. He loses the girl, but who really achieves every single goal they set for themselves?
To make a story successful, however, the hero must not only attain their goal, they must also have to struggle for it. That struggle cannot only be external, but internal as well. Fight scenes and special effects can only carry an audience so far, after all.
So the main character must also change inside, must also be forced to fight their own inner demons, and confront their own weaknesses. By the time they accomplish their goal, they must not be the same person at the start of the movie.
This is called the character arch, the development of the protagonist’s personality from what it was when the movie started, to what it becomes at the end.
About Serge Kozak
Serge Kozak is the founder and CEO of True Hero Studio and Edictive. Edictive is an online project management software for film. Easy film production in the cloud.