What Makes a Character Likable?
By Jacob Krueger
This is probably the most misunderstood question in all of screenwriting: “What makes a character likable?”
If you’ve seen Inside Llewyn Davis, you’ve seen the story of a guy who should be the least likable main character ever written. And if the Coen brothers had listened to the common wisdom on the subject, his would be a story that would never have been written.
There’s an old screenwriting trick called “Saving the Cat.” The phrase comes from the book Save The Cat by Blake Snyder, which basically suggests that if you want someone to like your main character, then at some point early in your script your character had better save a cat in a tree or do some other selfless act for some other helpless adorable creature. This way your audience can see that your character is a nice person they should connect with.
Now, don’t get me wrong – there is some valuable stuff in Save The Cat – but these kinds of tricks are extremely dangerous because although the formula may work for some movies, it doesn’t work for all of them.
The idea – the false idea – is that in order to make a character likable, you have to make them nice.
If you want to know that this is untrue, just think of the last person that tried to pick you up. Or think of your most recent disappointing internet date. Think of how nice they were trying to act and how boring it was spending time with them.
Nice doesn’t make you likable. Doing good things doesn’t make you likable.
We all recognize the people who are trying too hard to be nice, i.e. “saving the cat” in life to show you how nice they can be, rather than just being who they are. Think about that yoga girl who is just so nice. She does all the right things and she says all the right things and she’s just so “om.” And you want to stab her.
Now, there are other yoga girls who also do all the right things and also are really genuinely nice and also are so very “om” – and you feel exactly the opposite way about her. “Oh, I really connect to that person. I really like her.”
That’s the difference between trying to show nice and actually being nice.
We like characters when they are who they are in a really clear, strong, powerful way. We like characters who show something pure about themselves because we don’t get to see that every day. That’s because most of us are wearing masks.
So, when a character comes out and their mask is removed and we get to see them clearly, we’re going to care about them. We’re going to like them.
Inside Llewyn Davis begins with a main character who doesn’t just not save the cat. He loses the cat. He lies about the cat. And, ultimately, he finds the cat only to abandon the cat! And, nevertheless, we care about him.
This idea that if you want a character to be likable, then you send a cat up a tree and let the character save the cat is the biggest fiction and one of the most destructive myths in screenwriting.
The way you make a character likable is to send a cat up a tree and see what the character does. And make sure that they make a big decision that is truthful to who they are. Let them make a decision that we don’t see every day or do something that not everybody would do.
If you send a cat up a tree and your character chops down the tree, we’ll like the character. If you send a cat up the tree and the character sets the tree on fire, we’ll like the character. If you send a cat up the tree and the character throws rocks at the cat, we’ll like the character. As long as the action is true to the character.
Think about the characters we’ve fallen in love with. Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood abandons his little boy! He leaves his little boy on a train. He doesn’t even say goodbye and we care about him. Why? Because he’s acting the way only Daniel Plainview would act. He’s pursuing the thing only Daniel Plainview wants and he’s pursuing it with everything he’s got. With total clarity. There is no mask.
If you want an audience to fall in love with a character, the first thing you have to do is make sure that everything you write about the character is truthful. Make sure that the character is displaying who they are in the most truthful possible way. If your character is a character who would actually save the cat, just make sure they save the cat in a cool way.
For example, in Fruitvale Station there is a “Save the Cat” moment. The main character finds a dead dog and there’s a really beautiful moment where he’s leaning over the dog and he can’t do anything to help it. It’s a heartbreaking beautiful moment and it’s truthful to that character. At that moment he just wants to save that dog. And the dog actually ends up becoming a symbol for his whole life.
But when we first meet that character, he’s not saving a dog. He’s cheating on his wife! And he has a beautiful little daughter. And he’s dealing drugs and he’s screwing up. He’s not showing you that he’s nice. He’s being who he is. He’s pursuing what he really wants.
Sometimes, you’ve written a character whose mask is off. They are being who they are and they are making really strong choices. But we still don’t like that character. If that’s true, then you probably have some rewriting to do.
But first, you have to ask yourself some questions.
First, do you like the character? Are you in love with this character in some way? Is there something you find beautiful? Is there something you find tragic? Is there something you truly connect to in this character?
If there is, then you need to figure out how to get that thing on the page? How do you capture the element that you see in this character that makes you love them? Because if you can put the part of you that loves that character onto the page (the part of them that you love or the moment that you fell in love with them), then we will fall in love with them as well.
If you’re not in love with the character, you’ve got a whole different problem.
Oftentimes, you’re not in love with the character because you’ve been trying to write someone so damn likable. They end up feeling like the desperate girl at the party who just wants to be liked and just wants to be invited and you just don’t want to hang out with her.
So, if you’re not in love with the character, you have to start pushing. Well, what’s lovable about him? What’s lovable about her? What’s the part of the character that I haven’t seen yet; the part that’s under the surface that they are not expressing in the world. Who could this character be in another lifetime? If they could just get past all their problems or take off their mask? Who is the character lurking underneath the character? Find the moment where we glimpse a moment of that on the page.
That might be the moment where the character kicks the cat – if they’re overly sweet. It might be the moment – if they’re a really troubled guy – where they find a dead dog and they feel powerless because there’s nothing they can do.
The third thing to do, if you want to make your character likable, is to make sure you’re torturing them.
If you want people to like your character, just make sure that they’re going through hell. Make sure that the worst possible thing keeps on happening. Just make sure that they keep on paying the consequences for their actions.
The reason that we can love Llewyn Davis is that the poor guy is suffering. The poor guy is suffering more than the fair consequences for every single action that he takes and every choice that he makes. And that allows us to care about him because, whether we like who he is or not, we all know what it’s like to want something desperately. We know exactly what it feels like to try so hard to get it.
All writing is rewriting, but the best rewrites don’t depend upon tired old tricks or seen-it-before formulas. They grow organically from the very elements that made you want to tell the story in the first place. If you want your audience to fall in love with your character, the answer doesn’t lie somewhere out there in the ether. It already exists in you – with the connection you felt to them that made you want to tell their story.
In life, and in movies, we fall in love with all different kinds of characters and all different kinds of stories. The art of revision is not a bunch of tricks and fixes. It’s knowing what your script is and what your script isn’t (to you) and developing the craft you need to get the story in your heart onto the page in a way that’s equally compelling for your audience.
If you’d like to learn an organic way to bring out these elements in your own writing, check out my upcoming four-week Write Your Screenplay workshop.