How do you make the audience care about characters in your screenwriting?
19. Tears for days: How to make the audience care
Have you written a character that is such an ass your audience couldn’t care less if he lives or dies? Or maybe you’ve written what you thought was a likeable character, but readers tell you they just aren’t invested in her.
Some characters need to be the biggest douches on the planet for the sake of the story – but they always grow into better people throughout their story arcs.
There are many ways to make an audience like your character. Blake Snyder, author of Save the Cat, suggests the most simple method to get your audience on your character’s side early on. His technique is widely used; once you know it, you’ll spot it in TV shows & films everywhere.
Snyder’s character technique is what he named his book after
When you’re introducing your character, simply portray him or her carrying out a selfless act, such as saving a cat out of a tree on that morning jog, or helping a little old lady across the street. Awww, wasn’t that like super adorable?
As a viewer, you don’t know much about the character yet, but you already like him or her and are immediately on board with the arc. You sympathize when bad things happen to him or her because you know from the off this is a decent person deep down; you want him or her to succeed in all those adventures.
This trick can be seen everywhere
In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Mildred comes across butch, numb, and terrifying – until she sees a cockroach upside down, unable to flip itself. She looks at the cockroach, an ugly insect that infests homes, and flips it over the right way. We see the cockroach on its feet again going about its daily business.
What characters do defines them as people, not what they say. (For the record, we’d have totally left the cockroach where it was . . . ew!) We now see underneath this tough exterior is a woman with a soft heart, the real Mildred. This character is interesting and dynamic, a real force of nature, but inside she’s a cuddly teddy bear.
We viewers want to find out what Mildred’s story is. It really is as simple as that. You can create the most unlikeable character in history, but still make the audience root for him or her with an action as simple as that.
Mama Coco & poor Debbie’s milk
In Pixar’s Coco, the “save the cat” moment is right at the beginning. Miguel explains his family history through some satisfying animation only Pixar could pull off, introduces us to his great grandma with an “Hola mama Coco!”, then kisses her on the cheek.
This simple gesture cleverly gets the audience to like Miguel and care about his fortune for the rest of the film. We have now seen that he loves and respects his great grandma which illustrates he’s a good kid at heart (and not Damien from The Omen).
In Netflix’s GLOW, the “save the cat” moment happens when Ruth is in her dance fitness class with Debbie. Debbie starts lactating, which embarrasses her. Ruth then compassionately removes her sweater and gives it to her friend to conceal the wet spots.
Sometimes the moment to make an audience like your character can be something funny. In La La Land, we’re introduced to Mia when Sebastian honks his horn in frustration, as she’s distracted memorizing her lines and hasn’t moved her car in traffic.
Mia thinks Sebastian is being rude, but quickly realizes she needs to drive forward: “What is his prob— . . . I should go.” This moment induces audience empathy for Mia – she made us laugh in a situation we’ve all been in before.
“Save the cat” over & over
You can use this trick for every single script you write from here on out. One day you’ll look back at the scripts you wrote prior to gaining this knowledge and see how they would’ve benefitted from “save the cat” moments.
By using this technique yourself and spotting it in other films, you’ll start to see how much of an impact it can have on audiences’ desire to continue watching your story.
The homework for this lesson requires you to notice characters’ decision-making. Watch and learn how the screenwriting maestros make you empathize and latch onto their carefully crafted characters – whether you want to or not. Thought you had a choice, didn’t you!
Character judgement day
Take a notepad and pen for the next film you watch and note down every time the protagonist makes a decision in the story. When the film is over look at the list of decisions.
The list is proof of an active protagonist who drives the story and makes us empathize with them. Every time the character makes a decision, we ask ourselves what decision we would personally make in his or her shoes.
The character must keep making decisions in order to keep us on board with the story. Make sure you do the same for your protagonist.
Whip the third act of your movie into shape. This might take you a few days, so we’ll go gentle on you!