Five Ways To Make Your Characters More Relatable

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“Relatable characters” are the holy grail of screenwriting. Producers want to see them on the page and audiences want to watch them on the screen. But what makes a character truly relatable?

As writers, we are often tempted to focus on plot to raise the emotional stakes. It’s not just one man in trouble, it’s the whole country — or better yet, it’s the whole world that’s in danger. But the true source of emotional depth is characters facing deep, intense, and intimate drama. It is the personal emotional stakes, not the grand narrative framework, that resonate with audiences.

Let’s take a look at a few ways to raise the emotional stakes by making your characters more relatable.

The Girl On The Train (2016) Photo courtesy: Universal Pictures

No. 1 — Give them a flaw

Most of us are flawed beings, which is why every hero needs a flaw. Audiences can’t relate to perfect humans. They aren’t inspired by watching perfect characters triumph in small battles. They’re inspired by watching imperfect humans struggle to do great things.

One of the most flawed characters in recent film is Rachel (Emily Blunt) in The Girl on the Train. She’s a raging alcoholic – a true flaw – but she manages to overcome her addiction at the end to help identify the killer. The audience roots for her, and when she finally triumphs at the climax, the audience cheers — not only because they see a little of themselves in her, but also because she worked so hard to do it.

Hunger Games (2012) Photo courtesy: Lionsgate

No. 2 — Give them hard choices

Characters are determined by their choices. What does the character want? How far will that character go to get it? What are they willing to sacrifice? The harder the choices, the more character suffers, becoming more complexly human in the process.

The movie The Hunger Games (2012) takes life and death choices to the extreme. As the tribute for her district, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is thrown into a horrific situation in which she either kills or gets killed. The story takes hard choices and gives them a knife’s edge. The thrill of watching her suffer through her anguished decisions made the movie a box office smash and inspired a fevered following among teen viewers.

The Martian (2015) Photo courtesy: 20th Century Fox

No. 3 — Give them plenty of pluck

Who doesn’t love watching unlucky characters rally in the face of suffering? Unsinkable characters have the chance to despair but refuse – to the audience’s delight.

One of the pluckiest characters recently is The Martian’s Mark Watney (Matt Damon). Due to an accident, Mark gets left behind on Mars. Instead of freaking out, he says: “I’m going to have to science the s— out of this.” His humor and determination makes him a truly winning character.

Moonlight (2016) Photo courtesy: A24

No. 4 — Make them suffer

Suffering humanizes your characters and deepens the audience’s connection to them. When they suffer, we feel. No recent film demonstrates this principle as beautifully as Moonlight (2016). Chiron is a young gay man growing up in the projects with his drug-addicted mother. He is ridiculed and beaten up, betrayed and harassed. Audiences were absolutely captivated by his poignant story, making this one of the best films of its year.

Moana (2016) Photo courtesy: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

No. 5 — Make them yearn

Most of us want something. Some of us want it desperately. Yearning is a deeply human experience, and seeing characters reflect this experience gives voice to some of our innermost primal desires.

The movie Moana does this beautifully: in one of the most gorgeous songs in the film (“How Far I’ll Go”), Moana tells us how she yearns to cross the sea. Audiences loved the song and they loved her character – in fact, they loved Moana so much, they made the movie a box office smash.

Who are your favorite movie characters? What makes them relatable, in your opinion? Sound off below!

author-avatar

Jennie Evenson is the author of “Shakespeare for Screenwriters” (Michael Wiese, 2013) and the forthcoming “Storytelling Secrets of the Masters.” As a writer in LA, Evenson worked as a consultant for Netflix and developed ideas at production houses from DreamWorks to Focus Features. You can follow her on Twitter: @JM_Evenson

13 Replies to "Five Ways To Make Your Characters More Relatable"

  • comment-avatar
    Sam August 9, 2017 (4:34 am)

    Helpful!

  • comment-avatar
    Bill Hartin August 9, 2017 (5:24 am)

    Thank you, Jennie, for identifying key character traits that often get overlooked when a writer incorporates them so well into a script that they come across as natural, yet unique to the characters. Your “Five Ways…” reminder is also so timely for me right now, while I’m developing a treatment for a drag racing series, that I wish I could pick your brain for more pointers over coffee; but we’re on opposite ends of the country right now, so that won’t be possible.

    Nevertheless, thanks again for your insightful tips…all the best.

  • comment-avatar
    Tom Parks August 9, 2017 (8:53 am)

    Sometimes when you’re working on one of those everlasting first drafts, the right thing comes along at just the right time to get you through a hump. So it is with Jennie’s list of five ways to make your characters more relatable. Fortunately, my one-dimensional characters were sitting there on the page, waiting for something to help them move on with the plot, and now, thanks to Jennie, they’re up and moving again. Yes! Thank you!

  • comment-avatar
    Prema Rose August 9, 2017 (11:32 am)

    Very clear examples, Jennie. I have an animated/live action musical that goes to the heart of the matter, “Who am I?”, “Why am I here?”, and “Where is here, anyway?”. I am packaging the script and it has won 5 festival awards.

    Having been a Shakespearean actor for a good part of my life, I would add that that the protagonist is open to learning from mentors who will burst His/Her ego bubble for the learning to take effect. So Openness allows teaching to advance His/Her journey. Timeless words, like Polonius’s advice to Laertes is an example.

  • comment-avatar
    Tam August 9, 2017 (11:43 am)

    How relatable all of the above pointers match w/ “The Living Light” story/book by Anastasia Po. ( a true story)

  • comment-avatar
    Chris Ramlochan August 9, 2017 (1:37 pm)

    I humbly thank you, Jennie, and honored, you’re a genius — along the theme of sacrifices, it’s when Robin Williams gave up his “Heaven” for “Hell” in the movie, “What Dreams May Come” — and what Brad Pitt did in “World War Z”. — reasons why we cared so much.

  • comment-avatar
    George Gilfoil August 10, 2017 (9:06 am)

    Some good thoughts. I am a newbie with three different plots in which I will test your inputs. Hopefully I will have good fortune in doing so. Thanks

  • comment-avatar
    Jim Roddy August 12, 2017 (6:40 am)

    Thank you very, Very, VERY much for this. It confirms I am on the right track with my current project. I may be fooling myself, but believe my protagonist has all of these. Thanks again, Jennie!

  • comment-avatar
    William Sowles August 12, 2017 (1:42 pm)

    I love simple plots and complex characters.

  • comment-avatar
    Charlie Frazier August 13, 2017 (5:58 am)

    I don’t care…DO NOT care about personal flaws in any of the characters unless it is vital to the story. When I’m following characters in a story, I want to know that they’re on track to get what they’re after. I don’t need to know that s/he was an alcoholic or a drug addict or that they have severe acne.

  • comment-avatar
    Brian Duggan August 13, 2017 (7:13 am)

    Character arcs ascend on recognition of personal faults when a clear goal is known.

  • comment-avatar
    Alden Cheney August 13, 2017 (8:07 am)

    Not to be smug or anything, but I have two screenplays whose protagonists meet all five criteria. That said, I’m going back into both stories to see if I can intensify them.

  • comment-avatar
    Ron August 13, 2017 (3:57 pm)

    The last comment on here makes a good point about the fact that the stakes a character faces must be important or dire to make an interesting story. However, the article here is about character and the fact that the audience must connect with the character or they won’t be interested in your plot. Also, the depth of a character is intertwined with the plot itself. Character is plot-plot is character, why? Characters are people are they not? And people make choices, those choices are what the person does and THIS becomes the PLOT. A person who was abused as a child and never got therapy will make much different choices when faced with a calmaty than a healthy person, so would an alcoholic who has a compulsion to “medicate” their pain away.

    I’m writing this because if you don’t understand that character is actually more important than plot then you’re writing will not amount to much. A person is as a person does. Their actions speak louder than their words. People will say they are going to start a business and become wealthy. But then they don’t and sit on the sofa the rest of the life, while another person does that very thing. Each has made the same statement but acted differently. Those are two different movies.

    The drama people want to watch unfold on screen are real people dealing with real problems – even if they are saving the world (watch Die hard and notice how much his estranged wife has to do with his character and why he feels the need to save everyone in the building). Why has the one person stayed on the couch? Why has the other found the wherewithall to work hard and become wealthy? That’s where the drama is not in the amount of business that pours into his store or hours spent on the couch.

    THe writer of this artcile gets the fundamentals of writing. No one remembers the blow by blow outcomes of Rocky’s fights. Just that he struggled to belive in himself and set out to prove to Adrien his love and proved something we all want to for ourselves. Read Truby’s books and/or Save the Cat or take a class on this site and you’ll find out what makes a good story.

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