How to Establish Character Identification

In a well-crafted film or novel, we often identify with the characters in the story. At the very least, we need to identify with the protagonist – if we are to be drawn into the tale at all. By identification, I mean the tendency to experience a character’s achievements, failures, foibles, likes and dislikes as if they were our own. Identification is not the same as liking the character, although, in the traditional story, it is one of the most important elements. Because identification helps to draw us into the story more effectively than is otherwise possible, it is one of the most important story-telling skills to master.

A child kissing its reflection in the mirror

Character Identification

In his book, Writing Screenplays That Sell, Michael Hague lays out several ways to achieve this. Here’s six of the most important:

1. Create sympathy for your characters. This is one of the most effective ways to achieve identification with a fictional character. A character that has been made the victim of some undeserved misfortune is a someone we can root for — Ghandi, Joan of Arc, Rob Roy are all people that did not deserve the punishment meted out to them.

2. Place your character in peril. Worrying about a character’s well-being draws us closer to him. In The Matrix we worry that Neo’s conflict with agent Smith will result in his death. This forces us identify with his predicament even more.

3. Make your character likable. If we like someone we are more likely to root for her. A character that is funny (Inspector Clouseau), good (William Wallace), or merely skilled at what he does (Dirty Harry), posses traits that make him likable.

4. Make your character powerful. Readers and audiences are fascinated with powerful figures. Superman’s arch enemy, Lex Luthor, holds our interest precisely because his is a powerful enemy.

5. Introduce your protagonist as soon as possible. The reader is waiting for someone worthy to root for. The sooner you bring her into the fray, the sooner the process of identifying with her can begin.

6. Give your character familiar flaws and foibles. In comedy, especially, we often identify with a character who is awkward or clumsy precisely because we recognise some of these characteristics as our own. Woody Allen’s characters are an effective illustration of this technique.

In Summary

Creating a strong sense of Identification with your protagonist and her plight is essential. Use one or more of the six tehquniques mentioned above to achieve a stronger and more engaging storyline.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. I post every Monday.

11 thoughts on “How to Establish Character Identification

  1. Russ Welsh

    One other thing: in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, arguably Jim Carrey’s best film, all of the above information is prevalent. In some ways, more so than many other movies I have seen. But, the only thing I don’t quite get is with Joel (Carrey’s character) being in peril. Is his peril that he has to escape the mind erasure while he is in his brain? Could this be seen as a metaphor for someone losing a part of themselves by erasing their memories? I only ask because I’m travelling down a similar path with my coup de grace, “What She Wrote About Me”.

    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      The stakes or peril is exactly that Russ. Joel has to somehow preserve his memory of his relationship by hidding it from the erasure procedure.

  2. Russ Welsh

    Another brilliant post. Keep ’em comin’. Each one is a godsend. Thanks, Stavros. P.S.: Can you do a post on high concept? It’s one of the ONLY things I can’t seem to wrap my mind around no matter how many times I hear about it. Maybe, if you do a post of the subject, it might sink in finally.

    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Krystal. Yes, that’s true; a small flaw makes for a more interesting and realistic character, but should be handled in a way that does not derail her.

  3. Shea Moir

    I was just going over your character Identification and noticed I have used all these rules. Except my Protagonist being introduced as soon as possible. There was quite a lot of detail covering the bad stuff that I included before I introduced my likable guy to my current script. Or though I think It helped because it could be used as a means of Comedic relief and to allow the audience to hop into the light for a while and feel good and not be stuck in the awful mind set of the antagonist for too long. These are really cool post. For some reason, I feel limitless with them. Love getting my does of your stuff on a weekly basis. Keep it coming, (holds hands out) “Please sir, I want some more”.
    Ta ta
    S. M

  4. Carol Coetzee

    Thanks. I hope I manage to get it right. I know I have it when I read books with too many characters and find it difficult to keep track of all of them, so I have stick to two protaganistic main characters and several smaller ones who play minor, but important roles, one of them being the primary antogonistic

  5. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

    Thanks for the question, Carol. Primarily the protagonist, although we might feel some identification with aspects of other characters. But perhaps the latter may best be described as empathy.

  6. Carol Coetzee

    Thanks Steven, this should be quite helpful with the characters I am creating. What are your thoughts on how many characters a person can identify with in any story? not necessarily good or bad, just people who play some kind of smaller role in the story?


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