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.
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.
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.
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