A well-crafted film script or novel contains strong character identification—characters we can identify with. At the very least, it allows us to identify with the protagonist , if we are to be drawn into the tale at all. By identification I mean the tendency to experience part of 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 a traditional story, it is one of the most important elements.
Because character 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. The more we like someone the more likely we are to root for him. 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 him into the fray, the sooner the process of identifying with him can begin.
6. Give your character flaws and foibles. We often identify with a character who is quirky, awkward or clumsy precisely because we recognise some of these characteristics as our own. In my best selling novel, Scarab, the protagonist refuses to get rid of his old bell-bottom trousers and keeps a bowl filled with milk for his dead cat as if she were still alive.
Achieve a stronger and more engaging story by creating character identification with your protagonist through these six techniques.