Character identification in stories—how to achieve it.

Rob Roy uses great character identification
Rob Roy is a great story made greater through the use of strong character identification

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.

Summary

Achieve a stronger and more engaging story by creating character identification with your protagonist through these six techniques.

4 thoughts on “Character identification in stories—how to achieve it.

  1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

    In giving a character the qualities of identification, you’re making that character relatable, Gerhard.

    Reply
  2. Gerhard Pistorius

    This is all well and good. However a big part in making a character believable is to make them relatable. As readers/viewers we need to be able to place ourselves in the character’s situation. Harry Potter – we don’t relate to him because he’s a wizard. We don’t even relate to him because he’s an orphan – a person who has known his parents all his life can’t relate. However we were all once children who were worried about school , relationships and having the need to prove ourselves. That’s what makes Harry, Ron and Hermione compelling. Same with any high concept. We can’t relate to a Mermaid who has spend her whole life under water. However the audience falls in love with Ariel because we are all guilty of wanting something we can’t have , disobeying our father figures or making deals with shady deal makers who will hoodwink us.

    In short : If you want to write about fairy tales , superheros or Any high concept that could only be considered as works of fiction – have the willingness to place yourself in the situation of your character and add a level of authenticity by reacting to the situation using your own personal experience .

    Reply
    1. Catlin Stevenson

      A book titled Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence was recently recommended to me. I’ve found it unique in that the protagonist has all these aspects of character identification except for point three of actually being likable. To put it into perspective, he commits murder and rape within the first chapter, and yet makes for a compelling character. He earns my sympathy once his tragic backstory is explained; he is in constant peril, fighting for his goals; he is definitely powerful as the leader of a gang of bandits; the story is written from his point of view; and he has many flaws, his mind twisted from a traumatic event in his childhood.

      I hadn’t experienced a character so unlikable that I was still somehow able to root for until I started reading this book, and these points on character identification explain why.

      Reply
      1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

        Yes, isn’t it so interesting, Caitlin. The same with Tony Soprano, and Walter White in Breaking Bad. Takes great writing skill to pull that off

        Reply

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