Written by Ali Laventhol
Recently, Tawnya and I did the WGA’s Showrunner Training Program, and we heard one thing come up repeatedly, from both speakers and panelists. It came up when execs spoke about why they buy certain pitches over others, and when showrunners spoke about why they respond to certain samples when hiring. And that is: “I have to care about the characters.”
It’s the same for audiences. We won’t keep watching if we don’t care about the people in the story. If you’re sending your script to a contest, or out to get repped, or if your reps are submitting it for a job, you’re going to want to make sure your reader cares about your characters, too. But how do we do it?
Here are a few tips that involve your character introductions—because not only do you need your reader/audience to care, but you need them to do so right out of the gate. So try introducing your character as they…
1. Break the rules to help someone else.
This is more than just a “Save The Cat” moment. Yes, having your character do something nice in general will certainly help us like them. But see if you can take it further. What are the stakes of the nice gesture? Is your character taking a personal risk by being kind? Are they putting their own neck on the line?
In the THE GOOD NURSE (Netflix), when we meet AMY LOUGHREN (Jessica Chastain), she’s tending to a sick patient. It’s late at night in a hospital room and the patient’s concerned husband doesn’t want to leave but says he has no choice because the hospital doesn’t allow visitors to stay overnight. Those are the rules. Amy, our nurse main character, overhears this and wheels in a chair. Amy: “Hey, Sam. This chair reclines. Do you want some blankets and a pillow?” When the husband, Sam, looks at her in disbelief, Amy answers by saying she won’t tell if he doesn’t. BOOM! We now care about Amy.
2. Suddenly meet with misfortune.
Everyone knows what it feels like to get bad news. That’s why this technique works on two levels – it make your character relatable (we’ve been there) and it creates empathy (we feel their pain).
In CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE, we meet CAL (Steve Carrell) when his wife of many years announces out of the blue that she wants a divorce. Cal is blindsided. Moments later, she adds salt to the wound by admitting that she had an affair. This one-two punch is such a blow to Cal that he opens the car door while his wife is driving and tucks and rolls out of the moving vehicle. That’s how badly it hurts him to face this painful bomb drop. (The character is hurting and I know what that’s like so I now care about Cal.)
In THE SOUND OF METAL, we meet drummer RUBEN (Riz Ahmed) as he realizes he is losing his hearing. While this would be an incredibly difficult discovery for anyone, we understand what this means to him because of his passion and dedication to music.
If you’re writing a comedy, you can still have success with this technique—but make the misfortune funny. For example, in BRIDESMAIDS, we meet ANNIE (Kristen Wiig) when she’s doing the walk of shame. She’s asked to leave early in the morning after a night of sex with the guy she really likes. We see him give her the big brush off. Annie, with a mere shred of dignity still intact, attempts to exit out his driveway’s automatic gate, but it’s locked. She can’t get out. She decides to climb over it, but when she’s awkwardly straddling the very tippy top, the housekeeper shows up with the clicker and the motorized gate begins to open. Annie waves at the housekeeper—mortified.
3. Deal with an ongoing struggle.
This is similar to #2, but we’re not with your character when they’re hit over the head with bad news. In this case, they’ve already been struggling with something challenging for a while.
In DEAD TO ME (Netflix) we meet JEN (Christina Applegate) when she attends a grief support group for the very first time. We see that she is the most unlikely type of woman to attend one of these groups, and she’s wildly uncomfortable. The fact that she’s been struggling to cope with the death of her husband for a while, becomes clear. We also meet JUDY, the other lead, who complements Jen and goes overboard to try to make her feel comfortable – helping us care about both women.
In MAD MEN, we meet DON (Jon Hamm) when he is afraid to go to work the next day because he’s got nothing to pitch for his Lucky Strike ad account. In the pilot’s very first scene he starts a conversation with a Black busboy who politely answers his questions about why he smokes a certain cigarette brand. The white bartender asks if the busboy is bothering him and Don says, “No, we’re actually having a conversation. Is that okay?” After the bartender walks away, Don (showing empathy) comments to the busboy, “Obviously you need to relax after working here all night.” In the next scene, we hear more about Don’s imposter syndrome. Don: “I’m over and they’re finally going to know it. The next time you see me there’ll be a bunch of young executives picking the meat off my ribs.” Since feeling unprepared for a big professional opportunity or worrying about losing a job is relatable, we begin to care about Don… who we will later come to know as one of tv’s most iconic anti-heroes.
In SHARPER (Apple), we meet Julianne Moore’s character, MADELINE, when her adult son comes to a fancy soiree she’s throwing with her billionaire boyfriend. Her son is wasted and makes a big scene in front of their guests. Humiliated, she takes him into a back room, hoping to calm him down, but he proceeds to pee in a crystal decanter, offended that she may want to drug test him. When Julianne cries, pleading “please don’t do this to me…” we understand that this situation is something she’s been suffering through for a long time. Of course, later we’ll learn more about what’s really going on, but for now – upon meeting Madeline – we care about her.
4. Receive admiration from others.
If there is an organic way to show us that the world cares about your character and holds them in high esteem, then we will naturally jump on board.
In TÁR we meet LYDIA (Cate Blanchett), a renowned symphony conductor, as an interviewer is listing off an obscene number of her achievements. He’s telling us that she’s one of a small handful of EGOTs (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) and treating her like royalty. There is a live audience in attendance, and they all seem to be in awe of her too. We get the sense that she is a very big deal as the interviewer rattles on about her accomplishments — and we care about her like we’d naturally care about anyone who is that exceptional in their field.
5. Show vulnerability.
When we see someone step out of their comfort zone or show vulnerability, we feel for them. Being willing to expose oneself emotionally takes courage and bravery. (Brene Brown, anyone??) It’s easy to care about characters who take this chance in an honest way.
Back to the movie SHARPER (Apple). We meet TOM (Justice Smith) when he’s reading inside his empty bookstore. A customer, SANDRA enters and through their conversation we see that he is taken with her. She’s beautiful while he seems shy, introverted, maybe a bit lonely and awkward. And yet, he musters the courage to ask her out to dinner in a sincere, non-creepy way. She, however, turns him down. This moment makes us care about Tom because, not only is he hurt by her rejection, but he brings it on himself through his willingness to be vulnerable.
6. Experience their core wound.
Learning about a character’s core wound helps us understand how their flaws came to be. We can forgive them for their flaws if we see how and why they materialized. And we all know how important flaws are, right? (Hint: they help humanize your character and make them more relatable). Often, we learn about the core wound later in the story, but why not introduce us to your character right as they’re going through it?
In WALK THE LINE, we meet JOHNNY CASH in the movie’s present day as he’s backstage at Folsom Prison staring at a table saw. Prisoners wait for him to come on stage in the BG. It’s a quick opening with no dialogue until we’re transported through his memory to his childhood when his core wound occurs (yes, it involves a table saw). We are with the character when he experiences the tragic death of his brother and the unfair blame his father places on him.
7. Have another character rooting for them.
If we see that a character is important to someone else, that helps us care about them as well. If we see how much a parent cares about their child, or two spouses love and need each other, or whatever the relationship is – the caring can be contagious.
In the Netflix series, THE LINCOLN LAWYER we meet MICKEY HALLER as he stares out at the ocean. The script’s action lines tell us that the ocean was “Once his friend, his salvation. Now, a place of past trauma.” So, in a way we get a sense of his core wound, but we don’t yet know what it is. Then, Mickey gets a phone call. The inciting incident. The call is from Lorna, once his wife, now his friend and secretary. She tells him that the Chief Justice wants to see him. Neither can fathom what it could be about. Through the call we feel how badly Lorna hopes it’s good news for Mickey. It’s her enthusiasm and optimism that help us understand Mickey’s been going through something rough. He hasn’t worked in months. And she is rooting for his recovery even more than he is. It’s partly because we immediately see how much Lorna cares about Mickey, that we care about him too.
Remember—writing likable characters and creating empathy for your characters is not the same thing. All the characters I’ve mentioned are sufficiently flawed. No one is perfect and your characters shouldn’t be either! And yet it is your job as a writer to make us care about them.
Ali Laventhol has been Tawnya‘s writing partner for over a decade, most recently as the Co-Executive Producer for My Life With The Walter Boys (Netflix), and Bel-Air (Peacock), as well as several Lifetime movies. She is a long time Script Anatomy instructor.