Friday, August 20, 2010

Liking Characters

How do we make a character likeable? It isn’t always an easy task and yet we need people to like a character or they won’t stick with him throughout the story. By like I mean that readers want to know more about him, not that they want to be his friend. It isn’t as easy as making the character the good guy. Jar Jar Binks is perhaps the most despised character in the Star Wars franchise and yet he is one of the good guys. Conversely, the television show Dexter is built around a serial killer. I haven’t watched more than a few minutes of the show, but it seems that he is a likeable character.

Blake Snyder used to talk about making a character likeable through the use of a device he called the save the cat moment. Essentially, this works by having the character do something good, such as saving a cat, when we’re introduced to the character. Whatever bad stuff the character might do later, we’ll always remember that there’s something good about him, there’s something worth saving. In what I saw of the show Dexter, I believe that is why he is likeable. Even though he is a serial killer, he appears to be good to the people around him and he doesn’t want to be a serial killer. It also appears that he chooses victims that deserve to die for their crimes, giving us little reason to feel sorry for the victims. To make a character likeable, even the worst of characters, we have to create a situation in which it appears the character is “doing the right thing” given the inescapable nature of his situation.

So why then is Jar Jar Binks so dislikeable? I think that his problem is that he is so clumsy that he is always doing the wrong thing. He is exceptionally lucky, so the results turn out good, but we have no reason to want him to succeed in whatever he is trying to do. Usually, the actions he takes put the people around him in danger. Because we want to see them succeed, we want him out of the way. While he isn’t intentionally working with the villains, Jar Jar Binks is more closely aligned with the villain in a story than he is the hero.

When looking at the likability of a character, don’t consider whether the character is a great person or not. Instead, look at the redeemability of the character and how well he plays out his role in the situation he’s been dealt. If we gave him a better situation, would he do better things? Take a prostitute, for example. What she is doing is wrong, but prostitution is the only way she can survive in her situation then we might still find her likeable. But if we give her a way out and she refuses to change we’ll dislike her. And consider the philanthropist. He may give millions of dollars to worthy causes. We ought to like him, but if he’s only doing it to make himself look good then we might not like him at all. So it comes down to the motives of the person rather than the results of their actions.