Today I’d like to do something different. I talk a lot about concept on this site, coming up with an exciting idea that’s easy to market, but concept is nothing unless it’s paired with a memorable main character. In fact, one can argue that people come to the theater more to see the characters than they do the movies. An idea is merely a construct, a vessel to tell your story. But a character, a character is a “real person,” someone who can be our best friend, a role model, or somebody we see ourselves in. In that sense, you want to give both the concept and character equal weight. They must both be great.
Unfortunately, whereas a concept often comes to us out of the blue, creating a memorable character takes time. You need to figure out their history, their fears, their flaws, their views, their secrets, their relationships, and anything else you can about them. You also need to make them relatable, identifiable, interesting, and most of the time, likable. Most writers don’t spend enough time doing this. They think if their hero’s dishing out cool one-liners, they’ve done their job. But creating a truly memorable character that resonates with readers (and hopefully, audiences) takes a ton of work. So what I’d like to do is look at the top 10 movies from last year and their main characters. I’m going to highlight those characters’ key qualities and see if there aren’t some commonalities we can identify which we can then apply to our own characters. I recommend you pay attention. These are the movies audiences spent the most money on last year. Obviously, they’re relating to these characters for a reason.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Main Character: Katniss Everdeen
Character Breakdown: Just like the first movie, Katniss is painted as the underdog, which is one of the easiest ways to get an audience to root for a character. She’s also great at what she does (the whole bow and arrow thing) which audiences love (someone who’s mastered their skill). She’s smart, craftily getting herself out of tough situations. And she’s selfless, constantly worried about others over herself, another quality of likable heroes. The only thing that trips me up about Katniss, something I’m surprised audiences didn’t care about, was that she was devoid of any personality. Not to mention a bit grumpy. Maybe the reason it still works is because those qualities are motivated. People are dying. She can’t save them all. You’re not exactly trying out your latest stand-up routine when faced with everyone you know being killed. But yeah, it is strange to see the hero with the least personality at the top of this list.
Iron Man 3
Main Character: Tony Stark
Character Breakdown: The charming rogue is a proven audience favorite that’s been around forever. Just like in real life, we like people who are charming. So if you’re good at writing charming characters, you probably want to incorporate one into your script. Another big thing about Tony Stark is the wish fulfillment factor. I’m not referring to the superhero element, but rather Tony’s attitude. Tony Stark is confident as hell and doesn’t give a shit about what anybody says. We all wish we could be that person. So when we’re watching Stark, it’s like we’re watching who we want to be. That’s exciting. Note, however, that this doesn’t work if the character isn’t also charming. If they’re an asshole, then this “confident and doesn’t give a shit,” attitude can actually backfire on them. You always need good traits to balance out the bad ones.
Main Character: Anna
Character Breakdown: With these traditional animation films, it’s imperative that the hero be likable. Anna is sweet, kind, adorkable, and just like Katniss, an underdog. So they definitely covered all their bases. She’s also fearless. She’s too young and inexperienced to pull off the job she’s been given, yet she goes after it anyway (audiences love characters who aren’t afraid to take on tough tasks). And remember that it’s not just what’s on the outside that makes a character. It’s what’s going on inside. And with Anna, she’s dealing with a ton of conflicting feelings stemming from the trauma of losing her sister. What’s going on in your character’s life that’s affecting them?
Despicable Me 2
Main Character: Gru
Character Breakdown: Out of all the protagonists in the Top 10, Gru was the riskiest to write. He’s actually a villain (or started as one in the first film), but like any “bad” character, if you make them funny enough, we forgive them (balance out the bad with the good!), and Gru’s “perpetually annoyed” sense of humor keeps us laughing throughout. He also loves children. And it’s pretty hard to hate a character who loves children. The writers also do a good job of highlighting what’s missing in Gru’s life (a woman). If you put a huge emphasis on what it is your hero’s missing, we, as an audience, inherently want to stick around to see if they get it.
Man of Steel
Main Character: Clark Kent
Character Breakdown: Superman is the ultimate wish-fulfillment character. It’s why he’s the most popular superhero of all time. We all wish we could be Superman. On a deeper level, this version of Superman explores themes of having to hide who you really are. That’s a battle that speaks to a lot of people, and therefore very relatable. Remember that if you can make your hero relatable in some way, readers are going to latch onto him.
Main Character: Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock)
Character Breakdown: If we don’t like Ryan, not a single aspect of this movie works. The whole thing depends on us wanting her to survive. How did the writers tackle this? They had Ryan recently lose a child. Not only do we feel sympathy for someone who experiences loss, but notice how that event informs every choice Ryan makes. Yes, this movie is about a woman trying to survive. But it’s also about a woman deciding if she wants to live. Each choice tells us that she wants to keep going, that life is still worth living. And it’s not always easy. There are times, like in the Chinese space capsule, where she doesn’t think it’s worth it anymore. Gravity reminds us that the external battle is fun, but it’s the internal battle that really draws us in to a character.
Main Character: Mike
Character Breakdown: Well lookie what we have here. Another animated film, another underdog playing the protag. Mike’s character also embodies a lot of struggles people are going through in their daily lives. He wants to fit in. He wants to be accepted. These are things we all want, so we feel close to Mike. One final thing to note is that Mike isn’t a sad sack whiner about his underdog position in life. The underdog character usually works best if he’s a fighter. What we love about Mike is that despite all his limitations, he still tries his hardest.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Main Character: Bilbo
Character Breakdown: Even J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote this book back in 1937, understood the value of an underdog. Both Bilbo and Frodo are the ultimate underdogs. They’re the smallest people in the land, tasked with going on the biggest journeys. The most memorable moments in the Hobbit films to me, are when Bilbo is outmatched, yet still figures out a way to prevail. Whether it be from giant spiders or a game of wits. Tolkien also uses Bilbo as a way to explore themes of temptation (the ring!), which is obviously something we all relate to. I will say, however, that out of these 10 entries, Bilbo is the least interesting protagonist of the bunch. The Hobbit films have always been about their immense cast of characters. They’re not as “hero-driven,” which is probably why they work despite the lack of a truly memorable hero.
Fast & Furious 6
Main Character: Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel)
Character Breakdown: A character that tends to work a lot is the “dangerous charmer.” Think of them as the “bad boy” girls are always attracted to. They’re fun at first, but ultimately screw you over. That kind of danger is exciting to the ladies, and exciting to us moviegoers as well, which is why we love Dominic Toretto.
Oz The Great and Powerful
Main Characters: Oz
Character Breakdown: Oz isn’t exactly the most likable character. He’s a liar and a cheat. But the great thing about writing a fallible character with major flaws, is that you get someone a lot more complex than your garden variety hero. Not everything’s on the surface, like, say, Anna, from Frozen. Which means you have more places to go with the character. Just remember, this kind of character still needs a sliver of likability somewhere, so we don’t write him off as an asshole. With Oz, it’s his charm. If you can pull that combination off (a hero with issues who still has a sliver of likability), you’ll probably have a hero that wins readers over.
So what did we learn here? Obviously, underdogs play well with mainstream audiences. Who doesn’t like to see the little guy succeed? We got hooked on this device all the way back when our mothers read us “The Little Engine That Could” as a child. So if you can work an underdog into your script, do it. I also realized that there were a lot more “non-traditional” heroes in the top 10 than I’d thought there’d be. We have Oz, Dominic, Tony Stark, and Gru. Goes to show you don’t need to write an angel hero to appeal to the masses. AND, if you’re going with the not-so-likable main character, it’s a great idea to make them charming. Charm helps mask a lot of a character’s more damning traits. Finally, I learned that there’s a bunch of ways to skin a cat. You can’t plop down a universal hero that works in every story. Each story has its own set of requirements and therefore its own unique set of characters. Once you figure out what kind of story you’re writing, ask which kind of hero best fits inside (the rogue, the goodie-two-shoes, the trickster) and that’ll be the character you go with.