How To Make Your Audience Care About Your Film's Character

The other day, I went out with my wife on a date to see Pixar’s new “Inside Out”. I have a huge amount of respect for Pixar and all that they do. Not just because animation comes with monster challenges, or the fact that a number of their movies are cemented into my childhood. But, also because I consider them to be master storytellers.


“Inside Out” did not disappoint, and I left the theatre with a newfound respect for the fact that my brain can store memories. If you think about it, the reason that we can feel emotional responses when being told a story is because we can empathize with the characters. I think our stored memories play a huge part in this ability.


Upon doing some research, I came across this amazing TED talk by Andrew Stanton (“Toy Story,” “WALL-E”) that highlights the importance of making your audience care.

I think that this is one of my favorite TED talks to date, and I love talking about what may be the most important part of telling a great story through film, making my audience care. Anytime you watch a movie and feel any sort of emotional connection, it’s because it was designed to make you feel that way. There has to be a reason for us to invest our time in a two hour long movie. We have to be shown, right from the start, a reason to care.


So how do we do this as filmmakers, cinematographers, screenwriters, editors, etc.? What do we need to know about a character or plot in order to make us care about their story? Here are a few tips for your next film.


Give an Audience 2 + 2

Many filmmakers think that funny dialogue and a lot of details can create an interesting character, and that shock will peak interest. Andrew suggests making the audience work for their meal. He states that we as audience members are looking to work for our meal. In other words, we want to put 2 + 2 together, 4. It shouldn’t feel like work, but a movie that states the obvious, doesn’t interest most of us. We want to discover. With this in mind, creating plot is basically offering details in an appropriate sequence in order to walk your audience towards the end result.


John Truby mentions in another video that the most important things for crafting a character is to address my character’s fundamental weaknesses and overarching goal. Once we as an audience understand the characters need or goal, we immediately feel desire for them to reach it.


Identify my character’s Weakness

Every good character has a weakness. Even if it’s not easy to spot. If you want your audience to care for a character, start here.


The weakness you give your character should be a personal, internal struggle that being unresolved, fundamentally hurts them. This weakness creates interest for us as the viewer, and it shapes your entire story. Your story from here on will follow the healing process of this weakness. As a writer, you can shape your character’s goal or quest.


Goal Setting

Find out what your character wants. Every human has needs and desires. So, it only makes sense that our character has desires too. It shouldn’t be something that they can solve easily. This goal should be incredibly difficult to achieve.


Throughout your story, this goal will flesh out your character’s weakness, and make him face it. For a short, it could be as simple as this:


Goal: Take the most beautiful high school girl to prom

Weakness: Gets nauseous when talking to girls


Remember, these are not hard and fast rules. Your character’s goals can be understood from the beginning, or you can develop a goal that your character didn’t even know they wanted.


In Star Wars Episode IV, we meet Luke who is desperate to leave Tatooine and find his destiny. That is a goal that we can see right away. Fifteen minutes into the movie, he has met Obi Wan, lost his Aunt and Uncle, and is ready to train to become a Jedi Knight like his father. That goal just became more detailed didn’t it? We could dive a bit more internally, but I’ll move on.


This goal is the spine that Andrew discusses in the above video. Every character needs one desire / goal / core need that drives them and motivates their every choice. If anything, this is freedom for a filmmaker. Our characters actions are perhaps more clear to us, once we’ve discovered what drives them.


We can Relate

Your character’s weakness and goals can live in any situation, real or imaginary. None of us can relate to the life of a clown fish, but we understand why Nemo’s father is overprotective. With goals and weaknesses, we as the audience care about the character because we can relate to their struggle.


We don’t even have to like the character to care about them. In fact, Protagonists like Walter White (Breaking Bad) or Frank Underwood (House of Cards) are evil, and villainous. however, we understand what they want, and can relate to their problems via the human experience. That, and it just feels a little good to be bad.


Empathy is Key (vs sympathy)

With story and character, our goal is not just to create sympathy, it is more than that. With story, our brains can empathize with a character. We not only care, but we share their emotions and understand what they feel in real time viewing.


Once you have created empathy, your audience will root for the character, whether they do good or evil to get what they want.