Weekly Writing Memo: Relatability or Likability?Posted: February 24, 2016
Everyone has a different idea of what is crucial for a story to succeed. Some people declare that the protagonist has to be likable, while others say that the protagonist just has to be relatable. Many people think a protagonist has to be likable because why else would an audience care about the story, but there are a lot of unlikable protagonist out there who have successful stories (American History X, The Social Network, Wolf of Wall Street). Because of this, many people believe that a protagonist doesn’t have to be likable, they just have to have something about them that an audience can relate to. Even that seems like a stretch, however, because there isn’t any way to guarantee that you will give your protagonist a relatable trait.
Personally, I think there is a third option, and that is to simply focus on making your protagonist understandable. If your audience can understand where you protagonist is coming from, and why they do what they will do, then whether they like the protagonist or not, and whether they relate or not, they will be able to follow the story and understand it.
If the audience can understand your character and their decisions, then they can connect with the story and enjoy it as if they are going on a journey with the character. Yes, likability and relatability help the audience connect more, but when you have a character that doesn’t allow for those things your story can still work as long as the character is understandable.
So how do you do these things? How do you make a character understandable, likable, and relatable? All audiences aren’t the same, but there are several general ways to accomplish these three things.
- Define the character.
I don’t mean write a definition of them, but I do mean show the audience who they are. Give the character a defining moment where their true personality comes out. Are they the person who runs when they see trouble, or do they jump to help without a thought for their own safety? The first step to making a character understandable is to show the audience who they are.
- Explain why.
Why is your character the way they are? If that isn’t pertinent to the story, or maybe you can’t find an interesting way to show it, then tell us why the character does what they do. Find a way to show these things and it is another step in making the character believable, and understandable for the audience. At the very least, you as the writer should always know why the character does what they do so you can use it as motivation for your character’s behavior.
Whenever your character is doing something that is abnormal, justify it. Don’t just write it and pretend the audience won’t notice. Instead, find a way to explain why they are doing it. In screenwriting there is a term called “Hang a Lantern on it” which means to call attention to the thing that is not normal or when something is cliché. If the audience is going to stop and question it, then have the character stop and question it and justify why it is happening that way. This is a method for cutting off the doubt before the audience can experience it, and it helps with making the plot and character understandable.
This is a more generic category, but there are several different characters traits that consistently make for likable and interesting protagonists.
- A good person, or trying to be.
A character who is a good person is generally likable. They’re kind, do nice things, and aren’t selfish. That being said, they can’t be self-righteous about it. If the character isn’t necessarily a good person, but is trying to be, that also makes them likable.
- Extremely talented or gifted people.
People in general like talented people. Even if they’re jerks, people respect talent and are drawn to it. So a talented character can be very likable. If they’re too much a jerk it can eventually override the likability factor, but for the most part, characters with extreme skills are likable.
- Funny characters.
People like funny people. It’s as simple as that. Of course there are humorous people that aren’t likable, but as protagonists they make for characters you want to follow to see what funny thing they’ll do next. It also helps that the audience doesn’t have to interact with the character directly, so any mean humor is not directed at the audience and is simply something the audience can enjoy from the outside. A lot of times these funny characters that are jerks are likable because they are saying the mean things a lot of people think, but never say out loud.
- Make them do something mundane.
There are all sorts of mundane things that everyone does – brush their teeth, drive a car, go to work, watch TV, eat, etc. They’re the kinds of things that are just a fact of life, and making your character have to do them is a simple way to give the audience something to connect to. The only problem is, it isn’t generally interesting unless it is an extraordinary character who is forced to do the ordinary thing – such as a superhero doing laundry.
- Give them a bad habit.
Everyone has bad habits, and there are some habits that are more popular than others that are an easy way to give a character something relatable (nail biting). If you give your character a bad habit, it’s a flaw that the audience can connect to, and it is something that humanizes them.
- Give them family.
Everyone has some form of family, and almost everyone can relate to an embarrassing family moment. A mother who is over affectionate, a father who yells at the TV, a brother who tells his friends embarrassing things about you, etc. If you give your protagonist a family that they have to interact with, it not only creates a deeper character, but it also creates something that an audience can maybe relate to.
Whether you decide likability, relatability, or being understandable is the most important thing, there are a lot of ways to achieve your goal. Decide what you think is important to a story, and what you find most appealing about the stories you read or watch, and go with that. Whichever you decide, the key is paying attention to the little details. Remember the how, and the why, and the everyday things that your character does, and make sure they are given careful attention when being written so that they are used to make your character better.
You can also check out last week’s Memo where we discussed “5 Ways to Increase Tension in Story“, as this connects to the discussion of what makes a story interesting.