What’s the difference between a great movie and a good one? With a good movie, you remain detached and unemotionally involved. With a great movie, you’re living the adventure along with the characters.
The recent World Cup tournament highlights how important it is to care about the hero of any story. For most Americans, the World Cup was interesting as long as the American team was still playing. The moment the American team got eliminated, most Americans didn’t care any more. How many people in America really cared whether Uraguay or Paraguay made it to the World Cup?
In a screenplay, how do you get an audience to care about your hero? First, make your hero a victim. In “The Karate Kid,” we may not care about the hero, but when the hero gets beat up unjustly, that immediately makes us want to root for that hero all the more. Now we care.
Second, make your hero likable. It you’re a hard-core Christian, it’s hard to like a hero who cusses, drinks, and fools around with women. So one way to make your hero likable is to show the hero doing something good. As a hard-core Christian, you may not like the hero in “Aladdin,” who steals bread. But you will like the hero as soon as you can see that instead of eating the stolen bread, Aladdin gives it to some children who are even hungrier than he is. You may not approve of the hero, but you can still like him for his kind actions.
Third, make the villain worse. In “The Godfather,” Al Pacino may not be a lovable guy, but he’s not as bad as the rival mob leaders planning to rub him out. In “Alien,” you may not feel like you can relate to any of the crew members, but once you see that alien monster crawling around, killing everyone, you can relate a lot more to a fellow human being than you ever could to a carnivorous alien that looks like a giant, disgusting bug.
So how do bad movies fail? They don’t create a hero who’s a victim. In “The Last Airbender,” the hero is the kid who is the last airbender. Or are the heroes the brother and sister who find this kid, frozen in a chunk of ice? I’m not sure and that’s the problem right there. If the audience doesn’t know who the hero is, they won’t care. Even worse, none of these three potential heroes come across as a victim. Their lives seem strained, but okay. Without these characters being a victim, we have no emotional attachment to them.
The heroes (whoever they are) in “The Last Airbender” also never seem very likable. They aren’t unlikable, but they don’t do anything to make us like them. We like John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction” because he’s funny. We can’t really like any of the heroes in “The Last Airbender because they don’t do anything to make us like them. So we’re even further detached emotionally.
How is the villain in “The Last Airbender”? I have no idea why this villain was doing what he did, nor did I see any consequences of what might happen if he won. Once again, without this emotional bond, there’s no reason to care.
In “Star Wars,” we can see why we should care because Darth Vader can blow up an entire planet. Since we saw this before, we know what horrible consequence could happen if the villain wins.
In “The Last Airbender,” what might happen if the villain wins? I don’t know. Can you see why “The Last Airbender” sucked so bad?
Make your hero a victim, make your hero likable, and make your villain much worse so we don’t want to see the villain win. Those three characteristics can help make your story more emotionally engaging to an audience.