All the action in the world means nothing if nobody cares about your hero. So how do you make your hero sympathetic? You do it in three steps. First, make the hero likable. Second, give the hero a goal the audience can relate to. Third, let the audience experience the hero’s change as the hero experiences them.
How do you make a hero likable? One way is to show the hero doing something for others. In “Aladdin,” Aladdin goes through the trouble of stealing bread, only to find some hungry kids who are worse off then him. That’s when he decides to give his stolen bread to these hungry kids instead.
A second way to make your hero likable is to put your hero in an unfair situation. Nobody likes injustice so when it occurs to the hero, the audience will feel emotionally bonded to that hero. In “Wreck-It Ralph,” the hero is the villain in a video game and wants to be a hero instead. Yet nobody else in the video game treats him like a hero but as an unwanted outcast. Because the hero is trying nicely to fit in and others turn him away, we feel sympathetic towards the hero.
A third way to make a hero sympathetic and likable is to have the hero want something that we can relate to and want as well. In “Schindler’s List,” the hero is a German businessman who just wants to make so much money that people will remember his name after the war. That goal is honest and getting rich is something we all want to do as well. That makes the hero likable because we see him as someone just like us.
Once you’ve established your hero as likable to your audience, the next step is to make sure the audience knows what the hero’s goal might be. In “Star Wars,” that goal is simply to have an exciting life, which everyone can relate to. When the audience understands the goal the hero wants to achieve, the final step to keep the audience emotionally bonded to the hero is to let the audience change as the hero changes.
In “Schindler’s List,” the hero initially just wants to make money. The first sign of change in him occurs when a one-armed old man thanks Schindler for giving him a job and saving his life. Schindler is upset at his accountant for letting this old man thank him because he feels uncomfortable with the situation of using Jewish slave labor in his factory.
Next, Schindler almost loses his accountant when the Nazis round up Jews to send them to the extermination camp. Schindler barely rescues his accountant in time and gets him off the train. This second moment puts Schindler (and the audience) closer to seeing the horror of the Nazis.
Next, the Nazis make Schindler’s workers shovel snow and when they see the one-armed, old man, they see a useless human being so they kill him on the spot as Schindler watches on with horror. Then Schindler is riding his horse when he witnesses the Nazis rounding up Jews from the ghetto and gunning them down in cold blood.
Each additional horror gradually changes Schindler. Initially he just wanted to make money. Then he was upset at seeing the gratitude of his workers for saving their lives. Then he sees the Nazis almost take away his accountant. Finally, he sees he Nazis killing Jews in front of his eyes. Each event changes not only Schindler but ourselves as we witness the gradual horror of the Nazis. As we see this horror unfolding before our eyes, we see Schindler watching the same scenes and reacting with shock and horror as well, just like we do.
This all helps change Schindler from a man who simply wants to make money to a man who wants to save the Jews from the Nazis. Originally Schindler’s goal was to have people remember his name after the war for the money he made. By the end, he gets people to remember his name for the Jewish lives he saved and not for the money he made because he no longer cares about the money. Schindler has changed and we’ve seen how he’s changed each step of the way.
That’s what your screenplay must do as well. How does your hero change? Each major change must be a memorable scene that tugs at our emotions. In “Schindler’s List,” seeing the one-armed old man thanking Schindler for saving his life is kind of annoying so we feel the same way Schindler feels. When Schindler almost loses his accountant on a Nazi train sending Jews to the concentration camps, Schindler (and us) get closer to the Nazi horror. When we see the Nazis shoot the one-armed old man in cold blood, we finally realize how horrifying the Nazis are. When the Nazis gun down the Jews in the ghetto, Schindler (and us) are changed permanently.
Just like Schindler, we no longer care about the original goal of getting rich. Instead, we care more about saving lives, just like Schindler. By letting us emotionally change along with the hero, “Schindler’s List” helps put us in the shoes of the hero.
Every change to the hero must be memorable. In “Star Wars,” Luke is initially a farm boy who wants to leave his uncle’s farm but is afraid to. The first time he gets the chance is when he meets Obi-wan who saves him from the Sand People. That’s a memorable event. Next, Luke sees the bodies of his aunt and uncle and the burned out remnants of his uncle’s farm. That’s another emotional and memorable event.
Then we see Luke learning about the Force while blindfolded and guided by Obi-wan as he tries to block laser blasts. This unusual scene is also memorable and gradually shows that Luke has changed from a timid farm boy to a more assertive man.
The first half of your story generally shows your hero in his or her initial state and gradually changing. By the midpoint, the hero has changed although he or she might not know it but we do. In “Star Wars,” Luke takes the initiative to go rescue Princess Leia. That’s a huge step from a farm boy who earlier was afraid to leave his uncle’s farm.
“Django: Unchained” the hero is a slave who follows the German bounty hunter. By the time Django meets the plantation owner who owns his wife as a slave, Django has become more assertive.
Your hero must not only be downtrodden in the beginning, but must be likable. Then he must gradually change in memorable ways that we can experience at the same time. Finally, when the hero changes, we as the audience will have changed as well, and that\’s the most powerful way to end a story.
People don’t watch “Titanic” over and over again because they want to see a ship sink, but because they want to experience the same emotional change as the hero. Make sure your story lets the hero change and the audience bond with a hero who is just like the audience. When your audience can relate to your hero, you’ll be well on your way to writing a great story.