One of the best ways to make a character feel real is to show them in a vulnerable situation. In “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Rocket Raccoon complains about how he was ripped apart and put back together again. This statement only lasts a few seconds, but it highlights the pain of his past and makes us sympathetic and empathetic with him as a character. He’s no longer just a weird animal running around with a gun, but someone we feel we know, even though we’ve only seen that vulnerability for less than a minute.
Now think of bad James Bond movies where James Bond acts like an invulnerable superman who can’t be hit by bullets and never seems in danger as he sips martinis in a tuxedo and dispatches a dozen bad guys with a single pistol while the bad guys have machine guns, tanks, and jet fighters. When a character seems too perfect, then we can’t relate to that character. As a result, no matter what the character does, he or she feels distant to us as an audience and we fail to bond emotionally to that character.
However, if you look at good James Bond movies like “Skyfall,” you’ll see James Bond as a vulnerable hero who’s aging and can’t quite pass the stringent tests for a double 0 agent any more. In “Skyfall” when James Bond has to shoot a bottle off a woman’s head, his hand shakes. Earlier we had already seen his declining skills, so this makes his failing marksmanship skills suddenly more important when we see that he has to shoot a bottle off his lover’s head. If he fails, he could kill her. If he refuses to shoot, someone will kill James Bond. Suddenly instead of appearing like a perfect, invulnerable superhero, James Bond looks like an ordinary person just like us.
By making a character vulnerable, you’re making that character relatable to the audience. In “Midnight Run,” there’s a scene where Robert DeNiro (the hero) talks with Charles Grodin. During their discussion, they both learn the background of the other character at the same time we as the audience learns that background too. Robert DeNiro (the hero) refused to take a bribe from a mob boss so he lost his wife and family, which still hurts him. Charles Grodin risked his life by stealing money from the mob boss and giving it to charity. When we learn the reason why he did that, he suddenly becomes vulnerable and makes us like him even more eve4n if we don’t agree with his reasons.
By making characters vulnerable, you make them likable, and likable characters move us emotionally. Good movies always move us emotionally because we aren’t just watching a story, but we’re living it emotionally. Bad movies force us to watch meaningless action that leaves us emotionally detached. If bad movies would just let us know the vulnerabilities of the main characters, they could be good movies. It’s all about letting us peek at the vulnerabilities of the characters so we’ll like them even more and start living the story emotionally instead of just watching it from a distance.