Some movies are dull because you feel as if you’re just an observer, watching a shadow puppet play from a distance. Other movies are the opposite. They engage you and make you feel like you’re in the hero’s shoes.
Think of the difference between a hero in a dull movie like “Mortal Engines” where the hero has no clear goal and simply wanders from situation to situation with no motivation or initiative to get himself in or out of situations. Life just happens to this hero, which makes “Mortal Engines” so deadly dull.
Now think of “Star Wars” where entire generations of fans still enjoy watching the movie despite its dated special effects. Luke is a far more engaging hero because we know his motivation and we root along with him as he faces obstacles and overcomes them through his own actions.
When writing a screenplay, one key is to make your hero likable even if he or she is a criminal like in “The Irishman” or “The Godfather”. What makes an audience engaged with one character and not another is knowing that character’s perspective. In other words, how does that character see the world?
In “Mortal Engines,” the hero has no clear motivation, goal, or personality so he’s just a pawn who gets shoved around from one situation to another while relying on other people to save him. In “Star Wars,” Luke has a clear goal (to have an adventure) and has a clear perspective (he doesn’t think he’s strong enough to trust himself).
Now Luke is constantly confronted by situations that force him to decide and act, which helps him gradually become more sure of himself. Initially, Luke is too afraid to go with Obiwan. Only after he sees that stormtroopers have killed his aunt and uncle does he finally decide to go with Obi-wan.
Then he’s mostly a bystander as Obi-wan finds Hans Solo, but Luke starts to exhibit an element of change by arguing that they don’t need Hans Solo after all. Another moment of change occurs when Obi-wan starts showing Luke about the Force through blocking laser blasts without seeing.
Once Luke is on the Death Star, he really starts to exhibit change by taking charge to rescue Princess Leia. So not only do we know Luke’s perspective on life from the beginning, but we get the pleasure of seeing him gradually change over the course of the story. Luke starts out timid but slowly gains confidence until the very end when he blows up the Death Star to show he truly has confidence in himself and the Force.
Blowing up the Death Star is a physical action that would be meaningless without the emotional content behind it where we see Luke finally triumph over his earlier self-doubt. Because we know Luke’s perspective (belief) from the start, and we’ve gotten to see it gradually change over time until we get a final answer on whether he will change or not, Luke is a far more engaging character to watch than the hero in “Mortal Engines”.
It all boils down to your hero’s perspective. What do they think of themselves and the world around them? Then how does this perspective change over time?
In “Rocky”, Rocky (and the world) thinks of Rocky as a bum until he finally proves to himself (and the world) that he’s not a bum.
In “Titanic”, Rose thinks of herself as helpless with no future until she finally learns the joy in life and becomes independent.
What’s your hero’s perspective on him or herself and the world around them? Then how does that perspective change? How does the climax finally show us conclusively how that hero has changed?
Answer these questions and you’ll go a long way towards creating a compelling character in a story people will want to experience again and again.