The first time you meet someone, you know nothing about them. By talking and watching them, you can get a rough idea who they are, but you may still not care about them. What makes you care about a stranger is when you get to know them beyond a superficial basis. One way to care about someone is to see them getting beaten down physically or emotionally. A second way we care about someone is when we see them doing something noble. A third way we care about someone is when start learning secrets about another person because they tell you directly or indirectly.
What makes the Tony Stark likable in “Iron Man”? Initially he’s arrogant until he’s ambushed in a convoy, captured, and forced to build a weapon for his captors. Because he’s suddenly defenseless (beaten down physically), we start feeling sorry for him and thus start caring about him. When he tries to save the life of a fellow prisoner, we care more about him because he’s doing something noble. Finally we start caring about him even more when he realizes that his past life selling weapons was wrong. Now he’s revealed a side of him that we never saw before so we care even more about him.
In “Mad Max: Fury Road,” Mad Max gets taken prisoner, branded, and used as a living blood bank, so he’s beaten down physically. He has flashbacks about not being able to save his loved ones before the world ended, so we see a side of him that we never saw before. We just never see Mad Max do something noble in the beginning, but he does help the women later, so that makes us care for him even more.
Once you start caring about a character, then you start getting emotionally involved with that character’s story and goal. In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the hero is Olive who lives in a dysfunctional family where her grandfather uses drugs and the rest of her family looks like losers. As a result, we care for her because she appears emotionally beaten down. Olive seems to care for her grandfather so we’re touched by their friendship, which seems to be the only friendship she really has in the entire family. Finally, Olive has a dream of competing in a beauty pageant, which is a big goal that not every little girl can do, so we see a side of her that we don’t normally see in little girls. All of this combines to make us care about her.
Think of every good movie and you will likely find these three ways screenwriters make us care about the hero:
- The hero is emotionally or physically beaten down
- The hero does something noble for someone else
- The hero shows us a side of their personality that we normally would never see
Put these three elements into defining your hero and you’ll likely create a sympathetic hero that we’ll care about. Once we care about your hero, the goal is irrelevant because we’ll be cheering the hero along the way from start to finish anyway.