Three Levels for Getting Your Audience to Like the Hero

Every story has a hero. The difference is that some movies create iconic heroes like Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars” while other movies create totally forgettable heroes in movies like “Mortal Engines” or “The Spy Who Dumped Me.”

At the most basic level, audiences simply watch a hero overcome obstacles without any sense of emotional involvement. Think of any bad James Bond movies or awful karate movie where the hero just keeps battling endless numbers of attackers and emerging victorious each time.

When curiosity in whether the hero will survive or not is the only involvement the audience has, they’ll easily get bored because mere action is never enough to hold an audience’s attention.

Conflict is the basic level of emotional involvement with your hero. The next level up is actually caring about the hero.

To make a hero likable, make the hero the victim. In “Yesterday,” a struggling musician wants to be famous, but he’s stuck playing in front of a handful of disinterested people at a time. This hero is likable because he’s an underdog and we don’t think it’s fair that he should suffer so much.

Of course, just making the hero a victim still isn’t enough. We can watch a hero struggle against inequality such as Jackie Robinson in the movie “42” where he was the first black player dealing with racism among white players. Yet we may intellectually care about a hero like Jackie Robinson, but we’re not emotionally involved.

The third and deepest level of engagement between the audience and your story’s hero occurs when audiences emotionally relate to the hero, even if though they may be of different ages, sex, or race.

People of all ages, races, and ethnicities can relate to Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars” because not only is he struggling against various villains (the curiosity level) and he’s a victim (the intellectual level), but he also has a dream of a better life, just like we do (the emotional level).

As a result, even women can relate to Luke Skywalker and “Star Wars”. This same level of emotional involvement occurs in “Legally Blonde” where men can relate to the hero’s growth as an independent and strong woman.

So if you want to create a great story, don’t rely on plot. Instead, rely on creating a hero who audiences can identify with. When people watch “Rocky,” they may not be a boxer or even a man, but they can understand the intense emotional desire to prove yourself against the world.

When people watch “Little Miss Sunshine,” they aren’t a little girl entering a beauty pageant, but they can relate to her desire to achieve her dream even if it means risking embarrassment.

So make sure the audience can relate to your hero on three levels:

  • Curiosity level — Give your hero an interesting challenge to overcome
  • Intellectual level — Make your hero a likable victim
  • Emotional level — Give your hero a dream to be more than they are

When your hero engages your audience on all three levels, you’ll likely have a much stronger story that people of all ages and backgrounds will love.

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