Characters in film can be the best or worst part of a film. It all comes down to how likable and relatable a filmmaker makes their characters. A bad story can be saved by an excellent character, and a good story can be ruined by an awful character.
But what makes a good, relatable character?
The ability to empathize and understand a character’s motives is one of the strongest approaches to getting an audience to relate to that character and their situations. Most of us have never been thrust into danger where we must save the world before an evil force takes over and/or destroys it – most of us. But we can relate to that character because we understand the weight and importance behind such a responsibility.
Even villains more and more often have some relatability to them because audiences can empathize with them. In the film Kingsman: The Secret Service, the main antagonist was completely crazy – we all knew that. But when he explained his plan and the audience was given a glimpse into his thinking, I will admit, it was hard not to understand where he was coming from.
Another film that does this very well with several characters, and is one of my personal favorite superhero films of recent years, is Captain America: Civil War. This film is packed with characters who audiences know and love already, but is one of the best in making them more relatable.
First and most obvious, we have Captain America who makes his point of freedom very clear, and expresses how the decisions on where the Avengers are needed and should be is safest only in the hands of the Avengers. This is ultimately what sets the film’s main conflict, because it is directly connected to Captain America’s refusal to sign the Sokovia Accords which would allow an international panel to govern when and where the Avengers are allowed to operate. As an audience, we can see why Captain America thinks this way, and, ultimately, empathize with his points and arguments for his thinking.
On the other side of this issue, we have Iron Man who is trying to do right by signing the Accords. He knows that he can be better and is constantly trying to be the best he can throughout all of his MCU appearances, but none are as apparent as those in Civil War. It is easy to see where he is coming from, too, and feel bad for the situation he is put in since what really set the Accords into motion was Ultron, who he was the architect of. Once again, it is easy to empathize with someone trying to do right and fix their own mistakes.
This film also introduced some new characters, and was still able to get the same empathy from the audience. This film marked the first appearance of Black Panther. His arc begins with the murder of his father, supposedly by Bucky Barnes. Throughout the entire film, he was fueled by anger to avenge his father’s murder and kill Captain America’s friend. Most people are likely to have lost someone close to them in some way in their lives. It is easy to understand the hurt and rage that comes with an untimely death, especially one that could have and should have been avoided.
Finally, just like Kingsman, even the villain in this film is given a backstory and purpose the audience can empathize with. Zemo is a military veteran whose goal is to destroy the Avengers team from the inside by turning them against each other. Obviously it is easy to see the villainy here, and condemn Zemo for his actions. But much like Black Panther, he has a deeper and more personal reason behind his actions. During the events of Age of Ultron, Zemo’s entire family – wife, child, mother, and father – were all killed in the wreckage caused by the Avengers. Just like Black Panther, it is easy to see where Zemo is coming from in his plan and the audience can empathize with that hurt.
But there is more you can do to make a character relatable and likable.
People make mistakes. Nobody is perfect. Not even in the movies. Again, there are very few people out in the world who can relate to a character who is basically perfect and never makes any mistakes in their lives. It just is not realistic. And even though superheroes and aliens and monsters are not realistic either, the fact that there are characters who make mistakes and are not perfect makes them relatable in at least some way to an audience.
Even superheroes and characters we all looked up to when we were younger made mistakes. There would be no film without conflict, and there would be no conflict without our hero making a mistake somewhere, somehow.
One film that really shows the imperfections and humanity in those who are meant to be “better” for me is The Incredibles. The basis of the conflict in this film is really based on the mistakes superheroes make. After Mr. Incredible made a few mistakes in his saving of people one night in the city, superheroes are forced into hiding and to stop their hero work. This makes the character more relatable for audiences because, even though he is a superhero, he made mistakes and had to suffer the consequences for them. That is a situation that everyone should be able to relate to and see themselves in.
Another thing The Incredibles does that helps humanize its characters which is really different in most superhero films is give the main characters an actual family and, more or less, a normal life. Yes, they all have superpowers and are heroes, but the scenes of them at the dinner table and getting picked up from school are so relatable to parents and children alike. They are still people with normal, everyday problems they have to deal with.
Audiences want to see and root for characters in films that they can relate with and see themselves in. By not making characters all-mighty and literally perfect, it gives the opportunity to show a side of humanity to the characters and get a sense of empathy from the audience.
We want to care about what happens to the characters in our favorite films, so being able to empathize with their situations is a major part in liking and relating to them. If you can understand in some way what the character is going through and put yourself in their shoes, it will be a much better connection for the audience. Even villains can evoke this sense of empathy, avoiding the trope of being “bad just to be bad” and opening the door to more realistic and complicated villains.
Being reminded that these characters are not perfect by showing their mistakes and humanity is also a great way to get audiences to connect with a character. Being able to see a character on screen make a mistake, suffer the consequences, but get through it not only gets recognition and relatability from the audience but it also gives them a sense of hope.
The best characters and the ones people like and can relate to most are those which they can see themselves in.