How To Make Characters and Influence People
Great writers and filmmakers understand human nature. They know what makes us tick, what drives us to move forward, and what holds us back. The best films connect with us because we connect with the characters. There’s just something about those fictional individuals that we can’t shake, something about them that we can’t forget days after watching the film. Maybe they don’t feel so fictional after all…
It wasn’t until I saw Annie Hall that I finally discovered a character that shared similar traits to me. I mean, I grew up dreaming that I would become James Bond, but no, I became Alvy Singer - existential dread and all. You think that I’d be disappointed, but the discovery was actually a comfort. Finally I found my emotional cinematic doppelganger.
So, how can you do this? How can you create characters that people can relate to? Well, it’s all about the foundation. Call it the basic instinct. Remember, you gotta know what makes us tick. You gotta know each and every gear within our organic and mental clock. But, more importantly, you gotta know what powers those gears, what keeps them moving. It’s a lot more simple than you think and it’s been staring you in the face this whole time - both in life and in film.
It all starts with Dale Carnegie’s timeless treasure trove of tips How to Make Friends and Influence People. You should remember it from our list of nine books that can increase your artistic value. And hey, if you forgot, that’s cool - let us jog your memory.
Not only is the concise novel a wonderful study of how to approach life and business, but it’s an even better analysis of human nature. And to make things better, it’s all boiled down to simple and actionable steps for success. There’s a reason it has survived this long and is still praised 81 years after its publication. That said, there’s a specific tip that really stands out.
In his chapter “How to Make People Like You”, Carnegie outlines six rules. The last deserves the most of your attention: “Make the other person feel important - and do it sincerely.”
Everyone who visited Theodore Roosevelt at Oyster Bay was astonished at the range and diversity of his knowledge. ‘Whether it was a cowboy or a Rough Rider, a New York politician or a diplomat’ wrote Gamaliel Bradford, ‘Roosevelt knew what to say to him.’ And how was it done? The answer is simple. Whenever Roosevelt expected a visitor, he sat up late the night before reading up on the subject in which he knew his quest was particularly interested. For Roosevelt knew, as all leaders know, that the royal road to a man’s heart is to talk to him about the things he treasures most.
So how the heck does this connect to the storytelling and character-creation process? Let’s turn your attention to The Art of Dramatic Writing, a novel by Lajos Egri and the bible for Pixar filmmaker and writer Andrew Stanton. He has his own story creation process, and most of it is inspired by the wisdom in this book. In fact, he reads it front to back each and every time he starts a new story. It’s his bible.
The book’s foreword says all you need to know: "...we all crave attention. We want to be important, immortal. We want to do things that will make people exclaim, 'Isn’t he wonderful?'"
If we can’t create something useful or beautiful...we shall certainly create something else: trouble for instance.
Just think about your aunt Helen, the family gossip. (We all have one.) She causes hard feelings, suspicion, and subsequent arguments. Why does she do it? She wants to be important, of course, and if she can achieve this only by means of gossip or lying, she will not, for one moment, hesitate to gossip or lie.
There it is - we all want to be important, we all want to be recognized. Think about it, why are you in this business? Perhaps you want to see your name in lights, perhaps you’d like it to be a household name, or perhaps you’d like to leave a legacy of films behind. Maybe you have completely different reasons altogether, but you’re not alone. All of us want to be important, and all of us go about accomplishing this goal differently and in more ways than one.
Your characters want the same thing, even if they do a good job of ignoring the fact. Think of any fictional character, or think of that quirky family member, and all of them want to be important in some form or fashion. How they go about it and what actions they take in the process is what makes them memorable. Your job as their creator is to figure out what they want and how they’ll go after it. That’s storytelling 101. Actually, that’s your story as a whole.
If you can create a character that is searching to be important, you can create a connection with the audience that makes them feel important. All of us have our Alvy Singer. Each and every one of us has a cinematic character that is connected to our unique quest for importance. You have the opportunity to create that link for your audience members. You can make them feel important. You can make your audience take comfort in the fact that they exist, and that their voice is heard.
Here’s a little bit of homework for you
Think of three cinematic characters and three people from your own life. Jot their names down in a notebook. If you don’t have a notebook, get a notebook. Now that you’ve done that, think about those names, think about what sort of importance they’re searching for. They may have many. Think about them, write them down, and write about how you think they’re trying to achieve recognition. If you’re feeling uncertain, talk to those three people in your life and ask them if you’re anywhere close.
If anything, the exercise should help you figure out what makes everyone tick and in their own way. You may not get it right away, but that’s alright. In the world of screenplays, that’s why we have second drafts.