Aragorn. Maximus. Harry Potter. Andy Dufresne. Rose and Jack. Katniss. Jean Valjean.
Every good story is defined by the character at its center. I'd venture to say that you don't have a story at all if you don't have a good protagonist. This truth transcends the medium, the genre, the format and the length. It always starts and ends with a wonderful character.
I learned this the hard way. Myself and a handful of fellow filmmakers set out to plan and pitch a TV series to some producers. We had two weeks to pull together 3 seasons of content, plan the technical aspects, nail a budget and write the pilot. I took the creative lead with the story. We based it off the board game Risk and called it "Conquest" – a futuristic story with some crazy plot twists. Kind of like Game of Thrones meets Star Trek meets Steampunk. For two weeks we tirelessly worked and I spent hours trying to create a believable and exciting universe. Then came pitch day.
Remember how I said that every story starts with a good character? Well if you're trying to sell a story to anyone, the first sentence of your pitch better be about your main character. If you do what I did and spend 5 minutes on background, history and exposition, you'll lose them – quickly. We had a great set of characters but I never got there. You never get hooked on a story because it's set in the future or because the score is amazing. No, we all fall in love with the characters and it's because of them I can watch all 14 hours of the Lord of the Rings over and over and over again.
I think this has a few implications on both creators and viewers as well as some comments about who we are a people. For a writer or filmmaker, take time with your characters. Once you think you've got a good grasp on them. Go deeper. I'm reading a screenwriting book right now and the author harps on it every chapter. Watch movies, read books, study history. Pull out the characteristics that create the framework of these lovable people and begin to craft your own. Spend a day responding to all your daily interactions as your main character. Make decisions like he or she would. Don't just know them on paper, understand your character's soul. Remember, as visual storytellers, we're trying to hook in an audience and that starts with our characters.
It's amazing much a fan base can unite themselves behind a character. Tip of the cap to actors for portraying such lifelike persona's that people write fan mail and send it to Hogwarts. Let me ask you this: Is an actor famous without his or her characters? I often wonder if fans that are lined up hours before a premiere to take pictures with Jennifer Lawrence or Katniss Everdeen. More than likely it's the latter. We're made to be relational beings – longing for a void to be filled and without a character we can relate to in a that way, the story will hopelessly fall short.
Taking that one step further, I've realized that the characters we love resonate so deeply with us because they reveal who we long to be as people.
Try this: Make a list of your favorite books or movies. Come up with at least 6-8. Got it? Now, on a different piece of paper, make a list of ideal personal qualities you have or wish to aspire to have? (such as courageous, romantic, truthful, etc.) Turn that page upside down and go back to your list of movies and books. Next to each one, write down your favorite character in that story. After that, jot down the noble character traits of that person. Once you've finished, compare those traits with the ones you wrote about yourself. Notice anything?
When I did this, it was amazing how many of those qualities I wished for myself appeared in the characters that I love most. The stories that enthrall us have the power to reveal our longing and that manifests itself in the characters. As a viewer we should approach any book, film or story with that mindset and dig deeper than we would initially. I loved that, but why? What does it tell me about my soul? As writers, filmmakers, actors, and storytellers, this gives us a great commission to think, analyze and re-analyze our characters, their decisions and the outcome of their choices. There's huge power and responsibility in that.
Take your time. This isn't a race. Your next fictitious character could have people lined up around the block for a simple photo. Now that's a good story.