In the Sunday NYT feature on Judd Apatow and his upcoming movie This is 40, there is this quote:
“People never walk out of the movie and think it’s about us,” Mr. Apatow said. “They always think it’s about them.”
And this is a reminder of one of the most important dynamics about writing a story: Creating some sort of identification between the audience [or reader] and the story’s characters.
This is especially true with Protagonists. There’s a lot of talk about making sure to write a sympathetic Protagonist. Or to give the Protagonist a flaw.
To me, that’s always been a secondary consideration. The primary concern is to look for aspects of who the Protagonist is with which a script reader can identify.
Why is this important? Read Apatow’s comment again: “People… always think it’s about them.”
It is through the audience’s identification with the characters, most pointedly the Protagonist, that the story becomes about them [the audience].
If we do our job right, when a Protagonists suffers embarrassment, we feel it, too, because we have been embarrassed in our lives.
When a Protagonist falls in love, we feel it, too, because we have fallen in love.
When a Protagonist is in pain, we feel it, too, because we have been in pain.
A current example: I thought I’d never live to see a James Bond movie where our Hero cried, but sure enough in Skyfall, he does. He also is betrayed, broken, reluctant, struggles to get into shape, all of which we have experienced more or less in our own lives. So while Skyfall has its share of eye-popping action, I wonder how much of its success — the biggest grossing James Bond movie to date — derives from the ongoing humanization process of the Daniel Craig iteration of the Protagonist, making the character less superhero and more identifiable.
For more of the NYT article on Apatow, go here.
Here is a feature on This Is 40: