Connecting With a Character (and Dr. Horrible)

— August 20, 2012 (7 comments)
One of the most important things we need to do as writers is help the reader connect with the character. But what the heck does that mean?

It means the character is sympathetic. We like them and want them to succeed. They don't even have to be a good guy. They can be a villian, like Dr. Horrible.

Dr. Horrible is one of the most sympathetic villains I've ever seen (and I won't spoil the series except to say he gets even more sympathetic). What makes us root for him can work for any character, good or bad.

Dr. Horrible: "Ok, dude, you are not my nemesis.... I'm just trying to change the world, ok? I don't have time for a grudge match with every poser in a parka. Besides, there's kids in that park..."

The traits we like in real people work just as well for our characters. They're honest, nice, noble, brave, humble, funny. They play fair and sacrifice for others.

Dr. Horrible isn't all of these things, but he strives not to kill. He's self-deprecating. He really is working for the people (even if he sees those people as sheep, sometimes).

Dr. Horrible: "I got a letter from Bad Horse."
Moist: "That's so hard core. Bad Horse is legend. He rules the League with an iron hoof."

They might be pathetic or ignorant or victims of everything. They might not even succeed, but a character that excels at something is a character worth rooting for. Even if Dr. Horrible's inventions don't work perfectly, the fact is he has a (mostly) working transmatter ray, freeze ray, and he can remotely hijack an armored van. That's pretty awesome, if you ask me.

Dr. Horrible: "It's not about making money, it's about taking money. Destroying the status quo because the status is not . . . quo. The world is a mess and I just . . . need to rule it."

If we're going to root for the character, we need to know what they're striving for. It's hard to cheer from the sidelines if you have no idea how one scores a goal.

And it needs to be a goal we agree with. Ruling the world may not be the most sympathetic vision, but Dr. Horrible's motivation certainly is.

Dr. Horrible: "[reading fan mail] 'Where are the gold bars you were supposed to pull out of that bank vault with your Transmatter Ray? Obviously, it failed or it would be in the papers.' Well, no. They're not gonna say anything in the press, but behold! Transported from there to here! [pokes a bag of gold liquid] The molecules tend to . . . shift during the transmatter, uh, event. But they were transported in bar form..."

Once we're rooting for them, we feel every failure, and every step back makes the victory that much more awesome.

No, I'm not going to tell you whether Dr. Horrible succeeds. You have to watch it.

Seriously, go watch it.

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  1. I've never gotten around to watching it. I feel like I could agree with your post even more if I had. And the thing is, true villains/antagonists that can be sympathized with fully are pretty rare. I'm not counting false antagonists like Zuko, either. I mean the guys who actually work against the main goal of the protagonist. I guess you can sympathize with Voldemort a little bit, considering his past, but when he starts murdering kids, it gets a little harder.

    I'm sure there are some out there, but I can't think of any right now.

  2. I adore Dr. Horrible. We watch it about every 2 months. :)

  3. LOVE Dr. Horrible and watched it many times before I lost my job (a.k.a. laptop) and am now stuck with a terrible computer for watching anything online. Sigh. Matthew, you will like him. With a wince. LOL

    Sympathetic villains: Brandin in Tigana (all time favorite book), Snape, I'm sure there are tons out there, but dinner's burning!

  4. Love Dr Horrible - it's true, I always appreciate a good book or movie that can get me to empathise with a villain.

  5. First of all...It's NPH. I mean. C'MON! Second of all...Anything Joss Whedon. Learn character development and dialog from the master (or one of them anyway)!

  6. Reminds me of the squirrels here - they're likeable (so cute), they excel at something (climbing), they have a goal (the hanging birdfeeder), and they fail (they can't climb the smooth tin around the pole and repeatedly fall off.)

    And then comes the super-villian - the flying squirrel, who comes at night and launches himself off a nearby tree, bounces off the feeder and falls to the ground repeatedly, and then finally succeeds. At that point I could only admire him.

  7. I like reminders like this. It helps make sure I'm making characters people will like.

    What is Dr. Horrible from? I like him already...