I've been studying this "character sympathy" thing feverishly for a while now. Emotional connection. That's what it's all about. If I'm in love with a character(s), I will forgive plot holes (as long as they're not too gaping), or poor fight sequences, or bad vfx, or almost any sin with the rest of the film. But if I'm not connected to the character(s), it had better be a pretty brilliant, well executed concept. And even then, the best I might come away with is "it was good".
Some friends have given me some great books on the subject.
One is called "The Story Solution" by Eric Edson. And the other is "The Art of Character" by David Corbett. (Thanks John and Dawn!)
Check out this incredibly helpful list from The Story Solution...
I've also taken the 10-day Advanced Dialogue class at Screenwriting U, which is a repeat for me, but I wanted a refresher, and refreshed I got! It's stellar info!
And of course there's Orson Scott Card's book "Character and Viewpoint" which is fantastic.
So... what have I learnt (and am still learning...)?
That there's no magic formula to making people fall in love with your protag, just like in real life. But there's things that your character needs to have right from the get-go, as their char arc is just starting, before they transform into the person they'll become at the end. Things that are part of their char profiles. Their personalities.
I've been working with an exceptionally clever producer developing one of my scripts, and I'm also learning things like make sure the protag has a clear and definitive goal. And they're taking steps towards that goal. Wishy washy, floundering protags aren't who we bond with. We bond with people who are trying to get somewhere. Want something desperately, or desperately don't want something to happen. I know this sounds obvious, but when I went back to my scripts, in every case, this could be clearer. In some cases, much clearer. Damn it.
We also want strong protags. They can be shy, or lack confidence, or be terrible with the opposite sex, but deep down they have to be somehow a strong character. Believe in something strongly. Have a strong moral code. Be a presence. They have to be someone the audience is going to want to follow for two hours. They have to be smarter, or wittier, or tougher, or more calculating, or kinder, or braver than ordinary people. They have to be an expert in something, even if it's compassion. And preferably, they have to be an expert in whatever thing they need to reach their goal. Maybe it's determination and drive they need (like Rocky) over actual skill, but he had enough determination to overcome his lack of skill. Even if they're an "ordinary person in an extraordinary situation", they need to have something extraordinary about them to start with. It has to be part of their nature.
I read CHILDREN OF MEN the other day. Brilliant script. The main character is a nobody. EXCEPT... he used to be a rebel fighter, and one of the best. And he's the only one that the rebel leader, his ex-girlfriend, trusts. So he's strong, courageous and trustworthy. Even though he seems like a nobody.
I found a list of the 100 greatest movie characters of all time. Each of these characters is somehow a strong personality, with inherent qualities in their nature to make us emotionally connect to them. And they show who they are through what they do.
I smell more rewrites in my future.