I've written about the importance of audience identification with characters in previous posts and how this can be used to manipulate audiences into empathising with unsavoury characters, like Norman Bates. For this post, I'd like to talk about how important that engagement with your protagonist is and how to achieve this early in the story. Ridley Scott's Gladiator is a great case study for how to make audiences connect themselves to the main protagonist early on and to make them care and follow the protagonist through their journey for the rest of the story.
In Gladiator, Maximus Decimus Meridius, a Roman general, is sentenced to be executed by the new young emperor, Commodus, for failing to swear an oath of loyalty to him. Maximus escapes his execution, rides to find his family murdered, and is sold into slavery where he rises through the ranks of the Gladiators to have his revenge against the emperor. It's a hell of a journey. It is violent, cruel and unfair. People he cares about get killed and he overcomes every obstacle thrown at him so that he can avenge his family.
But, like many protagonists, Maximus is quite an alien character to contemporary audiences. We can't possibly begin to imagine what life is like for a person like him. Even high ranking military officials nowadays couldn't put themselves in the shoes of this man. And yet, even a teenager could watch this film and understand Maximus.
So why is that? What is it about him that makes us understand and, more importantly, want to follow alongside him through these horrific and savage battles that he is forced into on his quest for revenge?
The answer is in his decision making process. We identify with people we can relate to, sure, but what can we relate to about a man from this period? The choices he makes. We can hold these choices against our own moral compass and our criteria for right and wrong and, based on these choices, form some sort of understanding of who Maximus is.
So this sounds pretty straight forward, and there's nothing groundbreaking about what I'm talking about here. However, the challenge is to secure this engagement, this connection between audience and character, as early as possible. There needs to be a pretty important decision early in the story, so that we can understand the protagonist but also justify our desire to follow them on their quest.
In Gladiator, this all important decision comes in the form of what I call, the moral dilemma.
In the early stages of act 1, Marcus Aurelius is murdered by his son Commodus, and afterwards, the new emperor asks Maximus for a show of loyalty. Disgusted by Commodus, and loyal to his fallen mentor and father figure, Maximus turns his back on Commodus and is punished for it. Morally, he makes the right choice, even though logically, it makes no sense. In that moment, we can relate to him. We can see that he is a good person beneath all the savagery and even though he should probably have known the punishment that would befall him and his family, he was right to do this.
The moral dilemma is one of the most important scenes in the first act. It allows the audience to quickly make a decision about whether or not they like this character and support him, and it gives us something that we can relate to. Nothing makes an audience connect to a character faster than relating to a family issue or a moralistic issue. In this instance, you get both, because of Maximus' and the ageing emperor's father-son like relationship.
Alien has another example of this but in reverse. Because this is a slasher film of sorts and we are aware that many of these characters are going to get picked off one by one, we instead look for the scenes where we identify with the characters survival-based decision making process, rather than their moralistic choices. Morals will get you killed in this world, remember.
In the first act of Alien, Ellen Ripley must make a choice whether or not to allow the infected John Hurt back onto the ship. She refuses, citing quarantine protocol, but the evil android, Ash, overrules her and lets them on. We all know what happens next. If you had to align yourself with any one character from this point on, it would naturally be Ripley, because of the smart choices she makes for the benefit of the crew and the ship. She thinks about survival, while everyone else thinks about John Hurt. She makes the cold logical choice over the morally right one (I must help this man).
As a final example, we can look to Kingsman: The Secret Service. In the first act of this film, Eggsy, the main protagonist and prospective secret agent, is forced to choose between shooting his dog (as a show of loyalty and the ability to make tough decisions), thus securing his place in the agency, or saving the dog's life and returning to his old life. He chooses to save the dog and, though it is logically the wrong decision (his career as an agent would have allowed him to provide for his struggling family and friends and follow in his father's footsteps - sorry if this sounds cruel!), it is morally the right one (the choice his deceased heroic father would also have made). We already like Eggsy, but now we can respect him.
This is a scene that should take place early in the story, particularly if it is a story that we would otherwise find difficult to relate to. The examples of Alien and Kingsman come later in the first act, but this is justified by the fact that Ripley and her crew are very relatable 'space truckers' and Eggsy's life is a very grounded and realistic depiction of the struggles that young people endure in the 21st century. There is already a lot that we can latch onto here.
Going back to Maximus, he is punished for his choice, and the journey he undertakes afterwards is a result of this punishment. It all leads back to this one moral dilemma. Because we support his decision, we can accept the journey. Don't assume that audiences will automatically accept the premise or the journey just because they have paid for the ticket.
It's one scene, but it can make all the difference.