Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on?
Your heroes have a lot of work to do, so it’s tempting to simply hit the ground running, and instantly start dumping problems on their heads until they’re ready to stand up and do something about it. But you can’t assume we’ll automatically bond with your heroes just because we’re told to identify with them. The audience is actually inclined to distrust and reject your heroes, for all the reasons listed in Part I.
We won’t go anywhere with your heroes until they win us over. Logically, we know this is fiction and we shouldn’t care about a bunch of lies, but you need to overcome our resistance and make us care, against our better judgment.
So how do you do that? You need to give your hero at least one moment of humanity, which will break through that resistance and bond us to the hero. This is the moment the audience forgets this is fiction and starts to believe in the character.
The moment of humanity can take different forms:
Something Funny: This is easiest to do in first-person novels, of course, where the hero can win us over on the first page with a snarky point of view. In movies, this just means cracking wise, usually in a perceptive way, as with the heroes of Casablanca, Ocean’s Eleven, Groundhog Day, and Juno. This can also bond us to characters who are scared to be funny out loud, but have a very funny, perceptive, and self-deprecating voiceover, such as the heroes of The Apartment, Spider-Man, and Mean Girls.
An Out-of-Character Moment, where we realize this character won’t just be one-note. This may seem odd: How is it possible to introduce your character with an out-of-character moment? It takes very little time to establish expectations before you start to upset them. Jokes are written according to the “rule of threes:” something happens twice, which establishes a pattern, and then the third time something different happens, which upsets the pattern. That’s all it takes.
- Tony Stark in Iron Man proves himself to be a boastful alpha-male billionaire in the first scene as he boldly shows off his new weapon to a group of generals, but then he asks to share a Hum-V with some soldiers and becomes self-deprecating and gregarious, making jokes about gang-signs in selfies.
- Aladdin has a great song about being a fun-loving thief, but after he gets away with his bread, he reluctantly lets starving kids beg it off of him. This is a clear-cut “save-the-cat” moment, but it only works because it’s out of character. If he had stolen the bread for the kids, we wouldn’t like him as much. That would actually be more sympathetic, but less compelling.
An Oddball Moment, where the character, rather than single-mindedly pursuing a goal, indulges in a bit of idiosyncratic behavior that briefly interrupts the momentum of the story in a good way.
- The French Connection: We never really get any moments of weakness or humility from Popeye, but we fall in love with him when he suddenly veers off script in an interrogation and starts asking the suspect if he ever picked his feet in Poughkeepsie.
- Blazing Saddles: Ex-slave, track-layer Bart is ordered to sing an old slave song as he works, so he smirks and breaks out into an anachronistic rendition of “I Get a Kick Out of You.” We now love this guy.
- Han Solo in Star Wars is wounded that Luke and Obi-Wan have never heard of his ship.
- The hero of Rushmore imagines he is a math genius and the hero of the school, only to wake up to a more modest reality.
- Ted on How I Met Your Mother describes to a girl in a bar his imaginary wedding in an adorably deluded way.
- Annie in Bridesmaids sneaks out of her lover’s bed in the morning to do herself up, then climbs back in so that she’ll look like she’s woken up looking beautiful.
- My favorite movie, the silent drama The Crowd, begins with a dead-simple example: Our hero is nervously preparing for a date in front of the mirror, when he notices a spot on his face. He keeps trying to rub it off, to no avail, until he realizes that it’s a spot on the mirror.
- Modern Times gets us on the side of the Little Tramp by introducing him as he’s working an assembly line, and can’t take his hands off for a second, but he has to scratch his nose.
- William Goldman, in his book “Adventures in the Screen Trade”, writes about how nobody was bonding with the hero in his movie Harper, so he added a brief scene in the beginning where Harper gets up in the morning, starts to make coffee, and realizes that he’s out of filters. Harper thinks for a second, then fishes yesterday’s filthy filter out of the garbage, brushes it off and re-uses it. Suddenly, the audience is ready to go anywhere with this guy.
- In the case of The 40 Year Old Virgin, it’s the very first shot: Andy tries to pee while coping with a painful morning erection. That’s certainly a unique-but-universal moment I never thought I'd see portrayed onscreen.