Audiences need to like the protagonist(s), to both relate to and admire them. People often relate to characters that remind them of themselves; characters who face similar types of problems. People often admire characters that demonstrate a skill or proficiency, particularly if that skill demonstrates altruistic motives, such as teaching or medicine, or if it has a strong visual appeal, such as performance arts or athletics. Intelligence is another admirable trait, though when it comes to brains a person can be smart, knowledgeable, or clever.
When confronted with a problem, a smart person will logically deduce the solution from existing information. A knowledgeable person learns and remembers information beforehand. Both of these are consistent abilities, which reduce tension, and often carry a sense of arrogance and superiority, sometimes by the character, often perceived by others.
A clever person relies on intuition and quick thinking. These are the characters who can’t explain how they know, they just do. Sometimes they suffer setbacks, but when things are dire they have that moment of inspiration that guides them to the right answer, and it’s because everything happens in the last minute that clever characters can maintain tension, while smart or knowledgeable characters often undermine tension.
Sherlock Holmes is an example of a smart character, while Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series is a knowledgeable character. In contrast Harry himself is a clever character, relying on intuitive hunches to carry through.
Gandalf from Lord of the Rings and Dumbledore from Harry Potter are both very knowledgeable characters, but a strong emphasis on humility keeps them from being perceived as arrogant.
Means to an End
People rarely acquire skills without a reason or goal in mind. In any story all major characters should have at least 2 goals 1 long term, and 1 short term. There may be others that are subconscious, but each character needs at least 2 that they are actively pursuing.
A short term goal is immediate and brief. A character recognizes something they want and achieves it in a few minutes or a few hours. These can include getting a drink, sitting or lying down because they are tired, or wandering off in search of fun.
Long term goals usually take most of the story to resolve. They often segment into steps. These steps include establishing a problem or opportunity, having the character recognize, and then choose to engage the problem or opportunity, and working towards a resolution.
Most of the character’s story is spent chipping away at goals, resolving various short term “step” goals, while setting the stage for the long term goal’s resolution. If the character fails, the long term goal may evolve and become more challenging. If the character succeeds, the story may introduce a new long term goal. If the character has no long term goal to pursue, either new or old, then the story has reached the end.
There’s an old saying, “we like people for their virtues, but we love them for their flaws.” A strong character is admirable, but strength alone keeps the audience at a distance. Audiences often feel closest to a character when they see the character’s flaws. It shows the characters are imperfect, just like the audience. The key is to use small flaws that don’t interfere with a character’s strengths.
Han Solo from Star Wars is boastful and arrogant, an example of the loveable rogue who eventually demonstrates his good nature. Sherlock Holmes is blunt and unsociable, but he does care, he just isn’t comfortable expressing it.
Some characters suffer because the story tries to fake a flaw. Kryptonite is not Superman’s flaw, it’s an obstacle and a threat, but it’s not a flaw because it’s the one thing that can kill him, while humans can be killed by countless things. Superman’s primary flaw is his isolation. Despite his best efforts to assimilate, he is an outsider, always hiding part of himself.
A good character is all about balance. The stronger the skill, the greater their flaws need to be in order to balance them out. The severity of Sherlock’s intellect requires equally extreme shortcomings, making him a striking character, as only a major character should be.