I love Emma. As someone who’s spent way too much time trying to help other people solve problems that I really had no business trying to solve, I can relate to her.
But not everyone loves Emma. I found this out the hard way when I had to rewrite my retelling of Emma twice. It’s hard to keep a character like Emma from coming across as a snob.
“Why is it so important for Emma to be likable?” you ask. “The point of the story is that snobby Emma changes to become nice Emma.”
In the words of Blake Snyder, it’s important to have a likable main character “because liking the person we go on a journey with is the single most important element in drawing us into your story.”
I think part of the reason I’ve always loved Emma is that movie-makers have done a great job of smoothing out her rough edges. Today, I’d like to share what I’ve learned from the movie versions of Emma and Clueless about making a character more endearing.
First, make her beautiful!
The actresses who play Emma are over-the-top gorgeous, which–unfair as this may seem–makes people like them more.
Eliminate the negative. If you compare the book to the movie, you’ll notice that movie-theater Emma is a little less negative than book Emma. For example, when Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma finds out that Jane Fairfax has a new pianoforte, she doesn’t suggest that it might have come from Mr. Dixon. That bit of gossip comes from Frank Churchill. (In the book, it is just the opposite.)
Give her a best friend. If you give your character a friend, she seems more friendly. Cher in Clueless seems more friendly because she and Dionne get along so well.
Have her do something a little heroic in the beginning. In one of the first scenes of Clueless, we see Cher doing her best to take care of her single father by encouraging him to drink orange juice. We can’t help liking her for this.
Funny dialogue. Cher is also funny. One of my favorite parts is when she rolls through a stop sign and says, “I totally paused.” And that’s not the only funny thing she says. The movie has a ton of hilarious lines. My kids quote her all the time.
Make someone else snobbier. Anyone who’s unfairly treated automatically seems more likable. In both the book and movie versions of Emma, Jane Fairfax is cold and aloof, but seeing this played out on the screen, we sympathize even more for Emma. Just check out this picture:
Suddenly Emma doesn’t seem quite as snobby anymore.
For another example, check out Amber from Clueless, Cher’s snobby rival.
Make us feel sorry for her. In both the Gwyneth Paltrow version and Clueless, we get the feeling during the opening scenes that our main character is lonely. We feel for Emma, losing her best friend to marriage and getting her cart stuck in the stream. We feel for Cher getting ignored by her workaholic father and getting abandoned by her friends after the party.
Of course, I love Emma in the book too. I love that she tries so hard to help Harriet and keep her father comfortable. Her caring heart really comes through for me. How about you? What do you like about Emma?