Before we dig into this one, let’s brush up on a couple of concepts that are essential to great storytelling:
- Sympathy: sharing the feelings or interests of another (“I feel the same!”)
- Empathy: vicariously experiencing the feelings or thoughts of another (“I understand how you feel.”)
These two sides of the same coin are what enables storytellers to create and recreate stories that resonate with their audiences. These are what allows our work to transcend the state of being a series of events laid out on a page and, instead, reach another person on a meaningful level. These are also, as you are doubtlessly aware, the same two little words that can make writing one of the most difficult and daunting ways to spend one’s life.
But! Those who can tap into their sympathetic and empathetic cores may hold the keys to the kingdom because it is they who are able to create protagonists and antagonists we can’t forget. How? The secret is that we humans can’t help but be entranced by ourselves and by creating sympathetic characters–characters who act and react as we might in similar circumstances–the writer has actually created tiny mirrors of each of us on a basal, emotional level.
Mr.Anderson/Neo in The Matrix was a bored, oppressed office worker; one bee in the hive. Tony Stark in Ironman had to use his wits to survive against overwhelming odds. Most of us can relate to their emotional situations in some small way.
A sympathetic character is one with whom the audience can identify. That’s it. It’s not about being overtly likable or noble or good. It’s about that glimpse of the best of humanity that redeems even the worst of us. You can tell you’ve created a successfully sympathetic character when you observe your audience caring about whether or not that character succeeds in achieving his or her goals. Once we attach to a story’s hero, our interest level rides along with him, cringing as he encounters trouble and soaring as joy comes his way.
So how do we do that?
Firstly, take a brief moment off the top of your story to show your heroine responding to a drive that is so good and pure and so uncontrollably driven by instinct, that you can’t help but connect in a positive way. Some classics include: helping little old ladies across streets, saving kittens from trees, not whacking the little girl and her puppy, and other such sappy-but-illustrative examples.
Secondly, reinforce this heart of gold at least two more times throughout your story and if that causes increased conflict or raises the stakes, all the better. If your protagonist is a real cad, a schmuck of the highest order such as Fletcher Reede in Liar Liar or Nick Naylor in Thank You For Smoking, then it’s doubly important to get that moment in there quickly before we get too used to them being irredeemably terrible.
But why rewrite the book?
And empathy? Well, that’s talent. It’s the ability to place yourself inside the experience of another, to see what they see and feel what they may feel–apart from your own experience and to the degree that is possible. Empathy is what allows us to authentically create the sympathetic characters that win the hearts and minds of our readers and viewers. It’s what makes us writers.
Update October 6, 2008: Over at JohnAugust.com, a post on creating emotional catharsis. It’s in the air today, it seems.
Emotional catharsis is a direct function of how much the audience identifies with the character(s). Catharsis is a journey through dark territory, and you don’t go on that trek unless you can put yourself in a given character’s place, and feel like you’re living that experience.– John August, screenwriter
Go check it out.