How will creating empathy for your characters make your stories stronger, more engaging, and more immersive?
Here's a sad, hard psychological truth: at the end of the day, we don't actually care what happens to those with whom we can't identify. And if we can't empathize or identify with your story's main character, we won't actually care how your story turns out.
Now fortunately most of us are not sociopaths. We can identify with most everyone we meet. "The basic existence of empathy is why most of us don’t spend every second of the day clubbing each other over the head and stealing each other’s groceries." (Film Crit Hulk, paraphrasing David Foster Wallace). After all, we're all human. We all struggle, we're all misunderstood, and we all experience the same human emotions. And that's the point: empathy is fundamentally about universal, shared experiences.
While we have a basic level of empathy for most other humans, there's a caveat: there are degrees of empathy. We can and do empathize with some people more than others. And while we might have enough empathy not to smack someone over the head with a club (due to the fact that we can imagine how that would feel), we might not have enough empathy to actually care how their story turns out. When it comes to some people, we can more or less say that we're indifferent. And indifference is the death knell of storytelling. Don't let your character fall victim to a lack of empathy! As writers, we don't just want the audience mildly interested--we want them dying to know how it all ends! We want our character's future to be the most engaging, page-turning, tension-filled aspect of the audience's life!
Let's put it this way: The audience will not fundamentally care about your story if they don't empathize with your main character. And there's a real, psychological reason for this.
The Story Bond
Humans are self-interested and self-centered. Your challenge as a writer is not to actually make us care about a character, but rather to be able to see ourselves in a character. Your goal is to make us psychologically insert ourselves into the mind (and shoes) of the character in such a way that we leave our own bodies and inhabit theirs. Once we, as the audience, are living vicariously through the character, we'll do the rest.
We care about how our future will turn out. We care about our struggles. We care about our trials and tribulations. And if we imagine that we are your character, then not only will we care about your character's future, but we'll actually imagine that their future is our future. This psychological process of imagining that we are someone else is the psychological process of empathizing and it's critical to any successful story. The actual reason we care about your story is not because we care about your character (ouch); it's because we care about ourselves. The corollary to this fact is that if we can't imagine ourselves as your character to some degree, we won't care how your story turns out.
Did you ever see the movie Avatar? (If not, feel free to stop and go watch). Well, your main character is an avatar whose purpose is to act as a surrogate for the audience. Your character is the vessel that the audience will use to psychologically insert themselves into the story world.
William C. Martell calls it a "skin jump":
"A 'skin jump' is where we, as the audience jump onto the screen and become the protagonist of the story. And a good story has some sort of a fantasy (although it doesn't have to be a positive fantasy) that we want to explore in our life. So we skin jump and we are Eliot riding his bicycle with E.T. and it flies. And that is like one of those moments where, if you were to turn the camera on the audience and watch the audience, they would all be just overjoyed because we're all Elliot in that scene, for that moment. … We can become Indiana Jones and do the amazing adventure thing. And we basically jump from the audience onto the screen, which means we need a character to jump into. A good story is about a character that fulfills some sort of … fantasy the audience has. The reason why a film is a hit is because it ends up hitting the dream fulfillment elements of a lot of people."
Eric Edson notes:
"The hero is the audience. … Once we start seeing the nature of the hero or heroine's major problem … we project ourselves--psychologically project ourselves--into the hero and then we're along for the ride."
In "Into The Woods", John Yorke explores some of the science behind empathy:
"When empathy occurs we really do become one, physiologically, with the protagonist. … As his heart accelerates, ours beats faster too. Watching someone being hit activates exactly the same areas of the brain as being hit – the physiological reactions, though fortunately not the pain, are identical. Stories thus literally place us all ‘on the same wavelength’. This is the ‘pity and fear’ Aristotle talks of us experiencing in The Poetics. We live what our protagonists live. … As engaged observers we experience in our own heads what the object of our gaze is going through, and thus begin to understand. This not only explains just why showing is far more powerful than telling; it means there is a neural basis to empathy."
Once we've inserted ourselves into the story world via the main character, we've created a story bond. We now see the events of the story as affecting us. And once we see how the story directly affects us, caring about what happens next is just an exercise in self-interest. The goal of the writer, then, is to establish that story bond through empathy and then to continually strengthen and renew it.
What is Empathy?
Empathy is about experiencing the human condition. It's about identifying with pain, relating to circumstance, and aspiring to dominance and immortality. Empathy is being able to put yourself in the mind (and shoes) of another.
One thing empathy is not: sympathy.
Robert McKee explains in his book Story:
"The audience’s emotional involvement is held by the glue of empathy. If the writer fails to fuse a bond between filmgoer and protagonist, we sit outside feeling nothing. Involvement has nothing to do with evoking altruism or compassion. We empathize for very personal, if not egocentric, reasons. When we identify with a protagonist and his desires in life, we are in fact rooting for our own desires in life. Through empathy, the vicarious linking of ourselves to a fictional human being, we test and stretch our humanity. The gift of story is the opportunity to live lives beyond our own, to desire and struggle in a myriad of worlds and times, at all the various depths of our being.
"Empathy, therefore, is absolute, while sympathy is optional. We’ve all met likable people who don’t draw our compassion. A protagonist, accordingly, may or may not be pleasant. Unaware of the difference between sympathy and empathy, some writers automatically devise nice-guy heroes, fearing that if the star role isn’t nice, the audience won’t relate. Uncountable commercial disasters, however, have starred charming protagonists. Likability is no guarantee of audience involvement; it’s merely an aspect of characterization. The audience identifies with deep character, with innate qualities revealed through choice under pressure."
John Yorke explains in Into The Woods:
"The key to empathy … lies in its ability to access and bond with our unconscious."
"If empathy is about entering the mind of a fictional character, then it helps if that mind contains feelings similar to our own."
"The moment the audience is caught in the conspiracy of story is the most magical in all of drama; you’ll know it well from live theatre – it’s the point at which the protagonist has burrowed inside and taken over the spectator, the moment the coughing stops."
So what causes empathy? Under what conditions are we able to put ourselves in the mind of another?
When we recognize a piece of ourselves in that person (whether in their character traits, their aspirations and desires, their actions, their decisions, their point of view, their struggles, their weaknesses and flaws, their strengths, their fears, their circumstance, etc.)
When we recognize in someone a piece of who we want to be, who we wish we were, or who we wish we (sometimes) could be.
When we recognize that a similar situation (usually a struggle) or set of circumstances may have led us to a similar fate or decision (no matter how reprehensible).
This ability to recognize and to relate to the struggle of another is actually a form of recognizing the particular struggle or the possibility of the struggle in ourselves and then seeing it play out in another character. In a way, it is no different than recognizing a piece of ourselves in another person, but it warrants a separate mention due to how common it is.
In other words, we are able to put ourselves in the other person's mind when we recognize and relate to a situation that the person is going through (usually a struggle), and in most cases understand and relate to their decision when faced with that situation.
Recognizing Ourselves In Others
In the first case of empathy, we recognize a piece of who we are in another person. Many times, we recognize some fault, mistake, or injustice. We see that that person is going through a struggle and we know what that feels like, so we empathize with them. Sometimes it's an embarrassing moment or an all-too-familiar reaction to a situation. It's usually the feeling accompanied by the thought, "Yep, we've all been there" or "I hate it when that happens to me." From this perspective, generating empathy relies on the writer's ability to accurately model relatable human behavior and circumstance.
The universal circumstances and struggles with which we can all most relate are usually the simplest situations.
Daniel Petrie Jr. puts it well:
"Did anybody see the original 'Poseidon Adventure?' Well, the audience gasps at one point. Now, people are impaled, the boat turns over, hundreds of people drown, nobody gasps at any of this. But Jack Albertson plays the old husband of Shelly Winters. He's crawling along and bangs his head on a pipe, and *gasp* in the audience. Everybody can relate to that--that's happened to everybody. … How often have you seen somebody decapitated? It doesn't happen that frequently even in Los Angeles."
Petrie's point here is strong: sometimes a simple, universal (though admittedly not detrimental or permanent) struggle can have the widest appeal. We don't all know what it's like to be impaled, but we sure know what it's like to be unaware of our surroundings and to hit our head.
Let's take an example from the first Pirates of the Caribbean. Orlando Bloom's character Will Turner is introduced with a funny little gag that instantly makes him likable and relatable. Will is at the Governor's estate as a guest. He's in the waiting room, just killing time ("we've all been there"). While examining a light fixture on the wall a bit too closely, Will breaks off a piece of the fixture resulting in an embarrassingly loud noise! ("Ah, I hate when that happens!") The sound echoes throughout the mansion as he looks around to make sure no one saw or heard him. Now, with light fixture in hand, a governor soon to be approaching, and no way to fix the situation, he frantically searches for a place to stash the evidence ("too true"). He tries his pocket but settles on a bucket full of canes. A house servant approaches just moments after Will chucks the light fixture into the bucket, resulting in a series of loud, embarrassing bangs.
We can all relate to moments of embarrassment, especially when we're guests in social situations. These moments are simple, universal, and relatable.
You may have noticed that all of the examples thus far have been about struggle and pain. It's perhaps a bit dark but it's true: We can't all relate to the same happiness, but we can sure all relate to the same sadness. And that's why including moments that trigger pity are so powerful. (Of course, don't just have your character play the victim. If a character is walking around with an attitude of "woe is me" then we just feel like they need to suck it up and pull themselves together. We want to feel like the character is a victim, without the character necessarily sulking in their circumstance).
Dan Harmon explains the pity phenomenon:
"If there are choices, the audience picks someone to whom they relate. When in doubt, they follow their pity. Fade in on a raccoon being chased by a bear, we are the raccoon. Fade in on a room full of ambassadors. The President walks in and trips on the carpet. We are the President. When you feel sorry for someone, you're using the same part of your brain you use to identify with them."
Sometimes it's about relating to reaction (particularly to struggles), such as frustration or anger. Take Mr. Incredible, from The Incredibles, for example. He comes home from a long, boring, and frustrating day at his cubicle job. His puttering, clunker of a car rolls into the driveway. He gets out and immediately slips on a skateboard his son left in the yard, resulting in immediate frustration and condemnation under his breath. He grabs hold of the car roof to catch his balance but his natural strength ends up denting the roof of the car. His natural exclamation is a sarcastic, "Oh, great!". He slams the car door shut but the dent now prevents the door from latching--it swings back open. In frustration, he SLAMS the door shut! *Crack* goes the door's window, and then the glass shatters. Mr. Incredible is thrown into a rage. He grunts and growls, pulls out his hair, and finally calls upon his strength to lift the entire car in anger! Only the presence of a small child on a tricycle stops his fit of rage.
We've all been there. Something goes wrong and our frustration and anger causes us more trouble. A domino effect is set in motion and the day just feels ruined.
Creating Empathy Technique #1: Misfortune
As Dan Harmon explained, the audience follows their pity. It's a cheap, highly-effective technique for quickly establishing empathy for a character. As a general rule, mistreat your character but don't let that character feel sorry for himself. The audience is smart. They'll know when the character is the victim and they'll natural feel sorry for him, resulting in empathy.
Matt Bird explains in The Secrets of Story:
"Some people try to be heroes, while others prefer to be scoundrels. Some feel like winners; others feel like losers. Some are naturally happy, and others are perpetually gloomy. But there’s one thing each of us feels, one universal human emotion. Everyone feels misunderstood."
"Audiences love to get to know heroes intimately. We love to see actions no one else is watching and then feel sudden umbrage when others, who haven’t shared our intimacy, make false assumptions about them. We love to see heroes’ true motivation established in one scene and then see others unfairly ascribe false motives to them in the next scene. This truly bonds us to a character."
So make your character misunderstood by others. Make him hit his head on a pipe. Make him catch his foot on the carpet and take a tumble. Make him slip on a skateboard and fly into a rage. Make him feel abandoned, excluded, rejected, lonely, neglected, regretful, injured, haunted, wounded, repressed, in jeopardy, full of contempt, poor, or just plain mistreated. It's a simple tool, but it's a powerful one. Of course, be careful not to let this become a pity party. Don't let your character sulk for too long--they must be fundamentally proactive.
A great example of a character who's continually mistreated and down on his luck, but still faces the world with a smile and (sometimes misplaced) optimism is Charlie Chaplin's "Tramp" character.
As a side note, sometimes we simply relate to a common attribute, characteristic, or temperament but be wary of this. Most of the audience will not relate to traits, characteristics, looks, or mannerisms alone because statistically they aren't shared with most of the audience. And any trait or characteristic so broad as to be shared with the vast majority of the audience loses its impact and importance. This is why showing a character going through misfortune is so effective. We all share what it feels like to be embarrassed, to feel lost, and to feel misunderstood.
Creating Empathy Technique #2: The Average Joe
Of course, not all empathy needs to be about relating to negative emotions like anger, embarrassment and loneliness. Sometimes, we just want to see the every man! The average Joe! We want to see someone who is just like us. Who is the every man? We feel like he's on our level. He's one of us. He's not a super hero, he's not a highly trained warrior, he's not a master of a long-forgotten craft. He's just another human being, in an ordinary world, with everyone else.
Karl Iglesias explains the Average Joe in "Writing for Emotional Impact":
"The Average Joe is equal to the reader. This results in sympathy because we recognize ourselves in them, and thus identify with them, their desires, and their needs. These characters struggle to rise above their doubts, limitations, and obstacles. Alfred Hitchcock made a career out of these protagonists—ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Other examples include McClane in Die Hard, Racine in Body Heat, Joe and Jerry in Some Like It Hot, and Elliott in E.T. If you make your protagonist an Average Joe, make sure there’s a uniqueness and complexity to him."
Mickey Mouse and Charlie Chaplin are classic "every man" characters. As Iglesias mentioned, Average Joes are "ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances." The love of the Average Joe comes from the character's response to extraordinary circumstances. Do they face the challenge with what little they've got? Hope (even if misplaced) and tenacity are often their primary weapons. We can often relate to feeling like it's just "ordinary me" against seemingly insurmountable obstacles and in that juxtaposition there is power. The "every man" is the embodiment of the American Dream. With determination, hope, and an unwillingness to quit, an Average Joe can overcome obstacles to reach his desire and raise his status in society. We like that concept. We relate to it, and want it for our own lives. It's only natural that we should empathize with it.
Creating Empathy Technique #3: Admiration and Fantasy
Exploring a character's misfortune is such a quick and powerful way of establishing empathy that it can often overshadow the other flip side of empathy: admiration.
Empathy, of course, is a two-sided coin. Often writers will focus on a character's flaws, vulnerabilities, victimhood, vulnerabilities, misunderstanding, etc. In other words, writers will focus on making you feel sorry for the hero in order to empathize with them. But we don't only empathize with people because we recognize their misfortune--we also empathize with others when we admire them.
Matt Bird in The Secrets of Story:
"Caring is only the first half of empathy, because as much as we feel for their flaws, we also need to trust the heroes' strengths. This is the area where many beginners fall down on the job. Audiences are naturally inclined to reject heroes until they earn their investment. Your heroes need not be do-gooders or Earth savers, but they must be active, resourceful, and differentiated from those around them, even if it means they’re extraordinarily rotten."
If your character has only attributes that make us feel sorry for them, we won't want this character to be our surrogate/avatar in the story. After all, who wants to be represented by an absolute irredeemable pile of wet rags? Maybe that's a little harsh. Fortunately, it's not actually particularly hard to give your character strengths. Desire itself is a strength. The willingness and determination to change your current circumstance is admirable. We must trust the character's strengths. We want to feel that they are in some way competent and willing to face the challenges ahead of them.
We empathize with those we wish we could be. We recognize a piece of who we wish we were or who we wish we (sometimes) could be in another. One of story's most important functions is fantasy fulfillment. Drama is a testbed. Stories provide an outlet for the audience to explore their wishes and fantasies. Story (and empathy) is about wish fulfillment. It's why some are drawn to live out the life of the princess and some are drawn to slay the dragon. We want to use story as a means to take control and live out those desires we can't hope to in our everyday lives. Where we may feel lost and misunderstood in life, we can feel powerful and accomplished in story through the magic of empathy.
We like to imagine and fantasize about ourselves in various scenarios. Of course, we all have different fantasies--some more universal than others. Many men like to imagine living out the life of the independent, rugged cowboy while most women have no such fantasy. This may help to explain why John Wayne movies are generally so beloved by men but generally not by women (because men generally have a far easier time psychologically inserting themselves into the John Wayne character--they want to be like John Wayne and live out his life). Women may not empathize as easily with John Wayne as an avatar for their aspirations. The more universal and primal the aspiration, the wider the target audience for the empathy.
As a general rule, we admire leaders. To some extent it's ingrained in us from an anthropological perspective. All else equal, we admire those who are brave, courageous, and dominant. It's important to mention here that "dominant" does not necessarily equate to "asshole" nor does "assertive" equate to "bastard". We can simply refer to "dominant" as "high status" and "submissive" as "low status". We respect and those who are deliberate, calm, focused, controlled, decisive, concise, clear, and confident. We admire those that stand up for themselves and take life by the horns. And with this admiration comes a desire to put ourselves in that person's shoes.
In Writing for Emotional Impact, Karl Iglesias mentions a series of desirable qualities with which we empathize in the form of admiration and fantasy:
Power, charisma, leadership; a glamorous profession; courage (physical or mental); passion; skills/expertise; attractiveness; wisdom, wit, and cleverness; sense of humor and playfulness; childlike innocence or enthusiasm; physicality and athleticism; persistence (making an effort, actively struggling despite vulnerabilities); misfit, rebel, or eccentric.
Karl Iglesias also defines an archetypal Hero protagonist who engenders admiration:
"The Hero is superior to the reader, and produces admiration. Although they’re not perfect, they’re confident about their skills and take action without hesitation. They have no ambivalence, no self-doubts. We don’t identify with them, we fantasize about being them. They give us a taste of who we could really be. Examples include superheroes, such as Superman and Spiderman (whose alter-egos are Average Joes), Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Sherlock Holmes."
Desire is Relatable
We can often easily identify with the feeling of want. We can identify with the feeling of desire. And we particularly fantasize about being the type of person who takes action towards a desire. Although we all have our individual desires throughout the day and throughout our lives, we may find it harder than not to take meaningful action to attain and fulfill those desires. And that's one reason why story can be therapeutic from a fantasy perspective. We want to live out the life of someone who gets a burning desire and then has the courage to stand up and chase it. When a character has a strong, burning desire, we can identify with that feeling.
Desire also lets us peek into the true nature of a character, as John Yorke describes in Into The Woods:
"You can tell a huge amount about a character from their goals and desires. We will know much of a character if we know they want to save the lost Ark from the Nazis, or are willing to run from the police to Mexico but won’t take the easiest route through Texas, the state in which they were raped."
Understanding a character's goal is a critical piece of caring about how their story turns out. If we understand and empathize with a character's desire, we will want to see whether the character is successful in attaining that desire.
"Indeed, all archetypal stories are defined by this one essential tenet: the central character has an active goal. They desire something. If characters don’t then it’s almost impossible to care for them, and care we must. They are our avatars and thus our entry point: they are the ones we most want to win or to find redemption – or indeed be punished if they’ve transgressed, for subconsciously we can be deeply masochistic in our desires. Effectively they’re us."
If the character doesn't want anything, the audience won't either. We want to see characters striving and seeking. We want to see a character with a strong motivation behind that desire. If a character doesn't have a strong motivation then how will they overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that inevitably await them?. We want to see a character who is tireless in their pursuit, driven by a clear and great motivator. If a character isn't actively striving for something, it's hard for the audience to care. Audiences want what characters want and if characters have no desire then audiences have no desire.
Creating Empathy Technique #4: Dark Fantasy
Remember, empathy is about *imagination*. It's about imagining that we are inside of the story and playing out the actions of the main character (we often imagine ourselves playing our various scenarios in day dreams and fantasies, for instance). This is one reason why stories can be such powerful wish-fulfillment fantasies/vehicles (for benevolent or malevolent fantasies).
Of course, not all fantasies are benevolent. Some are dark and twisted temptations. Some explore the most primal and malevolent urges of our shadow selves: our desire for power at any cost, our desire for dominance and conquest, our desire for revenge and street justice, to name a few.
John Yorke expands:
"There is something immensely attractive in living through a character who does obtain revenge, who is proved to have value or – like the Danish detective – is finally proved right. The attraction of wish-fulfilment, benevolent or masochistic, can’t be underestimated – what else can explain the ubiquity of Cinderella or the current global dominance of the Marvel franchise? Isn’t there a Peter Parker in most of us longing to turn into Spider-Man? Our favourite characters are the ones who, at some silent level, embody what we all want for ourselves: the good, the bad and ugly too."
"It’s worth noting that we sanction the slaughter in Modern Warfare because the character is us, and we are on a mission to save the world."
We can, in passing moments, recognize the darkness within ourselves, even though we dare not speak of it in public. We quash our desires, and yet we still have them. Perhaps we don't wish we were like the vile antihero on screen--but we sometimes wish we could taste what it feels like. Sometimes we wish that we could protect and defend our family the same way the mobster does, with the same effectiveness, no matter the cost. We sometimes wish that we could pull off a heist so intelligently, flawlessly, and seamlessly, all the while sticking it to the man. We sometimes wish that we were as good at what we do as this character is at what they do. We have a desire for mastery. We respect the consummate professional and the fruit of his skilled labor. We sometimes wish we could rebel against the bureaucratic forces that stifle our moves at every turn. We wish we didn't let anything stand in the way of our desires. We wish, we imagine, and we fantasize. That's the root of our empathy.
William C. Martell
"We all secretly sometimes want to do bad things. But we can't. … There are a lot of movies about career criminals because we all sometimes want to break the law. There are a lot of movies about people that do terrible, awful things, … like kill their bosses or try to do bad things because we have that thing going on inside of us. That's the dream fulfillment of that story."
As John Yorke points out in Into The Woods:
"Not only do [psychological theories] all suggest that man lives in a conflicted, neurotic state in which primal desires are at war with socially acceptable behaviour, they also tacitly accept that these neuroses need to be integrated and overcome in order for ‘happiness’ to be achieved."
"Seeking safety, ironically, entails repressing these other desires, consciously or unconsciously, so that one can live within a group. Unbridled sexual desire, or a thirst for revenge, simply isn’t compatible with the consensus on which societies tend to depend – if anything they will jeopardize the very security sought. Such desires therefore have to be repressed, creating a conflict between the way we want to be seen and the deeper feelings we are reluctant to admit to both in others and in ourselves."
"Our darker feelings – the rage or shame that fill our websites – can rarely be shown publicly, because most communities find it unacceptable. But of course in most of us the capability is there. ‘I see and approve the better course, but I follow the worse’ goes the Latin saying. As St Paul succinctly put it in Romans 7:19: ‘For the good that I would, I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.’"
And this explains why we can empathize with even the most vile and ruthless characters. Because there are pieces of them that we not only understand, but that we actually admire, even though we dare not admit it. It's the desire of our primal, inner shadow self as Jung would say (or "id" as Freud would say). And that admiration leads us to imagining and fantasizing about being in their shoes. Our admiration can even be as simple as appreciating the fact that they take what they want, and wishing we were more like that. We needn't admire all aspects of a character to empathize with them, only enough to understand them.
It's worth noting that we all have a battle of conflict raging in ourselves between our instincts and that which we must do to exist in polite society. As John Yorke explains, "We are all animals yet we are all capable of rationality. We all have our own personal survival to ensure, yet we all have to live in society. For these animal and rational instincts to accommodate each other we place restrictions on many of the things we feel or would want to say – they’re simply not acceptable in company."
We empathize with characters who at their heart have a conflict between inner self and outer self. There's a gap between who they want to be (and who they want to be seen as) versus who they feel they are inside. We can relate to this battle and thus we can empathize with characters who are fighting it.
"This conflict between who a character is, and who they want to be, is real life’s gift to drama. Writers have always known that when their characters act in a manner they profess to disapprove of, when they lie, when they self-sabotage and generally act contrary to their conscious proclamations and beliefs, they are far more interesting, far more exciting to write, and feel far more true to life."
Creating Empathy Technique #5: Recognizing Similar Circumstances
"There but for the grace of God go I." Sometimes, we see what could have been us if we were put in a similar situation. If it weren't for luck, or fate, or divine intervention, the same circumstances might have caused us to turn out the same way. And this realization causes empathy. It's an admission that at our core, "we're not so different, you and I." Of course, to make this form of empathy work, the audience must truly be able to recognize, understand, and relate to the set of circumstances that led a character to who they are and where they are at any given moment. If the audience doesn't see how a similar set of circumstances could have led them to act the same way, then they don't see themselves in the character's reactions and thus won't empathize with him. In order for this type of empathy to work, we need to at least implicitly understand how things got to be the way that they are.
We can even empathize with nasty, abrasive outcries and smack downs, provided the recipient of the treatment deserves it. It's another form of fantasy fulfillment. We wish we could (if we don't already) lash out and stand up to those that deserve it. One technique to create empathy is to make everyone around your character even worse than he is. In that way, everyone will deserve whatever abuse the main character administers, almost regardless of how despicable. Actions, as with everything, are all relative. By comparison, your character will look like an angel compared to those around him. We'll relate to his situation (being surrounded by imbeciles or bastards) and consequently we'll empathize with his actions.
Empathizing with a situation circumstance or situation doesn't necessarily mean it needs to have been a circumstance brought about by hardship. We empathize with small, trivial situations that the majority of us find ourselves in. We also empathize with actions that we all take in private but often keep hidden in public. For instance, in Finding Nemo the dentist talks to the fish in his office. We're most all found talking to our pets, sometimes just as an excuse so as to not feel crazy talking to ourselves. These little moments are relatable and create empathy.
And finally, good ol' sympathy. Sometimes we just plain like someone for their good soul. We not only empathize, but we sympathize. A character might be a hard worker. We like that. They might be polite, good-mannered, and considerate. The character might go out of their way to help others and look for ways to serve their community. All of these actions cause us to empathize with and admire a character. Take caution, however, not to make a perfect character. No one likes perfection, because it's not truth. It's not reality. No one is perfect and to be perfect is to not be human. So let your character save a cat and win some sympathy, but remember that they must also have a core weakness. Often humans are paradoxical.
In Writing for Emotional Impact, Karl Iglesias mentions a series of qualities with which we sympathize:
Helping others, especially the less fortunate; Relating to children or children liking him; “Patting the dog ” (liking animals or animals liking him); Having a change of heart or forgiving; Risking life or dying for the sake of others [Sacrifice / willingness to sacrifice]; Fighting or dying for a just cause; Being ethical, moral, dependable, loyal, and responsible; Loving other people ( family / friends / neighbors ) / Caring for someone; Being important to others; Showing humanity in private moments; Acting in any nurturing way.
Empathy is not only about identifying with the character, but also understanding them. It's not enough for a character to be fascinating and a vessel through which we can play out our fantasies--we must also understand why they do what they do. We need to understand the cause of the character's actions. It's a simple thing and it's not the cause of empathy itself, but it's a crucial element to creating and maintaining a bond with an avatar character.
Character beliefs, values, fears, and desires are the real motivators behind action. To understand a character's beliefs and fears is a step toward understanding his motivations. And only through a self-revelation does a character change his beliefs, resulting in a change of action. The protagonist must be mentally capable of these self-revelations. A character's beliefs are forged and made clear in the midst of crisis.
Regarding motive, John Truby makes an important point:
"Showing the hero's motive to the audience doesn't [necessarily] mean showing it to the hero. Often the hero is initially wrong about his true reason for going after the goal and does not discover his real motive until the end of the story, at the self-revelation."
In general, motivation should be established early and often (unless the point of the story is to figure out the motivation). If we are confused about a character's motivations for too long, we run the risk of losing our empathetic bond with the character. We lose the ability of being able to psychologically insert ourselves into their shoes. Note, of course, that motivation need not be explicitly explained. It can be implicitly implied or demonstrated through behaviors and actions.
Believability and Motivation
If at any time our avatar's actions stray too from what our actions would be in that scenario, the bond between us and the avatar (i.e. our ability to psychologically remain inserted into the story) becomes frayed and may eventually be severed. In other words, we tend to lose the ability to self-identify with a character when the character does things that don't contextually make sense (either because we don't understand the motivation behind the action or because the writer has failed to create a contextually believable action given what we know). We can imagine ourselves doing some pretty terrible things, provided we could see ourselves contextually taking those actions (i.e. given a particular scenario and back information and motivation, we could see ourselves doing that very thing whether out of desire or justified necessity).
Knowing a character's motivation, then, is a symptom of empathy--not the cause of it. Usually we need to understand motivation and context when our avatar is taking an immoral action in order to maintain the bond, but generally we won't need motivation/context information when our avatar takes a moral action.
The understanding of a character is only made possible through our empathy (through our ability to put ourselves in the mind of the character), though this understanding is not the thing that causes our empathy. The cause of the empathy is a recognition of a piece of who we are or wish we were, or a recognition of and ability to relate to a situation/struggle that a person is faced with.
John Yorke reminds us in Into The Woods:
"The key to empathy, then, does not lie in manners or good behaviour. Nor does it lie, as is often claimed, in the understanding of motive. It’s certainly true that if we know why characters do what they do, we will love them more. However, that’s a symptom of empathy, not its root cause. It lies in its ability to access and bond with our unconscious."
"The wrong choices for the right reasons." -- I don't agree with what you did, but I understand why you did it.
John Truby explains in The Anatomy of Story:
"That's why the trick to keeping the audience's interest in a character, even when the character is not likable or is taking immoral actions, is to show the audience the hero's motive. Always show why your hero acts as he does. If you show the audience why the character chooses to do what he does, they understand the cause of the action (empathy) without necessarily approving of the action itself (sympathy)."
The story bond can fade. Empathy is not a one-and-done proposition. So don't feel like you can take the first five pages of your story, establish some empathy, and then be on your merry way. Empathy, like so many other things, follows the law of use. Like an unused skill, we must continue to strength it or lose it. The law of entropy applies and the bond fades with time. This is especially true after a character has taken too many immoral actions (particularly just before the climax of the story). You can, of course, intentionally stretch the bond between audience and character but remember, we need a reason to empathize with them again eventually. Writers of sequels, unfortunately, can unknowingly fall victim to this fact. We don't automatically empathize with a character just because they were in the previous movie. Each story must re-establish empathy for the main character.
We all have different predispositions, willingness, and reasons to self-identify with a character. And for that reason some people self-identify with the main character more than others do. The challenge in storytelling is to create a main character with which audiences can universally self-identify.
Creating empathy for your character is probably one of the two ingredients of a gripping, dramatic sequence that are most overlooked. The second? Stakes.