Creating Character Empathy

May 21st, 2015 by Kat Kingsley-Hughes

If you’ve read Save the Cat, you’ll understand what the title refers to – making us care about the central character because they literally save the cat at some point at the start of the film. And it’s a good rule of thumb. Sure we love the character we are writing, and we know what sort of adventure, fun and games that we have in store for them later in the story, the challenges they will overcome and just how far this individual will progress in their arc before the end of the film. Saving the Cat is about remembering that the audience doesn’t know all this yet. And without some indication that we give a fig about this character, the audience is left floundering in the dark not knowing who to believe in.

Of course, saving an actual cat is a pretty corny thing to get your character to do, unless your story is about cats, in which case saving an actual cat would be perfectly acceptable. But there are many ways we can create empathy.

Even the anti-hero somehow makes us care about them. Life is never as black and white, good and evil, as in story, so anti-heroes can be a good way to deal with all those shades of grey that separate real life humankind from those inhabitants of fiction. It creates a conflict within us. The person we are rooting for is doing something wrong and yet we root for them.

A character can be a complete screw up and yet there must be something that invests our attention in them. Something that resonates within us – isn’t there a little bit of a complete screw up in all of us?

It’s so easy especially for new writers to want to make perfect characters. My writing tutor uses a phrase that I hate but is true: “you have to kill your babies”. Ghastly sentiment but in writing you do have to be prepared to let go of your precious ones, your ideas, your concepts, these wonderful fictional children of yours. 

And it is useful to notice the work of the ego here. Meditating on what the character represents in ourselves can be really useful – especially when we are feeling injured and struggling to let go enough to allow the story or the project to progress. It’s not just about sucking down the injury – it’s an opportunity to recognise the parts of yourself that feel injured and perhaps figure out why or what they really need. There is so much value in writing in self-discovery. But there is also so much value in self-discovery in your writing. You may find clues to the very injustice that your character is feeling. If you aren’t prepared to face into your own difficulty then your character isn’t going to find the bravery to face into theirs either.

Above all have fun. It’s not reality. It’s an opportunity to explore. Enjoy!

I hope this rather incomplete musing might be useful to someone. For me it fleshed out an idea I was having with a stuck character who popped into 3D life when I was ready to hit the meditation cushion to look at what was happening in my own life that I was avoiding facing into in hers. 

This entry was posted on Thursday, May 21st, 2015 at 5:13 pm and is filed under Flotsam. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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