How To Create Immediate Empathy For Your Protagonist (Part I)

In the last two blog pieces, we discussed how to make your protagonist instantly likeable. Today, we shall discuss how to create immediate empathy for your protagonist.

Granted, there is a lot of similarity between likeability and empathy. However, this blog post focusses on characteristics and actions that will enable your audience to understand why your protagonist makes the decisions that he does, rather than make them like him as a person.  

Display A Valued Trait

How to create immediate empathy for your protagonist? Displaying a valued trait is right up there. Admittedly, traits need to be shown over the course of the narrative to be given their due (like loyalty, for instance).

Nevertheless, there are several actions that can create an instant chord of empathy between the protagonist and the audience. The traits that we shall look at are selflessness and honour. (We already discussed kindness in the previous blog post.)

Selflessness – Aragorn & Katniss

Selflessness is a trait that is viewed positively. To analyse the characteristic properly, we shall split it in two: willingness to help others and self-sacrifice. Now, we shall use the examples of Aragorn and Katniss to examine the different ways that selflessness can manifest itself.

Willingness To Help – Aragorn

In The Fellowship of the Ring, we first meet Aragorn at the Inn of the Prancing Pony. Knowing that the hobbits (Frodo, in particular) are in danger from the Nazgul, he keeps them safe while the Ringwraiths hunt for them.

Aragorn is not a charismatic or funny person. But his willingness to help the four hobbits means that we trust him. (That he then goes on to defend the hobbits when the Ringwraiths catch up with them at Weathertop solidifies that trust.)

Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) when we meet him at the Inn of the Prancing Pony. We quickly learn that he is there to protect Frodo, and he empathise with him as a result.

Self-Sacrifice – Katniss Everdeen

Katniss, on the other hand, earns our trust through a different kind of selflessness. We first meet her in The Hunger Games hunting for game to feed her family. Like Aragorn, Katniss is not a funny person and she barely even smiles. But when her sister, Prim, is chosen to partake in the Hunger Games (a death sentence in all but words), Katniss takes her sister’s place.

In other words, Katniss sacrifices herself. It is from this act that Katniss builds empathy with the audience. We see her true (selfless) nature.

Honour

Generally-speaking, an honourable person is someone who upholds a code, either with regards to law or a virtuous moral standard (or both). The reason why honour gains empathy with the audience is because it ensures that the character is consistent.

That way, if (or when) he does unpleasant things, it is not because he’s a sadist, but because honour demands it. And we understand this.

Example – Lord Eddard Stark

how to create immediate empathy for your protagonist - make him honourable, like Lord Stark
Lord Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) about to do his duty and execute a deserter. We respect him for his adherence to the law.

In A Game of Thrones, we first meet the ‘honourable’ Eddard Stark, the Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, when he beheads a man of the Night’s Watch. He executes him for desertion, as that is the punishment for desertion. And as Lord Eddard subsequently tells his young son, Bran: “He who gives the sentence, swings the sword.”

In other words, Lord Eddard is a man of duty, and who takes those duties seriously. He shows no love or enjoyment for killing someone. But he has to do it because he is a man of his word.

What’s more, he is teaching Bran the culture of the North, so that he can one day be a good servant to his older brother, Robb. This gains the audience’s respect as well.

Needing To Move For Reasons Beyond The Protagonist’s Control

When circumstances force a protagonist’s hand, he is already viewed favourably by the audience. This is because he finds himself having to move from his comfort zone, into the unknown, for reasons beyond his control.

We’ve all been there, and it entails that we are going to see how the protagonist adapts to the challenges of his new circumstances.

Example – Littlefoot

In The Land Before Time, we first meet Littlefoot the Longneck (a Brontosaurus) as a hatchling in the opening scene. He looks adorably cute, and we love him already. In the next scene, he is a little bit older and has a seemingly amiable personality. We like him for that too.

But what creates real empathy for him is his situation. All the dinosaurs are on the move, moving west due to climate change. Littlefoot’s Mother tells him that they’re going to the Great Valley, even though she doesn’t know if it exists.

In short, the journey to the Great Valley is a leap of faith. This is something that at one stage or another in our lives we have to take. Here, Littlefoot has no choice but to go west in the hope of finding the promised land. And we are right behind him from the start.

Make Him Take On A Dangerous Challenge or Mission

When you give your main character a dangerous challenge or mission, the audience immediately appreciates that he is putting his life in peril. Implicitly, we empathise with his situation and know that he is a brave person. As a result, we are intrigued to see his bravery and how he fulfils his task.

Example – 1917

At the beginning of 1917, a British film set on the Western Front in April 1917, two soldiers – Will (George McKay) and Tom (Dean-Charles Chapman) – are called to speak to General Erinmore (Colin Firth).

The two soldiers find out that a thousand five hundred British soldiers are marching into a German trap. Worse, Tom’s brother, Lieutenant Joseph Blake (Richard Madden), is one of the men who’s going to die if the attack goes ahead. The only way to stop the assault is if Tom and Will personally deliver a message to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch). But this means passing through No Man’s Land.

Those dreaded words alone make the audience fear for Tom and Will. No Man’s Land conjures up harrowing images that can make horror films seem tame by comparison. Plus, the audience knows that at any moment these two brave, young soldiers could be shot…

how to create immediate empathy for your protagonist - a dangerous mission, like in 1917
Colonel Erinmore (Colin Firth) informing our protagonists that they must get a message to another unit, which means crossing through No Man’s Land. The dread and the sorrow on his face is palpable.

Example 2 – Interstellar

In this 2014 sci-fi space thriller, set in a dystopian future, involving wormhole theories, Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) must leave his family and embark on a dangerous space mission to find mankind a new home.

There is no guarantee of success, and there is every chance he’ll never see his family again. His bravery ensures that we support his decision, and we hope that he’ll see those he loves most (like his daughter, Murphy) once more.

To Be Continued

I hope you have enjoyed Part I on how to create immediate empathy for your protagonist; and that you have found the tips useful and interesting, so far.

Let me know what you think in the comments below and I hope to see you for Part II,

Paul

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