How To Create Instant Empathy For Your Protagonist (Part II)

In Part I, we discussed the first four ways on how to create instant empathy for your protagonist, so that your audience can better understand why your protagonist acts the way he does. The four ways included:

  1. The display of a valued trait, such as selflessness and self-sacrifice;
  2. Being honourable by nature;
  3. Needing your protagonist to move for reasons beyond his control; and
  4. Making your protagonist undertake a dangerous mission or objective.

Today, we shall discuss a further handful of ways to create instant empathy for your protagonist.

Give Him Responsibility

Responsibility entails that a character cannot do what he wants, when and as he chooses, because he has duties to others. This can be with respect to a task, a job, or to being a parent. Regardless, the audience empathises with the protagonist’s situation, as we can imagine ourselves in his shoes.

In a story, you can take the weight of responsibility to the next level. To ensure maximum drama, the protagonist should be overwhelmed by his responsibilities to near breaking point.

Example of The Responsibility Of A Task – Frodo

how to create instant empathy for your protagonist - frodo and the ring
Frodo is given a task very early on in LOTR, making us root for him very quickly.

Early on in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is tasked with destroying the One Ring To Rule Them All. He must travel half a world away to cast the Ring into the fires of Mount Doom.

Essentially, the fate of mankind rests on his shoulders; especially, as the Nazgul, the nine wraith-like henchmen of our villain, Sauron, are after him. That is a lot of responsibility for someone to carry, and we empathise with the burden Frodo bears.

Example of The Responsibility Of A Job – Helen Mirren in Eye In The Sky

In this slow-burning 2015 thriller, Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is a colonel in the US military. A job like that carries a lot of responsibility, one of which is to give the order for drone attacks on terrorist targets.

At the start of the film, Colonel Katherine gets word that one of the most wanted female, Al-Shabaab terrorists has been spotted in Kenya. Colonel Katherine wants to give the order to launch a drone strike at once, not knowing when (or if) she’ll get another chance to take out her target.

However, there is a problem. An innocent little girl, called Aliya, is selling bread on a crude stall yards away from the place where the terrorist will be. Colonel Katherine cannot order the attack unless Aliya moves.

We empathise with Colonel Katherine’s situation from the off. The conundrum she faces is palpable as whatever she does (or doesn’t) do, she is damned. The audience knows it, and we feel her mental agony right from the off.

Example of The Responsibility Of Being A Parent – Essie Davis in The Babadook

I may not be a parent, but it is obvious that being one comes with a lot of responsibility. Parents have to nurture their children, feed them, clothe them, and watch over them to make sure that the kids don’t do anything they shouldn’t.

Moreover, some kids can be (very) challenging on top of all that responsibility. Thus, it is no surprise that some parents look stressed. In fact, if you can make your protagonist look stressed because of the responsibilities of being a parent, then he will already have the audience’s empathy (perhaps even sympathy).

This is the case in Jennifer Kent’s 2014 horror gem, The Babadook. Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother to young Samuel, who has serious behavioural issues. Plus, he sees monsters everywhere, including the titular Babadook.

Amelia looks exhausted. Her appearance alone makes us empathise with her situation, and that’s before we learn what sadly happened to her husband and the horror within her own home.

Make Him Strive For An Objective

How to create instant empathy? Make him strive for a goal as when someone strives for a goal, the audience appreciates the dedication involved.

Indeed, his singlemindedness to the task at hand makes us admire him, even if he is not a particularly likeable individual.

Example 1 – Zero Dark Thirty

In this 2013 slow-burning thriller, Maya (Jessica Chastain) is tasked with finding Osama Bin Laden. She personifies the hunt for him and devotes every waking hour to learning his whereabouts.

The fact that she has no ostensibly engaging characteristics or life outside of her objective (such as a family, friends, or even a dog) are irrelevant. The audience respects her for her singlemindedness.

Maya (Jessica Chastain) is an utterly driven person in Zero Dark Thirty. We respect her for her drive.

Example 2 – Whiplash

Damian Chazelle’s 2015 gem centres around Andrew Niemann (Myles Teller), who wants to be a great drummer. From the opening scene of the film, the audience realises that Andrew is extremely talented and this wins our respect.

It is just as well because Andrew does not treat the girl he likes, Nicole (Melissa Benoist), nicely; he seemingly has no friends; and he is something of a social liability around his relatives. Nevertheless, he is a damn good drummer and his desire to be the best is a lesson for us all.

Displace Your Main Character

When you take your main character out of his natural environment, you are removing him from his comfort zone. Therefore, the protagonist needs to adapt to his new surroundings and quickly if he is to return to home.

(For the audience, it is fascinating to see how the protagonist copes. Also, it is interesting to see how his new environment changes him, for better or for worse.)

Example – Disney’s Hercules

how to create instant empathy for your protagonist - hercules is displaced
In Hercules, the titular character looks happy and like he’s enjoying life. But really he is displaced and longs to return to the Godly realm. We feel for him and hope he makes it.

This 1996 Disney film may bear little resemblance to the ancient Greek myth with the same name, but it did put a God-like hero out of his comfort zone.

At the beginning of the movie, Hercules finds himself in the mortal realm, rather than the Godly one. Consequently, for the rest of the movie, Hercules spends his time trying to prove himself worthy of returning ‘home.’

Thank You

Thank you for reading this blog post on Part of how to create instant empathy for your protagonist. I hope you have enjoyed it and that it makes the writing process a little easier for you as well.

What do you think of my points? What do you think I have missed out? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below,

Paul

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