3 Ways to Build Empathy for Difficult Protagonists

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

For some time now, there’s been a growing trend among protagonists. The new Golden Age of television that we find ourselves in has been built around men and women that most of us would find difficult in real life. Perhaps these characters work because they embody the complex and conflicted world we find ourselves in. Others have suggested that its simply a matter of showing something we haven’t seen in visual stories before. Whatever the case, difficult people have experienced a renaissance on screens, both big and small. The secret behind executing one of these sorts of protagonists is finding a way to still build empathy for them in the minds and hearts of the audience. Here are three methods you might consider for pulling off such a feat.

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1. GIVE THEM A SOFT SPOT

In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder suggested that audiences will always fall for a character that is nice to children, animals, or the elderly. Regardless of what you think of his 15 beats, Snyder nailed this concept. Audiences have been intrigued by the kind-hearted fiend ever since we first saw Frankenstein’s monster pick flowers with a little girl beside a lake. In Kill Bill: Volume 1, The Bride refuses to seek her revenge on Vernita Green until her antagonist’s daughter is out of harms way. Cold-hearted Gemma Teller Morrow’s Achilles heel is her son, Jax, in Sons of Anarchy. The reason a soft spot in the heart of a difficult protagonist works is that it reminds us of their humanity. We’ve all done regrettable things. When we see characters who have committed worse travesties than we ever will manage to locate their humanity, we find hope for ourselves as well.

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2. GIVE THEM A CAUSE

Passion is a tough thing to resist, even in those who do despicable things. It’s why talented artists, whose personal lives are problematic, continue to receive the love and support of fans around the world. Film and TV have given us powerful stories about killers who care about the less fortunate, wiseguys who care about the neighborhood, abusive narcissists who care about music, and power-hungry politicians who actually care about the truth.

Frank Lucas passes out turkeys to the poor at Thanksgiving in American Gangster. Miles Davis gives nothing short of his soul for his music in Miles Ahead. Furiosa risks life and limb for the freedom of others in Mad Max: Fury Road. Rust Cohle alienates everyone around him and wears his darkness on his sleeve, all in a desperate pursuit for truth in True Detective. None of these characters would be considered ‘nice people’ in real life. They all have difficulty dealing with others. They are all tremendously flawed and yet they all still gained a great deal of empathy from their audiences.

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3. GIVE THEM SOMEONE THEY CAN DEFEND

Bullies are a tough sell as protagonists in the world of story. It’s hard for us to feel empathetic towards those who prey on people weaker than themselves. We only swallow such bitter pills if we can understand the reason behind such actions – childhood abuse, insecurity, or perhaps loneliness. While we might not excuse the character’s actions, we will at least have a greater degree of understanding. We will, however, overlook even the vilest deeds a character commits if we see them defend or care for someone weaker than them. Seeing a difficult character care for a friend, a little brother, a parent or even an uncle often softens our feelings about their actions and builds our empathy for them.

Larry Flynt takes care of his brother and his wife, even when they don’t deserve it in The People Vs. Larry Flynt. Seeing this causes us to feel more tolerance for the less appealing parts of his character. Tony Soprano cares deeply for his son and doesn’t want to see him end up as a gangster because he’s afraid the boy is too sensitive in The Sopranos. Avon Barksdale cares for an incapacitated uncle in The Wire, making us feel differently about who he is and why he does what he does. The trope works in the comedy genre as well. Ricky Bobby cares deeply about his shiftless father and defends him mercilessly in Talladega Nights.

We don’t have to agree with everything we see a protagonist do in a story. We don’t even have to necessarily like them. However, we do need to feel like we understand them. Some small part of us must give them the benefit of the doubt. Working with and even caring about people who are difficult to deal with is part of life. When we can demonstrate these people in nuanced ways, we honor a wider spectrum of humankind. We also then offer a more authentic version of truth in our stories.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

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