Karl Iglesias, in the first of a three part series for Creative Screenwriting, cites three emotional responses that connect the audience with a character. The first of these is recognition, or understanding and empathy. Karl uses As Good As It Gets as a case study. This is a must read. Future articles will address the second and third responses, fascination and mystery.
Regarding recognition, Iglesias says the key is to create emotions that all readers (and viewers) recognize by exploiting three basic truths about human nature and empathy:
(1) We care about individuals we feel sorry for
(2) We care about individuals who display humanistic traits
(3) We care about individuals who have traits we all admire
I loathe boxing. To me, boxing is the most reprehensible sport to afflict the "civilized" world since the gladiators. My aspirations as a screenwriter, however, require me to familiarize myself, for educational purposes, with films such as Million Dollar Baby and Cinderella Man.
Who am I to improve upon or detract from Iglesias? Perhaps this is all semantics, but still, I would add a partial truth to this list.
(4) We care about individuals who are walking in our own shoes
Cinderella Man - Numbers one, two, and three got me right off the bat. I felt sorry for his lost career, saw his humanistic traits, and I saw traits I instantly admired like his devotion to his children, refusal to break a promise, and honesty.
But isn't it possible to NOT feel sorry for characters, NOT recognize their humanistic traits, and NOT admire them but still empathize solely BECAUSE they are walking in our shoes?
Million Dollar Baby - The reason I ultimately related to Maggie and became her champion was because of her relationship with her family. I know what it's like for a daughter to try to please her mother. Most daughters do. And, I know what it's like to have an absentee father. Many adults do. But until those reveals, I didn't care for her or about her and none of those three truths applied to me.
On the other hand, walking in my shoes alone is usually not enough. I don't relate to every woman who has kids, every person in my profession, or everyone my age. But throw in a little pity, a few humanistic traits with a dash of admiration, and suddenly I'm on board.
Maybe the next installments, in which Iglesias discusses fascination and mystery, will prompt me to rethink this. Perhaps, I never related to Maggie at all on the recognition level and it was one of the other two responses that drew me in to her character. Whatever the reason, with my distaste for boxing, I am in awe that either script was so expertly crafted that it took me out of the ring and into the story.