Friday, February 17, 2006

Character Empathy

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

EXAMPLE:
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?

EXAMPLE:
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.

12 comments:

Konrad West said...

A fantastic concept. Can't wait for parts 2 and 3!

The Moviequill said...

I like boxing movies but I did not care for Million Dollar Baby, because it turned out not to be a boxing movie. I abhored the twist at the end where she became a quadriplegic or whatever. I bought the ticket thinking it was going to be one of those underdog coming back for redemption types of films

oneslackmartian said...

Loved both movies. Could careless about boxing. Moviequill, I think the term you are searching for is “paralegal.”

Superb post, ManyAn. Sometimes interesting characters (or great performances) can overcome not having all three, or any of the three, elements. Take, for instance, John Cleese’s character in Fawlty Towers. We have no reason to like this paranoid, self-possessed, egotistical, right-at-all-costs man. Except we adore him from the start. We can’t take our eyes off him . . . sort of like that car wreck on the side of the road.

So I’m familiar with the idea of recognition; I can’t wait to see what fascination and mystery hold. Please do the Cliff Notes thing again for us.

Thanks!

Adam

MaryAn Batchellor said...

I'm guessing that Basil Fawlty falls under the fascination category but we'll see.

KRYPTO said...

um, yeah, are you kidding? Do you really think any of those "rules"/"insights"/whatever the heck they are...mean jack? Writing...is ass...plus seat. That's it. Stop with the rules. Total insanity. You have a good voice. Stop screaming.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Driving a care equals ass in seat, too, and while I don't need to know how to build a transmition, I better know a few rules of the road or I may find myself in a ditch.

Daniel said...

I'm sorry for the absolutely off-topic post, but I thought I'd just have to let you know that I read the name of your blog and the description of it, and both times I most definitely read "fencing with the dog", which is a most amusing picture I wanted to share. Speaking of pictures, yours as super-dog might have had something to do with my mis-reading. The brain's a funny place.

oneslackmartian said...

I tried the ass-seat equation, and all that I got was this:

ass + seat = ass

I think when we pontificate on these weighty screenwriting matters, we assume we are applying these rules/insights WITH ass + seat. Otherwise, we would just be pontificators.

KRYPTO said...

there are no rules. The best break them all. Working Girl romantic comedy the lead male comes in on p. 70. Kramer Vs Kramer ultimately had no villain. Clockwork Orange and Silence of Lambs, you rooted for the wrong guy. STOP with the rules. Ass + Seat = anything on the blank page. Best script ive read all year is The Departed. Best movie Syriana. Neither one makes any sense and it doesn't matter.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Well, to steal a line from T&T, "they're more like guidelines". I agree that we don't need to be legalistic in construction and should just write the story that's in our heads, but am also aware that breaking rules is for people who can get away with it or don't need them to begin with.

This post, however, wasn't about rules. It's about understanding how an audience relates to character.

Whether or not a writer understands HOW and can verbalize WHY a viewer relates to his character probably doesn't matter at all if the writer has a natural knack for developing compelling characters. But for the rest of us, it's helpful to explore human relation and use Iglesias' ideas to evaluate the characters we've written.

Some people never needed training wheels to learn to ride a bike either. Mine were on six months.

p.s. Haven't read Departed, but think I'll go stick Working Girl in my DVD player. It's one of my favs.

KRYPTO said...

maryan i sorry to hear about your training wheels but strangely have no pity. Just posted a new screenwriting diatribe under the name I Know Im Going To Hell I Just Want A Good Room. Enjoy. Maybe Im getting too cynical been in this town too damn long. xxx pc

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Pity me not, good prince, lest I pity myself for yonder is a Harley Davidson with my name on it and I'm peddling as fast as I can to get there.