Tag Archives: novels

Sympathy Versus Empathy in Stories

Sympathy Versus Empathy in The Anatomy of Story
Sympathy Versus Empathy in The Anatomy of Story

In his book, The Anatomy of Story, John Truby examines the distinction between sympathy versus empathy with regard to character likability. He emphasizes that a successful protagonist has to hold readers and audiences captive. A hateful, selfish protagonist is unlikely to do so.

With the proliferation of deeply flawed protagonists in recent years writers have had to use specific techniques to make such characters engaging. Walter White (Breaking Bad), Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Dexter Morgan (Dexter), Carrie Mathison (Homeland), and Joe Goldberg (You), are all iconic examples of how to write characters that audiences can’t get enough of despite their being psychologically or morally damaged.

“Understanding the distinction between sympathy versus empathy in a story character allows you to write damaged or flawed characters that may literally get away with murder.”

But how does this work? What keeps us interested in such deeply flawed characters? John Truby explains that our engagement with them is one of empathy rather than sympathy:

“Make the audience empathize with your hero, not sympathize. Everyone talks about the need to make your hero likable. Having a likable (sympathetic) hero can be valuable because the audience wants the hero to reach his goal. In effect, the audience participates in telling the story. But some of the most powerful heroes in stories are not likable at all. Yet we are still fascinated by them.

KEY POINT: What’s really important is that audiences understand the character but not necessarily like everything he does. [It] is to show the audience the hero’s motive.”

The overall point is that if you show your people why your hero chooses or is forced to act in the way that he does, they will have empathy for him without necessarily approving of his actions. This is a crucial distinction and one that provides an important technique that no writer can be without.

Summary
Sympathy versus empathy highlights the crucial distinction in stories between understanding a character’s motivation and liking it.


How Character shapes action

Character shapes action in Braveheart

Character shapes action and ultimately story. But no two people are exactly the same and, therefore, neither is the motivation behind their actions. 

Slap one person across the face and he might turn the other cheek. Slap another and he might punch you in the gut. A pacifist responds differently to a threat than would a war-monger. Different actions lead to different stories.

Personality shapes action. The inner life of a character is moulded by that character’s genetics, but also her hopes, desires, fears and wounds. It is these differences within a character that create the full tapestry of human response.

But personality is not static. Fears migrate, change, increase or decrease. Hope grows, shrinks, is fulfilled or snuffed out. To write a viable character arc, namely, the growth of the hero from ignorance to knowledge, or vice to virtue, we need to track the transformation of the elements that define personality.

In Braveheart, William Wallace goes from a disinterested farmer to a courageous and engaged rebel leader seeking to overthrow the English yoke. In Edge of Tomorrow Major William Cage goes from a cowardly public relations officer to a fearless soldier willing to die over and over again in order to save humanity by defeating an insidious alien enemy.

“Character shapes action. Write stories that tie the character arc to the plot in order to ensure the verisimilitude of your tale.”

If the above is true then it stands to reason that the growth of character helps to order the sequence of the narrative events that make up the story.

Tracking the change of say, cowardice to heroism through four or five stages, provides a roadmap for creating ‘ action’ scenes that feel authentic and believable. The result is stories that are motivated and well written—never a bad thing in the pursuit of success.

Summary

Character shapes action. Write believable and successful stories by tying your hero’s character arc to the flow of narrative events that comprise your plot.

Turning Life into Great Writing

Great writing

Turning life into great writing

Great writing, in my opinion, embodies two indispensable but distinct sets of skills.

The first arises from the writer’s own life: empathy, intuition, observation, inquisitiveness, moral compass, and the like.

Some skills within this first set are surreptitiously acquired over time, simply by living one’s life; others are innate and spring from the writer’s general and emotional intelligence.

The second is learnt more quickly. Knowledge about the craft, such as how to fashion the theme of a story, how to make characters engaging, how to weave plot and subplot together so that they compliment each other, is easier to acquire.

Much of the writerly advice offered in books, blogs, and courses emphasises this second set of skills. Mention is made of the importance of the first set, a writer’s powers of observation, or the need to be inquisitive, but the emphasis lies squarely on how to work with technique. The reason is simple.

It is far easier to teach someone how to use a turning point to spin the story around than it is to align that turning point with some astute observation about the human condition.

I often advise my students to think about both sets of requirements simultaneously; to try and integrate them into the writing process from the get-go.

The information needed to produce great writing is all around us—in streets, shops, restaurants—if only we can learn to observe, relate, and recognise its relevance in our work.

Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to be teaching at a college in Australia, which was situated a few hundred meters from the art gallery at Brisbane’s South Bank. I would often spend my lunch hour there browsing through its many treasures.

Turning life into great writing

I remember on one occasion being captivated by a painting of a young woman in a floral dress. She was leaning against a tree and seemed rather forlorn.

I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, that someone else was studying the painting intently. A glance revealed that this person, an elderly man with deeply wrinkled skin, was working his top lip with his teeth. Another glance revealed a trace of tears in his pale eyes.

I crept away so as not to intrude, but my imagination raced with narrative possibilities. Did she remind him of his own daughter that had, perhaps, passed away? Or, had the young woman been a lover who had rejected him?

I tucked the image away in my mind for use in some future story, perhaps as a minor beat, perhaps as an inciting incident or turning point.

I have, as yet, not exactly done so, although I did locate a few important scenes with a very different character at that very gallery in my second Scarab novel.

The point is that one’s readiness to absorb a spectrum of experiences, to remember the small details that breathe life into memory, and to allow for their narrative possibilities to take hold of the imagination, is a wonderful way to broaden one’s skills in life and in writing.

Summary

Great writing requires the integration of two distinct sets of skills. The one stems from living and observing life, the other from mastering the techniques that transforms life into stories.

Supporting Dialogue in Novels and Screenplays

Dialogue and action in novels and screenplaysDialogue in novels and screenplays is one of the most indispensable items in the writer’s toolkit.

Written well, with an appropriate relevance to character and a sufficient use of subtext, dialogue is one of the most economical ways to progress a story.

But dialogue on its own, no matter how skilful, can succumb the talking-head syndrome that will destroy the tactile texture of a story. Few writers can get away with excessive dialogue at the expense of action – with the exception of a Woody Allen or Quentin Tarantino.

For most of us, supporting dialogue with telling bits of action, no matter how small, is the way to go.

Dactions for novels and screenplays

Dialogue-supporting actions, or, dactions, as I playfully call them, fall into two broad categories according to their functions, which, directly or indirectly, serve to intensify what is being said.

If Tom, for example, is threatening to kill James while cutting meat on a chopping block, then the action directly enhances the dialogue.

If, on the other hand, Tom is threatening James while lovingly brushing his poodle’s coat with a brush, the action enhances the dialogue indirectly. Indeed, such an indirect enhancement can be even more menacing, precisely because of the air of normality with which the threat is delivered.

Nor does the action have to come from the characters who are doing the talking.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, two brothers sit chatting in the kitchen in the presence of a young boy who is retrospectively relating the tale to us. The conversation is punctuated by the boy’s observations of his mother’s seemingly pointless folding, unfolding, and refolding of clothes in the adjoining room.

This action undercuts the supposed friendly conversation taking place in the kitchen, although the boy does not yet understand the reason for his unease. Indeed, the boy’s nativity, makes the discomfort more subtle, increasing the tension for the reader.

Summary

Dactions ramp up the meaning of dialogue between characters, while simultaneously adding an element of tactile physicality to novels and screenplays.