Empathy with the Protagonist
I wrote a previous blog post about how "likeable" your protagonist needs to be.
But does the audience actually need to empathize with the character at all? And to what extent? That's what I want to think about today.
I dealt last time with characters who were evidently despicable, and how the writer (or director, in the case of movies) gets the audience onside anyway. But what happens when you don't want the audience necessarily onside?
Is that okay? Does that work? What does it mean, anyway?
Let me explain with a cinematic example, and the one that originally got me thinking along these lines several years ago:
The Social Network.
Obviously a much-lauded film. But many critics and viewers complained that the main character (Facebook-creator Mark Zuckerberg) was not sympathetic. The audience had nothing to latch onto with him, no reason to care.
When I heard this criticism, it fascinated me because I had never thought about it when watching. True, for the most past Zuckerberg is someone you simply cannot empathize with because he acts brashly and gives no insight into his feelings and motivation.
But the movie never asks you to empathize with him.
"Sympathize"? Yeah, a little bit - mostly right at the end. But it never once expects the audience to actually be on board with the character, to be on his side, to experience things through his interpretation of the world.
And I never minded.
They successfully (as far as I was concerned) presented a movie which only expected the viewer to find the character interesting, and never to relate to him personally. And it's true that this is rarely attempted.
Your mileage may vary, of course, but I never once found Holden Caulfield in "The Catcher in the Rye" relatable or at all likeable. He was kind of a brat, and a nihilistic one at that. But I loved reading his perspective on the world.
I didn't empathize with it, didn't agree or "like" his thoughts and actions. But it was fascinating to read all of this from his point of view, to experience that perspective for a short time.
It was OK that I wasn't "on his side"; I was intrigued and entertained.
Surely some skill is needed to be able to pull this off. I get that. But as I head into writing Book 3 of "The Sleepwar Saga" I am faced with writing from Meesha Wallace's perspective, and wonder how far I ought to go.
Up until now, she's been standoffish, snarky, sarcastic and savage. But can I carry that through to her POV, or will readers turn tail and run?
How much should each quip be countered by an internal thought questioning herself as to why she drives everyone away? Ought her bitterness to be offset by some internal sweetness?
Yes, the character will learn and grow along the way, but do I need the audience to be "on her side" from the outset? Or might they be intrigued enough by her way of thinking to be along for the ride regardless?
Clearly, I have some pondering to do.
J Douglas Burton
Author of "The Sleepwar Saga" YA fantasy series. Also Victorian pulp SF series "The Star Travels of Dr. Jeremiah Fothering-Smythe".