In the comments to Tuesday’s post, J.S. had some interesting things to say about empathy, so I’ll interrupt our current project to follow-up:
One of the most contentious questions in the world of screenwriting is this: Must a main character be sympathetic? Producers shout, “Yes!” and cite hundreds of failed movies about unsympathetic heroes to prove it. Screenwriters shout, “No!” and point to a small handful of movies that have succeeded despite this handicap.
The screenwriters are right: if they know exactly what they’re doing, then writers need not generate sympathy for their heroes. But there is one hard and fast rule: they must generate empathy…and to generate that empathy, they must feel it themselves.
No matter how unsympathetic characters’ actions are, there’s still a chance that we'll have empathy for their inner turmoil, but only if the authors genuinely feel that empathy themselves. On the other hand, if authors just want to condemn their own characters, we won’t care.
On Wednesday, I cited the examples of Citizen Kane, Psycho, and Notes on a Scandal. In each case, the writers asked us to have empathy without asking us to have any sympathy, and they pulled it off because they themselves felt empathy with no sympathy.
But far more common are movies like Young Adult: writer Diablo Cody was complimented by some critics for having the “daring” to make a movie with an unsympathetic heroine, but it would have been daring only if Cody had found a way to empathize with her unsympathetic heroine. Instead, she merely condemned the character, and it’s not hard to do that when you're the one who created her and her world.
One thing that the previous three movies do that Young Adult doesn’t is create the sense of an impossible situation. The characters all (irrationally) feel totally trapped by their life circumstances. (Of course, this is especially ironic with Welles’s Kane, who can go anywhere in the world except the one place he wants to go: back home)
But Theron’s character never feels trapped at all: the audience (along with every other character in the movie) spends the whole movie yelling at her: “Just go back to Minneapolis!” She spends the whole movie going after what she wants and ignoring what she needs, which is exasperating for the audience. (The Aviator had the same problem.)
The three characters cited above, on the other hand, are honestly trying to fill the hole in their lives, but they’re going about it the wrong way. We empathize with their honest need, but refuse to sympathize with their despicable attempts to satiate it.