Friday, August 04, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?

When you get started, writing can be really fun. There’s nothing like that moment when the rush first hits you: You can do anything. This is your world. You can rewrite your high school years, but this time your crush abandons the in crowd and insists on going out with you! But, hey, why stop there? You can create your own kingdom! You can rewrite the laws of physics! You are a god.

But you soon realize that there’s one big drawback to being a god: It’s a lot of work, especially if you want to be a good god.

It’s not enough to be all-powerful; a good god is expected to be all-knowing. That’s a whole lot harder, and a lot less fun, but you haven’t gotten to the worst part yet: The great gods tend to be all-loving. That’s where the really hard work begins.

Try to love your villain as much as your hero. Try to love the messenger boy as much as the main character. Try to love not only your geeky heroine but also the snide cheerleader who picks on her. Think about how much Shakespeare loves Hamlet’s lowly gravedigger and pompous Polonius.

As you walk down the street, practice loving everybody. That Wall Streeter with slicked-back hair? Love him. That skulking drug dealer? Love him. That lovey-dovey mom cheering on her toddler’s tantrum? Love her.

Ask yourself, How did they end up here? Is this what they wanted to be? Like you and everybody else, these people probably had hopes and dreams that were quashed long ago. Look at what is lacking in these people and ask, Who took it away from them? What would they do if they could have it back?

Rulebook Casefile: Generating Empathy in Modern Family (as Opposed to Trophy Wife)

“Modern Family” has been a big mainstream hit for a long time, so it can be hard to remember that it did seem quite daring when it first came out. Most obviously because it featured gay parents, but also because it contained a sympathetic portrayal of a “trophy wife”.

Sophia Vergara’s Gloria quickly became one of the most beloved characters on the show, so that stopped seeming odd very quickly...so much so that ABC decided that it was no longer something to worry about. They’ve always struggled to find a good time-slot partner for the show, so eventually they decided to create a new show simply called “Trophy Wife”. But the show was a flop, folding after one season.

ABC forgot that most audience members love Gloria despite the fact that she’s a trophy wife, not because of it. The show actually does a lot of subtle work to undermine our ingrained cultural aversion to this situation. 
First let’s look at “Trophy Wife,” because Malin Ackerman’s character embodies many of our misgivings about such an arrangement:
  • The husband’s two ex-wives are still in the picture, and they’re presented as caricatures. This should make us prefer Ackerman, but instead it offends us, because we feel that we’re being nudged to prefer the young and beautiful one, against our natural inclination.
  • She has young stepkids who need her help, but she doesn’t really care, and she actually endangers them, passing one off to her rotten friend, who goes to a bar while the son is locked in a car outside. Hilarious!
  • Most importantly, Malin Ackerman is just not a warm performer. Casting goes a long way.
Gloria, on the other hand, is carefully crafted to short-circuit our instinctive judgments. Most obviously because Vergara is so delightful, but the script also helps her out a lot:
  • Jay’s unseen ex-wife has moved away, so no one is being shoved aside or getting offended by Gloria’s presence.
  • Jay’s kids are grown and don’t need a mother around.
  • Gloria brings her own adorable son into the marriage. If she really did marry Jay for money (and that possibility is kept open), it was so that her kid could have financial security, not herself.
  • Jay is defensive about the arrangement, but Gloria isn’t. Defense invites offense. As a result, we are somewhat judgmental of Jay, but not Gloria.
Every time a show “breaks all the rules”, it actually becomes the exception that proves that rule.  Woe betide any show that thinks it can take advantage of that supposedly broken barrier.

Rulebook Casefile: Empathy in "Humans of New York"

Why am I spending time on Humans of New York? (After all, it’s not as if this material isn’t already widely shared on the internet) Because I think that what site creator Brandon Stanton does has many good lessons for writers.

Ideally, every writer would do what Stanton is doing: for at least an hour a day, walk around talking to people on the street, collecting unique language, unique life details, and compelling real life ironies. Unfortunately most of us lack the time and/or temperament, but the good news is that we live in the golden age of information, so we now have sites like this that provide treasure troves of perfectly chosen character moments.

As writers, we have two nearly impossible jobs to do: first we must create a great unique-but-universal character, then we must succinctly convey that greatness, that uniqueness, and that universality, in a flash, so that the character will swiftly blossom to life in the mind of the audience, allowing our stories to really begin.

And that’s what truly wonderful about Stanton’s work. It’s easy to credit the site’s success to his skill as a photographer and an interviewer, but there’s a third element that’s equally important: he’s a great editor. He asks several questions designed to create emotional and unique responses, gets a chunk of material to work with from each person, and then he cuts all of that down to just the right snippet to instantly make these people fascinating. That’s a lot harder than it looks, and it’s a big part of our job.

Let’s look at some of the ways he makes certain subjects instantly likeable. The trick, of course, is empathy, and one thing he’s good at is making opposite types of people equally likeable.

This guy’s humility is instantly appealing:

Whereas this lady wins us over with her swagger:

We love this guy’s humble appreciation of his job:

And this guy’s yearning to escape his, expressed with such telling specificity: 


We sympathize with this man’s poverty:

But we’re also sympathetic to the problems caused by this man’s wealth:

Fiction writers have to be all three types of god: All-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving.  Journalists such as Stanton, on the other hand, are denied the first because they cannot create their subjects, so they have to make up for it by focusing even more on the other two.  They can’t let their confirmation bias get in their way when they approach people, molding their subjects to fit their prejudices.  Instead, they must remember that everyone has some personal detail that will earn our empathy, if only we can find it. This is true in real life, and so it must also be true in our fiction.

Rulebook Casefile: Empathy for All in Bridesmaids

One question on the checklist asks if the dialogue shows empathy for every character and this is something Bridesmaids excels at, as shown by the scene where Annie has an awkward lunch with her “nemesis”, Helen.

Many writers think that their hero has to “save the cat” in the first scene and continually save the cat throughout the entire story, but this just isn’t true. The scary truth is that your audience will give you about ten pages before they decide whether or not they like your hero.  If they haven’t identified with the hero by then, they never will, but the upside is that once they’re onboard they will follow your hero anywhere.

Especially in a comedy, this is the point where you want to stop writing scenes that play up your heroes’ rightness and start yanking their certainties out from underneath them. This will test their self-image, and since we’ve chosen to identify with the hero, it will also test our own self-image, causing us to sweat along with the hero.

This is why you need to demonstrate empathy for all. Sacrificing the other characters, turning them into hypocrites or sniveling caricatures, does your hero no favors. If the initial certainties that your hero and audience formed turn out to be true, then they can both coast through the story smugly, untouched by events. But you do want to touch them: not all comedies need to touch our hearts, but they do at least have to poke us in the ribs. We laugh when we feel vulnerable.

Showing empathy for villains will always make your story more meaningful. This scene is funny, but it also makes Helen into a much stronger antagonist, because it makes it harder for Annie, and the audience, to dismiss her. Seeing this side of Helen also makes us understand more why Lillian would like both of these women, and might genuinely choose Helen over Annie, which amps up the jeopardy.

Instead of saying, “Ugh, we hate trophy wives, so we’ll show the world how terrible they are,” the writers of this movies said, “Sure, Helen’s terrible, but have you ever thought how much it would suck to be a trophy wife, attempting to be at-least-somewhat-maternal to kids who see you as an interloping vamp?”

Rulebook Casefile: Empathy Lost and Regained on “Breaking Bad”
Previously, I talked about the need to understand the hero’s goal and primary motivation, early on, even if the hero is withholding other secrets from us.  One reason for this is so that we can empathize with the hero.  We don’t have to sympathize with their actions as long as we empathize with their motivation.  

The TV show “Breaking Bad” however, did something interesting this season.  They tested the audience’s patience by intentionally creating an empathy gap by removing the hero’s primary motivation for several episodes, just so that it would be more powerful when they finally revealed the emotionally-wrenching secondary motivation. 

When the show first began, Walt had a lot of reasons for dealing drugs: he was a low-paid teacher, he had cancer, he couldn’t afford the treatments, and he had no nest-egg to leave behind for his family if it killed him.  More than that, he was emasculated by his wife, his DEA-agent brother-in-law, and even his car-wash boss.

As the show progressed, however, all of these reasons fell away.  He beat cancer; he made millions from dealing and quit both his jobs; after briefly gaining more respect as a result of his new assertiveness, his family found out about the drug dealing and hated him for it, etc. So why did he keep doing it?  Why cook meth for no good reason, especially when he had to become more and more violent to secure his position?  None of the other characters understood it and neither did the audience. 

And yet we kept watching.  This is the exception that proves the rule.  Though everything had stopped making sense, most of the audience stayed on, simply because we trusted the show.  We knew that they would find a way for the character to make sense again.  

Sure enough, just when we thought we would never understand Walt again, they finally hit us with the big secret of the show: Walt’s real motivation for all five seasons, which had been subtly planted a long time ago.  The low-paid job, the cancer, all of it, was just a smokescreen.  His real reason was that, long ago, he got kicked-out of a start-up company that made its other founders into billionaires.  Now it all made sense: what kind of man isn’t content to be a millionaire?  One who feels that he was cheated out of billions, and that the billionaires who did it are still mocking him. 

We were right to trust to show.  They still had an ace card to play, one that could explain the unexplainable.  But they didn’t start with no explanation.  For the first few seasons, we understood Walt’s thought process, though we disagreed with his judgment.  Only once everybody loved the show did they start toying with us, stripping away the surface motivations, leaving us baffled, until they finally hit us with the truth. 

And here’s how the 30 movies I did checklists for answered this question: 

The 40 Year Old Virgin



YES, everybody is treated humanely, and gets to hold their own.

An Education

YES.  Very much so. We feel a different type of empathy for each of the three crooks, for instance.

The Babadook


Blazing Saddles

Yes and no.  The villains are cartoonish, but they’re all charming and they all have moments of weakness, such as Hedly worrying about his missing froggie toy.

Blue Velvet

YES. in its own way.  Lynch’s style is cold, but everybody, even Frank, is vulnerable.

The Bourne Identity

YES. most.  There could be a little more for Cooper, but he’s a good enough actor to help his character hold his own.  


YES. Very much so, even Helen, when we wince to see how her stepkids treat her.


YES. (except Strasser, but that’s okay).  Victor or Ilsa, despite being obstacle characters, are particularly well-handled, allowed to hold their own even in scenes where we get frustrated by them.


YES, even Cross, who gets to defend himself.

Donnie Brasco

YES.  We feel intensely for most of these people.

Do the Right Thing

YES. Very much so.  Each individual viewpoint is so strongly and empathetically stated that we have no idea where the author’s ultimate sympathies lie.

The Farewell


The Fighter

YES. Not as much for the sisters, but they’re still pretty lovable.  



The Fugitive

YES. Very much so. 

Get Out

NO. Not really.  We’re only supposed to empathize with Chris and Rod.  Even when we think Rose isn’t in on it, we don’t emotionally bond with her. 

Groundhog Day

YES. The townspeople are caricatures at first, but as he gains empathy for them so do we.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. We empathize with every person on each side and with each dragon, except the last one, and even his actions are understandable.

In a Lonely Place

YES. Very much so.  The novel was written by a woman from Laurel’s point of view and the screenplay is written by a man from Dix’s point of view, but it retains a tremendous amount of empathy towards Laurel, and everyone else. 

Iron Man

YES. Very much so. The army guys who are about to be killed are nicely humanized. The air force guys aren’t buffoons just because they oppose Tony. When Tony sleeps with the reporter and Pepper sneers at her, we’re on Pepper’s side, but the reporter gets to come back and prove herself right all along! We actually agree with Stane for most of the movie. We see how the terrorists feel justified.

Lady Bird

YES. Very much so. 

Raising Arizona

YES. Very much so.  Jr. brings out everybody’s vulnerabilities.




YES. Very much so, even George Wallace gets a little.

The Shining

NO. The movie takes the shocking step of showing little empathy for its main character (and little empathy for Wendy, for that matter).  Kubrick is cold!


YES. Very much so.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Even the small town officials who annoy the FBI. Even Lecter’s guards.

Star Wars

YES. Even Darth Vader deals with disrespect in this movie, in the interrogations, we understand the stakes and worries on both sides, Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru both have strong and independent points to make, etc. 

Sunset Boulevard

YES. even Norma, even Max, even DeMille.

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