STORY ESSENTIALS #3: Empathy
This series reveals what I consider to be the ESSENTIAL components of any great story. These critical elements will all be familiar to you if you’ve followed my writing, teaching or coaching for any length of time. But my goal is not to be original; it’s to ensure you have a firm foundation on which to build an emotionally powerful and persuasive story. These are the principles you must master if you want to impact people’s lives – and increase your revenue, whether you’re creating a film, TV episode, novel, non-fiction or instructional book, speech, webinar, blog or sales pitch.
As soon as you introduce the hero of your story, you must begin creating empathy with that character.
Empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another – is an absolutely critical component of drawing readers and audiences into your story and giving them a truly emotional experience.
When we read, hear or watch a story, we don’t simply want to observe or think about it; we want to be a part of it. On some level we want to believe that we have become the story’s hero, that we are the ones who are racing to the finish line, facing huge obstacles, finding the strength and courage to weather the storm, stop the villain, save the day, win true love and achieve fulfillment. We want to share that hero’s feelings.
So as the storyteller, you must create that subconscious connection between your readers and your hero. Without that identification, your audiences may find your story interesting, informative or clever, but they won’t be moved by it, and it won’t impact them deeply.
There are three primary ways to create that necessary empathy:
- Create sympathy for your hero by making her the victim of some undeserved misfortune. We care about people we feel sorry for, so introducing your hero as someone who is or once was a victim of some painful experience will strengthen our emotional connection to her.
- Put your hero in jeopardy, because we identify with those we worry about, who are in danger of losing something of vital importance to them — a job, a home, a loved one, their dignity, their freedom or their lives.
- Make your hero likable by showing him offering help, support or kindness to those around him. If we see that he is also well liked by other characters in the story, the affection and empathy we feel toward him will grow even stronger.
Empathy can also increase if your hero is funny, or highly skilled. But you still must use one, two or even all three principles above when you introduce your hero in the setup of your story.
Notice that each of these means of creating empathy is built on conflict:
- Sympathy for the conflict your hero is facing, or faced in the past;
- Danger in the future that puts her in jeopardy;
- Help for others facing their own conflict that makes your hero likable.
This isn’t surprising, because your goal is, and always must be, to elicit emotion in your readers and audiences. And the primary source of emotion in any story is conflict. It’s the obstacles your hero must face that create the empathy that is critical to your story’s success.
– Michael Hauge