Empathy and sympathy are related emotional concepts crucial to engaging screenwriting. They’re designed to create an emotional response in your audiences to make them care about the characters in your screenplay.
Caring doesn’t always mean the audience wants the characters to achieve their goals, but rather the characters being interesting enough to engage with them.
When screenwriters create an initial emotional bond, audiences begin to understand why characters behave as they do. It’s part of our cognitive process as we determine patterns and the logic behind human behavior. This is the core of all great movie scripts.
The distinction between sympathy and empathy in script writing arises when the audience decides which characters they want to succeed (protagonist) or fail (antagonist).
Empathy means tracking a character from a more objective, rational detached emotional state than sympathy.
A CHARACTER FLAW has typically been used to give characters something to overcome via a character arc. Are they too selfish? Hopefully they’ll become more selfless by the end of the story. A flaw tends to be more linked with empathy.
A trauma, or wound is much deeper than a flaw because it affects a character’s psyche more than just their behavior. A wound also helps us better understand a character’s flaw since it often triggers the flaw in good films.
Audience response is motivated by witnessing a CORE WOUND in each character. What trauma or darkness did they suffer to become the person they are today? Consider the Joker’s character in “The Dark Knight”. Remember the disappearing pencil trick? It could have been left as an act of grotesqueness without regard for human life. The Joker could have been defined as simply a villain who does nefarious things because that’s what villains do. Then we begin to understand why the Joker turned out the way he did.
Then we hear two stories about how his face became disfigured. The first was how his beautiful wife had her face carved up after telling the Joker he needed to smile more. He carved his own face in sympathy to convince his wife that beauty was skin deep. Perverted? Yes. Understandable? Possibly.
The second story involved a more brutal attack by his drunken father on an unprovoked attack. Remember, the “Why so serious?” line.
The first scene depicts the joker as a self-mutilating, depraved psychopath and the second as a child victim.
Although we never ultimately find out how the Joker got his scars, this scenario is a mammoth achievement in film character development because it helps the audience understand the main character’s response to a trauma.
The first story creates EMPATHY mainly because it generates more interest than wanting the Joker to succeed or fail. We want him stopped more than ever. But at least he’s not boring. He resonates with audiences as he taps into their subconscious nihilistic desires.
The second story creates SYMPATHY. A helpless child was attacked by his father. This preys on every child’s deepest fear that his parents won’t provide food, comfort, protection and nurturing. It humanizes the Joker for a while, making the audience want him to elude Batman for a while.
Do we love the Joker or hate him? We don’t know because either, neither or both stories could be true.This is where the audience experiences SHIFTING LOYALTIES, even for a split second. It allows audiences to experience several emotional states.
Adding some nastiness, even to the good characters, will always generate audience interest. It creates shaded and well-rounded characters. It heightens conflict and keeps audiences glued to their seats. Adding a wound also adds context to your character’s behaviour.
If audiences understand why someone acts they way they do, the more likely they will buy it. It’s up to the screenwriter to decide whether they will use empathy or sympathy.
For in depth Film & TV script analysis visit Script Firm.