Updated: Nov 4, 2018
Every story is an emotion manipulator. Give one an ounce of your attention and it will attempt to take the entirety of you. It will hold your thoughts, feelings and beliefs hostage until it’s done: playing with them, twisting them and bending them like a metallurgist until the alchemy is performed. Stories that fail change your perspective, stories that succeed change your values. Stories change people, and one tool that lays chief among all others lets them perform their spell.
Of all the emotional weapons in a story's arsenal, sympathy is king. Through characters, a story weaves a tightrope of reader emotion to which sympathy is the pendulum waiting to knock characters off. If the character crosses the rope unscathed, the reader is in lockstep with their every whim – wincing with their tribulations, joyful with their successes – but, if the character slips from the cable, the reader might just be lost to them forever.
Sympathy draws the reader in; sympathy makes the reader care.
Sympathy and empathy are nature’s way of connecting people. They allow us to read each other’s dispositions to enable us to build trust and friendships. Those who are sympathetic to us by offering support and guidance are those who we end up forming the closest bonds with, and through sympathy great alliances can be quickly gained. In this way, sympathy is an emotional karma where your good deeds to others are likely to be rewarded in kind at a later date. It is also tribal, as those it helps you form bonds with will be those you call upon when life requires some backup.
Sympathy’s power to form bonds between people makes it a supremely important tool in storytelling. Stories aim to connect people – be it a writer to their reader, or one reader to another – by means of messages on the nature of experience. Every story is a parable that seeks to inform us of a moral truth. We all know that ’slow and steady wins the race’ thanks to The Tortoise and the Hare, and in the very same way Finding Nemo teaches us that to have fulfilling relationships with others we need to learn to trust them. Stories inform us about the world.
Yet informing people of the world is not easy, and every message of moral truth a writer wishes to share is fraught with difficulties. At a mechanical level they are often so wide-reaching it’s hard to pin one down into into one coherent story, but at an interpersonal level there’s the need for reader trust. Why should a reader accept the moral lesson a given writer is trying to impart? The writer is a stranger and, just like you wouldn’t take advice from a stranger on the street, you surely wouldn’t take advice from a stranger’s voice on a page?
Hence, the secret for a writer to gain reader trust lies within sympathy. Given sympathy is the means by which humans form trust between each other, in order for a writer to get their reader to trust their message, the writer needs to get the reader sympathetic to their message. Enter: the protagonist.
In storytelling, the protagonist is the lens through which we perceive and experience the fictional world. The protagonist is also the means by which the reader experiences the moral lesson of the story; often because the protagonist will learn the moral lesson themselves. Therefore, if the writer wants their reader to feel sympathy for their message, and the protagonist is the means by which the reader experiences and learns the message, the writer must make the reader feel sympathy for the protagonist.
Hence, creating a protagonist readers feels sympathy for has become the key way writers share their story’s moral truth. The near-mythic story structure manual written by Blake Snyder, entitled Save the Cat, even borrows its name from this very idea! Synder argues that most stories deploy a sympathy-creating 'save the cat' moment with their protagonist early on in order to gain that character the reader’s sympathy. A ‘save the cat’ story moment will show the protagonist in a positive light, doing something nice for no reward, in order to show the reader there is something worth saving about their character. Using this technique, even the most seemingly-flawed, unsympathetic of characters, such as Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, can draw sympathy unto themselves by the smallest of gestures – in this instance flipping a struggling insect back onto its feet.
Throughout the history of stories, there are countless examples of a ’save the cat’ moment being used. In I Am Legend, a famished Robert Neville has the chance to shoot a lion for food, but decides not to when it’s revealed to be the mother of a nearby lion cub; in Skyscraper, Dwayne Johnson’s character fixes his wife’s mobile phone before heading off to work; and, in a nod to Save the Cat itself, in The Incredibles, Mr. Incredible literally saves a cat from a tree for an old lady before speeding off to save the world. In these stories, it works brilliantly, but it’s not quite the same everywhere.
Despite its heavy usage, despite the countless ways it’s been utilised and despite the endless reference moments a writer has when it comes to creating it, sympathy is by no means guaranteed to be felt within audiences for a character. There is no one-way to create it and no certain formula for ensuring it. For every story that deploys a ‘save the cat’ moment that has you praying the protagonist survives, another will leave you praying they don’t. With the ones that misfire often leaving you not only unable to sympathise, but also unable to care about, or decipher, the story’s message.
The 2016 horror box-office smash Don’t Breathe has one such 'save the cat’ misfire. The story sees our protagonist – a single mother struggling to get enough money to raise her daughter away from the rough area she currently resides (the ‘save the cat’ moment) – and two twenty-something friends, break in to the house of a blind man in order to steal a pile of cash that will solve their woes. The catch? The blind man is a war veteran, with perfect hearing, who knows the house like the back of his hand, and slowly but surely he takes them out one by one in increasingly gruesome ways.
The immediate problem with Don’t Breathe is that the protagonist isn’t as sympathetic as the antagonist. Whilst we can appreciate the single mother’s plight bringing up her child in a rough area, the fact they she doesn’t need the money to survive (she isn’t poverty stricken or in debt to a cartel) seems to curtail the possible sympathy we could have for her. On the other hand, the blind war veteran appears to be ripe for having audience sympathy: there’s one of him and three of them and he’s lost one of his senses, meaning he appears to be at a disadvantage to take on the youngsters – the audience loves an underdog.
This is a problem the filmmakers seemed to be aware of, and their attempted solution highlights the limitations of the sympathy method. Conventional storytelling technique tell us that, when the protagonist is naturally unsympathetic, the antagonist should be even worse to make the protagonist look better by comparison. Thus, the logic is, the protagonist will gain the sympathy. In Don’t Breathe this technique is deployed, and two thirds of the way through the story we discover the blind war veteran has been holding prisoner and raping a young woman in his home’s underground cellar. A revelation that is supposed to shock us, repel us from him and firmly wedge our sympathies and support behind the protagonist: making her look better by comparison.
And yet this sympathy never quite emerges. Why? The problem Don’t Breathe has is that this seems too far-fetched. How did the blind old man find his way to this woman and kidnap her? How did he bring her back to his house (which is in an abandoned part of town and a long way from where the girl lived) without someone, somewhere spotting him? He can’t drive, so he’d have to have done it on foot. Essentially, the sympathy felt contrived: it felt designed, and, because of this, it failed to land.
Which brings us to a close. Sympathy is important for bringing us together: it builds trust and bonds between people that can lifetimes, but it crucially only arises out of situations that are genuine. You’re faking an injury? It will be noticed and shown in people’s reactions. You’re exaggerating your current financial woes? People will come to see you as a person who cries wolf. It’s the reason people became turned off by The X Factor sob stories: if something about your supposed plight feels contrived then the sympathy people have for you will evaporate.
In this way, the knife-edge of sympathy is the tool that keeps stories gripping. With every decision they make, a character treads the balance between affecting something in their own world and affecting the emotions of the reader in this one. In one fell swoop they can go from having the reader as their best friend to their worst nightmare, ready to throw them to the lions.
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