So last week, hoping to pick up some tips on character, I had a flip through my copy of Robert McKee's Story and came across the idea of empathy in character creation.
Now, before I continue I'm just going to make clear the difference between sympathy and empathy and its sometimes easy to get them confused - I was rather unsure myself at first, but I checked up on WiseGeek, which gives an excellent explanation.
Basically, empathy is identifying with another person's emotions, feeling with the person. Whilst sympathy is recognising other peoples feelings, and feeling for that person.
Now I've explained that, I'll explain the idea, which is simply thus - your audience needs to connect to your protagonist/hero. They need to care about the hero, because if they do, then they'll care about the hero's goals and ultimately the outcome of the film.
To create this bond with the audience you need to make the audience empathise with the character - they don't have to sympathise with the character, though that helps - but they must empathise.
As Robert McKee himself says: The audience's emotional involvement is held by the glue of empathy. If the writer fails to fuse a bond between filmgoer and protagonist, we sit outside feeling nothing.
Creating this empathy is of course, the difficult part. Robert McKee gives two examples of how in his book, and one of these is Macbeth.
Macbeth does horrible things, he kills friends and their families for power. Yet, we can feel sympathetic and empathetic towards Macbeth - enough to care about what happens to him at the end of the play. Why? Because as McKee points out, Macbeth has a conscience. He is guilt-ridden for the things he's done, and we can empathise with that because we all know what feeling guilty is like - we can feel that guilt with him.
I experienced the same thing watching a film called Same Time, Next Year (1978). The film is about a couple who have an affair; meeting once a year, every year to do so. One of them, the bloke George, really irritated me at times. He was hypocritical, neurotic, worried and moaned alot - and yet I emphasised with him because he felt guilty about the affair, and was beating himself up about the whole thing. Well most of the time, but I could also empathise with his conflicting feelings - we've all been tempted to do something we know we shouldn't!
This is where the need for an empathy compliments another important rule for writing good characters, that is - characters don't have to be likeable, but they do have to be interesting.
This means you can write characters that don't have to be nice guys, you can write protagonists that are irritating, extremely flawed, even bad guys and they will work if you can make sure that the audience feels empathy for them. As The Script Lab points out in its article Your Hero: Top Ten Rules:
Empathy is the key. Not every hero is likeable or should be; there are many heroes (or antiheroes) that we dislike, but we stay with them because we're able to understand why they do as they do.
In summary, empathy is essential to your characters. Sympathy is helpful, but optional.