First Draft: Put Audiences in Your Characters’ Shoes With These Seven Ways to Elicit Empathy in Your Screenplay

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In partnership with Creative Screenwriting and ScreenCraft, “First Draft” is a series on everything to do with screenwriting.


How can screenwriters make audiences and readers care more about their characters within feature screenplays and TV pilots?

Empathy is often defined as the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another. That’s exactly what you want the reader reading your script and the audience watching your movie to feel. You want them to live vicariously through your characters because that is the cinematic experience that most people want to be engaged by.

Old and dated screenwriting advice told us that our protagonists have to have a likability factor to them. In today’s cinema and television platforms, that rule has become more and more blurred thanks to excellent storytelling that offers flawed characters and antiheroes as protagonists.

Shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Yellowstone, and others have excelled at presenting characters that aren’t always likable—yet we feel empathy towards them because of various character traits.

And sometimes there is a reverse factor to this where characters are written in near flawless fashion. There’s a reason that a superhero character like Superman or Captain America is difficult to tackle because it’s hard to find character depth within those flawless “boy scout” character types. There’s only so many bad guys you can throw at them to create outside conflict.

Sometimes you need to create more empathy for your otherwise dark antihero characters. Sometimes you need to create more empathy for those seemingly bulletproof proverbial angels that can do no wrong. And, sometimes, you want to create more empathy for your antagonists and villains to make their characters more interesting and relatable, which adds to the characterization and conflict within your scripts.

Here we offer seven ways to accomplish this. Some may seem overly simplistic at first, but they at least point you towards a path that leads to better characterization and more character depth.

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2 Comments

  1. Steve Bee

    August 26, 2018 at 11:11 pm

    Absorbed

  2. Jim Becket

    August 23, 2018 at 8:33 pm

    Very helpful. Thank you!
    Excellent examples to illustrate the points.

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