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Today we’re diving into the soul of your narrative:
While the plot helps propel your story forward, it’s the characters who give it depth and emotional weight.
But what is the secret ingredient that keeps your audience engaged until The End?
Pure, unfiltered empathy.
The Anatomy of Empathy
We often toss around the term “empathy,” but it’s more than a buzzword.
Empathy actually has roots deep in our brain, due to things like mirror neurons and the amygdala.
Mirror neurons are the brain’s way of helping us feel what others feel. The amygdala is like the brain’s emotion HQ. Together, they make up the heart of what makes us empathetic.
When you create a character, you’re doing more than just drawing an outline. You’re flipping switches in these special brain pathways, making your stories not only emotionally gripping, but also touching folks at a neurological level.
The 3 Dimensions of Emotional Resonance
Building a compelling character is like assembling a three-dimensional puzzle. Here are the pieces that magnify empathy:
1. Core Flaws
These are not superficial traits, but deeply embedded shortcomings that shape a character’s decision-making and moral compass.
They serve as the emotional bedrock upon which the narrative can construct internal conflicts.
Example: Tony Stark in “Iron Man”
- Flaw: Arrogance and disregard for consequences
- Impact: Leads to his kidnapping and prompts a life reassessment
Example: Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games”
- Flaw: Distrust of others
- Impact: Influences her initial survival strategy
2. Magnifying Situations:
These are scenarios specifically engineered to intensify your character’s core flaws, serving as vessels that test and reveal their true nature.
Example: Tony Stark
- Situation: Kidnapped and forced to build a weapon
- Impact: Spawns self-evaluation and path toward redemption
Example: Katniss Everdeen
- Situation: Participation in the Hunger Games
- Impact: Amplifies her distrust, affecting survival tactics
3. Pivotal Moments of Truth
These are the climax points in your narrative where a character’s vulnerability is laid bare, offering transformative experiences that leave an indelible impression on the audience.
Example: Tony Stark
- Moment: Escaping captivity, halting weapon manufacturing and becoming Iron Man for positive change
- Impact: Highlights his shift from self-centered actions to responsible heroism, sealed by his final statement, “I am Iron Man”
Example: Katniss Everdeen
- Moment: Volunteers for her sister, forms an alliance with Peeta, and threatens the Capitol by nearly consuming poisonous berries
- Impact: Initiates a journey of vulnerability, forms a deep alliance with Peeta, and directly challenges the Capitol, reshaping her survival tactics and sparking a revolt
The Power of Empathetic Weaknesses
Vulnerability is among your greatest assets as a storyteller.
When you craft characters who have notable flaws and insecurities, like Tony Stark’s ego or Katniss Everdeen’s guarded nature, you’re laying the foundation for authentic human connection.
Empathy is the awesome sauce that turns your narrative from a sequence of events into an emotional journey, inviting your audience to feel seen and represented in the story.
And when your audience sees themselves in your characters, they invest emotionally, fueling the story engine of your tale.
Empathy Across Genres
Whether your character wears an iron suit or wields a bow and arrow, the emotional resonance remains the same.
Tony Stark comes from a world of fantasy and high-tech gadgets, while Katniss comes from a dystopian future. Yet both underscore a universal truth: Genuine, relatable characters are what make stories unforgettable.
The lesson here?
No matter your genre, the principles remain constant.
The Final Takeaway
It’s all about making people feel something, right?
During your story development, remember that empathy is the foundational layer that delivers a profound experience.
Collaborating with AI for Emotional Depth:
Now that we’ve explored the pieces involved, let’s play with AI.
Use this prompt in ChatGPT or your favorite chatbot to shake your audience to the core.
// edit the bold text in [brackets] //
Imagine you are a master storyteller with 20 years crafting characters for bestselling novels and blockbuster films in the genre of [Insert Your Genre Here] story.
And we are developing this character:
• Character Role: [Protagonist, Antagonist, Sidekick, etc.]
• Character Details: [Name, Story Goal/Idea, Traits, Background]
Produce feedback and insights based on these foundational elements for the selected character:
• Core Flaws: What are the deeply-rooted emotional imperfections that make this character empathetically relatable? How do these flaws interact with the character’s ethical and moral dilemmas?
• Magnifying Situations: Identify scenarios that don’t just reveal but emotionally amplify the character’s flaws. How do these situations act as mirrors to societal or ethical issues?
• Pivotal Moments: Pinpoint moments where the character’s emotional vulnerability is at its peak. What emotions, like sorrow, joy, or moral ambiguity, can be aimed to invoke in the audience?
• Essential Justification: How does the character align with the applied Genre’s themes, yet add emotional complexity?
• Interconnectedness: How do the Core Flaws, Magnifying Situations, and Pivotal Moments emotionally interrelate to lead to a transformation or reaffirmation of these flaws?
• Emotional Depth: What range of emotions will the character experience, and how do they contribute to the overall emotional resonance of the story?