I promise this isn’t a sermon.
This isn’t even remotely religious, other than this short snippet of scripture – as in, THE Scripture – which sets the stage. It’s from First Corinthians 13:13, and it sticks in the brain as much as it rolls easily off the tongue:
But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.
True that. You may have heard this one at a wedding or two. Say what you will, those guys could write.
If the Apostle Paul had been a writing teacher – picture it, a distinguished white-bearded dude wearing a tweed jacket speaking confidently during the keynote at a writing conference about how to craft your hero in a way that injects incredible narrative power into your story — he might have said this:
You’ve been told since your freshman writing class about hero complexity, likeability, and even sympathy. All good. But if you really want to jack your story into a higher gear, consider “rootability” and empathy. Hey, abide them ’em if that’s your thing. But know this: the greatest of these, all of these, is empathy.
Behold… the gospel truth for storytellers.
Think of this as the 13:13 of storytelling effectiveness.
In this age of the antihero, the darkly complex protagonist, the tormented main character… the usefulness of “likeability” has been rendered moot, if not entirely antiquated. Good when it suits the story, but certainly no longer the benchmark your first writing teachers told you it was.
The real essence of effective drama is putting your hero in harm’s way, or at least, dangling a goal and then tormenting them by keeping it tantalizingly out of reach. The level at which we root for the hero in that quest – whether we like them or not — is the measure of the story’s inherent potential.
It’s story physics. It’s the new math of storytelling.
But there’s an even more powerful literary steroid that surpasses even “rootability” in its power to transform a story into a vicarious experience. And that is empathy.
It’s a double-edged deal: empathy for the situation the hero is in… empathy for the person the hero IS in that situation.
You don’t have to have empathy in play to put “rootability” in play. That said, if you can do both, you’ve lifted your story to the highest level of impact. And if you pay attention, this is precisely what bestsellers and hit films do.
Let’s say your hero is a doctor who is being fired because she ignored instructions from the Chief of Surgery and administered an experimental drug that saved a patient’s life, even though it exposed the hospital to liability had it turned out otherwise. Very heroic. We root for her in this situation. But… do we empathize with her?
Maybe. But we certainly empathize with her IF the patient in question is… her daughter.
That, we can relate to. That, we can feel. Deeper and more vicariously than looking on from a grandstand seat and rooting for the good guy. When the good guy could be us, and when we can feel the heat of the moment because it touches us in a personal, vicarious way… the proximity of danger, the sweet scent of approaching success, the stakes…
… the story just works better.
The good news here: the difference is totally something the author controls. Simply by making a choice about the dynamics of the situations into which their hero is plopped.
The Genius of The Hunger Games?
Did we root for Katniss? Certainly. But, did we also feel – did with empathize with – the situation she was in? Yes we did. Much more so than, say, the dilemma of a college student trying to get into a good sorority.
We can root for that, but empathy isn’t the first word that comes to mind.
And empathy is the greatest of these things what we can feel.
And, that we can craft as authors.
The Sunday school writing lesson here is this: craft your stories with a view toward jacking the stakes and optimizing the underlying story physics. One of which is hero empathy, which quickly leads to another, vicarious journey.
Make us feel that empathy for your hero and an entire new level of story potential is suddenly yours.
Stay tuned for a staggering opportunity to have your story physics and potential evaluated, for a miniscule fraction of the investment required to have an entire manuscript critiqued. Even before you’ve written it, if that’s where you are.