Make Your Characters Empathetic Through Feeling, Not Showing

All the special effects, explosions, car crashes, and gunfire in the world won’t make your story better. That’s because visual effects are fine, but lack substance without an underlying motivation for why all this visual fireworks are happening and what they mean to the hero.

Conflict is not about bigger explosions or more gunfire. Conflict is about challenging your hero into either embracing the theme or rejecting the theme.

In “Lars and the Real Girl,” the hero is a lonely man who yearns for human contact, but is too afraid to embrace it. Thus the entire story is about how the hero (Lars) alternates between wanting to embrace relationships with others, but also pushing other people away out of fear.

In one scene, Lars tries to avoid a woman who’s interested in him at work. In another scene, Lars tries to avoid his sister-in-law, who invites him to dinner so he won’t be so lonely all the time, living in the garage. The conflict throughout the story is about Lars trying to embrace others, yet pushing them away.

That’s true conflict that would not be helped with more explosions, special effects, or car crashes. When creating conflict, there’s the old saying, Show, don’t tell.” However, showing is pointless if it doesn’t mean anything.

Watch “The Eternals” for a great example of a mediocre movie. “The Eternals” shows two superheroes making love and then another superhero kissing his partner to demonstrate he’s gay. Seeing two naked people making love or seeing a man kiss another man means nothing because we don’t know what these characters want and how each scene affects the characters’ inner conflict.

Watching two naked superheroes have sex is meant to show us they love each other, but there are better ways to do this. It’s a far more emotional moment in “Rocky” when Rocky and Adrian are in a skating rink all by themselves because Rocky paid the janitor so Adrian could skate. That simple scene has more emotional meaning and impact than “The Eternals” showing us two naked superheroes having sex. If watching two people having sex can make us understand that they love each other, every porn movie in the world would make us feel emotional about the men and woman having sex in front of our eyes.

Later in “The Eternals” when we see a male superior kiss another man, that’s also meant to make us care about the superior, but since we don’t know what he wants, all the kissing doesn’t mean anything. Once again, just showing us two men kissing has no emotional impact.

Instead of just showing, let us feel. Audiences want to relive the same emotions as the characters. In the skating rink scene from Rocky, we get to admire how Rocky is willing to pay the janitor to let Adrian skate. That shows that Rocky cares about Adrian and wants her to be happy. We don’t need to see Rocky naked, having sex with Adrian because that wouldn’t let us experience anything emotionally.

When Rocky pays the janitor to Adrian can skate, that makes us admire Rocky for the efforts he’s going through to woo Adrian. As Adrian tentatively skates while Rocky walks along and talks to her, we get to see and feel the nervousness of Adrian as she’s unsure of herself on the skates.

Rather than hit us over the head by showing kissing or naked people having sex, that simple scene in Rocky lets us experience how Rocky is trying to make Adrian happy, and that’s far more emotionally interesting than simply watching two naked superheroes having sex in “The Eternals.”

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