Developing Empathy With Characters
Updated: May 27
Empathy is a huge part of not only successful design, but is extremely crucial in good storytelling. As I am finishing my graduate program studying user research and design, but as an early professional in the film and television industry, I find that the stories that I want to work with most are those that I connect with on a personal level – stories that make me think. Having that dual perspective from both my film and design courses has made me a more well-rounded storyteller. I recently watched a video about empathy and it shed light on the concept that opened my eyes a little more to why this is so important from both perspectives.
According to Roman Krznaric, cognitive empathy is when you’re able to take into consideration the perspective of someone/something else and shape the way you look at the world and yourself through that perspective. Good storytelling allows us to be empathetic and learn that little something about the world or ourselves because of that connection to someone else’s story.
When it comes to a character in either film or television, the development of that fictional person is crucial to that person being able to connect with the audience on that level. A well-rounded character opens doors to empathy. Masterclass says that “character development is the process of building a unique, three-dimensional character with depth, personality, and clear motivations.”
Sue Heck might just be my favorite sit-com character of all time.
If you don’t know her, Sue is from the ABC sitcom called The Middle. She can be described as energetic, optimistic, clumsy, and caring. I definitely can see a little bit of myself in her, but it’s not only because I just happen to also be optimistic and clumsy. This character was built with empathy by the writer in character development stages. Many characters are based off of real people, but how do you create a fictional persona that is going to be able to resonate with audiences to their core? You have to take into consideration every ounce of their being by knowing this fictional character inside and out.
There’s a little thing that designers use called an empathy map that can help you understand your subject to their core. The Nielsen Norman Group defines an empathy map as “a collaborative visualization used to articulate what we know about a particular type of user.” In an empathy map, there are 4 quadrants around a center section that represents the core of the user. These are what the character says, feels, does, and thinks. Asking the right questions or noting these specific elements will lead to an exploration of what makes that person the way they are and will help the audience or user gain empathy for them.
This same idea is used in character development with a writing exercise called a character questionnaire. This is where you ask questions to develop characters, learn how they behave, how they feel about things, what they say, and how they think.
Among those four quadrants, it’s also important to look at the pain and gain of the subject. Character development goes above and beyond to understand what makes a person tick, and you can use those four quadrants to understand that person’s pain and gain.
Let’s try this out with Sue.
I’m going to take an example of something that occurred in the show that always stuck in my brain. Sue wanted so bad to be a part of a club or team, and every time she tried out for something – she epically failed. She tried out for the cheerleading team, something coveted by the student body. The scene in particular is when she’s waiting to get the call after try-outs.
“Oh my gosh, 5 more minutes with the possibility of being a cheerleader. This is like Christmas morning, my birthday, and the first time I smelled the Justin Bieber perfume wrapped into one!”
“I heard that if everyone in a room concentrates on one thing really hard, they can make it happen.”
“In 3 minutes will my life stay the same or will it get soooo much better.”
“Oh my gosh they’re not calling. I tried and I didn’t make it and my life is over but I guess that’s just the way that the old cookie crumbles just gotta roll with the punches and all that jazz.”
“Maybe they wrote down my number wrong, or maybe I wrote down the time wrong.”
“A watched phone never rings.”
Positivity can change the outcome of any situation. She wants this so bad and is coming to terms that it might not happen for her. She thinks that being a cheerleader is going to make her life drastically better and that if she doesn’t her hopes and dreams are "crushed forever" (even though she would be expected to find a new opportunity to be excited about).
Big hand gestures, has multiple phones in front of her and is smiling continuously.
She is nervously laughing to hide her negative outlook. She dives for the phone and does a dance/jumps for joy when she gets the call with good news.
She feels nervous, impatient, and excited. She tries to keep positive but her nervousness and doubts show through. Once she gets the news she feels ecstatic.
We’ve all wanted something so bad just like her. We’ve all acted overly positive in a situation that we worried it would not turn out the way we wanted it to. The way she nervously laughs makes me think of my own experiences and her antsy mannerisms make me feel anxious to know her outcome too.
But understanding how these elements play into why we feel connected to her in this scene is extremely helpful in gaining insight into her as a person. We not only see that silver lining attitude, but we see from these specific elements that she is hurting a little on the inside and just wants something to work out for her.
And all of that makes us feel for Sue, connect with Sue, and think about a time where we were in the same boat as Sue. We can better understand her as a person just from this one scene by looking at the things she says, the way she thinks, the things she does, and how she feels.