Skip to content

The Empathy Machine

There’s a quote I saw recently, attributed to the movie critic, Roger Ebert, that goes, “for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”

Of course, in the world of the internet, I am always wary of where quotes are attributed to, but the sentiment here is one I think gets to the heart of what I think about storytelling: stories (whether movies, books, comics, plays, even computer games) at their heart really are empathy machines. Because stories are character. Stories are about people–and sometimes those people are disguised as “others”, such as alien species or anthromophised animals–being part of the world. They are about people taking action (even when they choose inaction), and they are about communicating why those people take action and inviting us as the reader to understand and contextualise those actions.

There are people who choose to separate plot and character stories. For me, that’s almost impossible, because even plot driven books exist only because they contain characters who have a goal. It might be a very broad goal, but its there all the same. And the story unfolds because of how the world around reacts to their attempts to achieve that goal. The story would not unfold, or it would not be interesting, if we didn’t understand the characters who were driving it.

In my past life reading slush manuscripts, and even now reading occasional early stage manuscripts, the most common thing I see is that the stories lack that empathic element — that sense that this story is happening because of the characters. Too often, we have massive world changing events that would have occurred with or without the characters being there. That’s dull. That’s boring. The very existence of the characters and their choices are what make it a story rather than just a description of a sequence of events.

Stories are about people. And by people, I mean beings who have empathetic reasons for acting, who we, the reader, are invested in and interested by. Without the element of empathy, you don’t have a story; just a series of reported events strung together in a logical order. Sometimes those events are — in the moment — awe-inspiring or just big enough to grab our attention. But without the driving force of story — the character — they are, in the end (and to pull a wee quote from Willie Shakespeare… I’m sure other writers can get away with calling him Willie… right?) full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Published inBlogStoriesthoughtsUncategorized

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

WordPress Cookie Plugin by Real Cookie Banner
Verified by MonsterInsights