What is it that makes a great story, is it the narrative flow, the description, the sense of place or the characters? We all know that each of these elements plays its part in the creation of a whole piece of work, but what is the corner stone, the rock on which a great story has at its foundation?
For me it is, whether for either a novel or screenplay, is do we care about the protagonist, do we buy into their predicament, is it important to us? But what do we mean by the word ‘care’ and does ‘care’ equate to ‘like’? Does it even matter?
I think it not only matters, it is crucial. If we do not care, if we do not buy into the protagonist’s dilemma why would we carry on reading or watching when there are so many other things we could be doing with our time? The book I just finished reading is a great example in that it drew in, compelled me to finish and when I was reading the world around me melted away. That does not happen very often. The book was A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, in fact at times the story almost broke my heart if only because the characters and situations they face in their fictional world also exist in our real world and not only in Afghanistan.
So, if we need to care does it follow that we have to feel empathy for a protagonist, or indeed sympathy for them. In my dictionary the word sympathy means understanding, pity or approval. Empathy was, understanding, placing you in another’s place, seeing the world from their point of view. There is a real difference here. Because we may find ourselves feeling sympathy with someone’s predicament but this implies a level of approval for them, could we feel sympathy for a character that we dislike or despise?
Perhaps the emotion that has more power for the reader or the television viewer is empathy, seeing a situation from another’s view, being inside there world view. Understanding a point of view, but not necessarily approving it or liking it. Is this why characters who are mavericks, loners and cads are some of the more popular fictional creations, they have emotional depth, they also play the part of wish fulfillment on behalf of us. The ‘if only’ we could tell our boss what we really thought or buy a motorbike and seek adventure out on the road, perhaps storm the pirate fortress etc.
It also could explain how films such as Downfall could be so popular. We do not approve of the people in the film but we feel the empathy and the pathos of the situation, desperate for the trauma to end, hoping the Goebbels children are not murdered by their Mother even though we know there is no other outcome, feeling the relief that Traudl Junge and the young boy survive the carnage and the Russian onslaught. Indeed the playwright David Edgar justified his play about Albert Speer because “the awful truth – and it is awful, in both senses of the word – is that the response most great drama asks of us is neither ‘yes please’ nor ‘no thanks’ but ‘you, too?”
So it is not just the ‘if only I could…’ It is also the eternal, ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ that makes the story.