The Writer’s Sympathy Formula

The Writer's Sympathy Formula for creating sympathetic characters and instilling emotional investment in readers. Only on The Writersaurus.

Spoiler Warning: This article contains spoilers that span the entirety of season one of Better Call Saul. Season one is now streaming on Netflix. You can also purchase it here to stream on Amazon Instant Video.

In all the history of our relationship, AMC’s Breaking Bad was the only television show that I could ever get my boyfriend to watch past the first twenty minutes of the first episode. And ever since seeing Netflix’s fateful You’ve been watching screen after the series finale, I’ve been searching for another that he’ll deign to watch with me.

So you can imagine how stoked I was when Netflix sent me an email saying that Better Call Saul, a spinoff of Breaking Bad, is now available to stream.

We’ve spent the last two weeks devouring the first ten episodes. My boyfriend doesn’t think it’s as interesting as Breaking Bad (I had to remind him that it took BB no less than two seasons to really get good), I have to disagree. Better Call Saul has turned out to be more interesting and nuanced than anticipated. Simply put, it’s great television.

Going along with my narrative analysis series, I wanted to figure out exactly what made Better Call Saul so enjoyable to watch. It’s a show with many high points, including a deep self-awareness of theme and clever, winding plot lines. But one thing about the show stood out – how it excels at making characters sympathetic by playing to their vulnerabilities.

 Why should my characters be sympathetic?

A sympathetic character is often defined as one that we ‘care about.’ This is a watered-down version of the truth. In order for a character to be truly sympathetic, we cannot just ‘care’ about them – we actually have to feel for them. We have to understand what they are going through on a very visceral, almost physical level. We need to experience what they experience as though we’re going through it ourselves.

So while we do care for characters, it’s more of a symptom of sympathy, rather than the cause of it.

While reading a book or watching a show, a clever plot, interesting world-building, and kick-ass characters might keep you engaged while you’re actually watching or reading – but they won’t keep you thinking after you’ve clicked the television off or closed the book.

No. What keeps you awake at night, what distracts you from work or school, is the scene where the hapless main character finally works up the courage to reveal her feelings to the boy she’s been pining after for the previous six chapters, even though it’s obvious that he takes her for granted. And of course, the jerkface turns her down in the most callous, hurtful way possible.

And you were cringing during that scene. You may even have been biting a decorative throw pillow like a woman in labor, rocking back and forth moaning, “No, no, no, no, no..”. You didn’t want her to feel the pain, because you didn’t want to feel pain.

This is emotional investment, and it makes it a whole lot more likely that you’ll watch the next episode or read the next chapter.

And that’s why you need sympathetic characters.

The Writer’s Sympathy Formula

Better Call Saul is masterful at manipulating its audience in this way, and it isn’t afraid to use it. While many shows might have one or two such sympathetic moments a season, Better Call Saul has at least one every episode.

It’s like going on an emotional roller coaster. Here are just a couple examples of such sympathetic moments:

Episode 7 (Bingo): Jimmy asks Kim to be partner in his new law-firm, even offering her the corner office in the space he will be leasing. She declines, choosing instead to remain working for a man that Jimmy despises, and who doesn’t appreciate her talent.

Episodes 8/ 9 (RICO, Pimento): In a two-episode arc, we see Jimmy overjoyed to be working with Chuck on a legal case, finally thinking that his brother is proud of him. Then Chuck talks him into giving the case to HHM, Jimmy’s nemesis. Jimmy agrees, thinking that he’ll finally be offered a good position in the company. He is denied this position. At first he thinks this is Howard’s decision, but later learns that Chuck doesn’t want to work with him, because he believes that he isn’t a real lawyer.

The Writer's Sympathy Formula for creating sympathetic characters and instilling emotional investment in readers.

These moments are breathtakingly painful to watch. After some analysis, I think I’ve nailed down the formula used in Better Call Saul and other shows to make such a sympathetic moment. The necessary components are:

Vulnerability + Hope/expectation + crushing defeat = sympathetic moment

Breaking down the writer’s sympathy formula

Vulnerability: To have true vulnerability, the character must open themselves up to possible pain. They have to put themselves out there. The audience should suspect that this will not end well for the character.

Example: Jimmy puts himself out there by partnering with Chuck on the Sandpiper case.

Hope/expectation: When they do not immediately fail after putting themselves out there, the character begins to feel confident that they will get or have already gotten what they want. They remove any barriers (psychic or real) that they had up before to protect themselves from loss.

Hope and expectation are important ingredients when building a sympathetic moment. They invest the audience’s time and emotions, and build toward the crushing defeat. If the crushing defeat is properly foreshadowed, the viewer will be in a state of discomfort as they wait for the other shoe to drop.

Example: When Chuck offers to work with him on the case, Jimmy believes that he’s finally earned his brother’s respect, which is what he’s wanted since moving to Albuquerque. He even believes that he will be made partner in HHM.

Crushing defeat: the character learns they are not going to get what they want, and it’s even worse because they had opened themselves up, making themselves vulnerable to pain. Often, there is something extra thrown in to make things even worse than they would have been if they had not made themselves vulnerable in the first place. Bonus points of the crushing defeat is public, in front of family, peers, or coworkers.

Example: Jimmy learns that not only is he not going to be made a partner at HHM, it’s because of Chuck, and not Howard. He learns that Chuck resented his getting a law degree, and that he was never proud of him, like he thought.

Did you like this post? Check out the rest in my narrative analysis series, where I break down the strengths and weaknesses of movies, television shows, and books!


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H. Duke
H. Duke writes fantasy, horror, and more. Her works include the weird west / urban fantasy serial mashup, Jeremiah Jones Cowboy Sorcerer and the Christmas horror collection, Things on the Shelf: Three Tales of Christmas Terror, as well as the forthcoming Pagewalker series. She wrote the first season of Jeremiah Jones Cowboy Sorcerer while living in Arizona with her husband, Giru, and a shiny black dog named Jupiter. To see what she's up to now, visit her website.

1 comment for “The Writer’s Sympathy Formula

  1. November 7, 2016 at 8:19 AM

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