Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Importance of Sympathy

This was written in 2003 for Apatoons. I'm posting it because I think it's interesting and it relates to something I'm going to write about the differences between leading and supporting characters.

The conventional thinking these days about film scripts is that you need a main character to actively struggle against obstacles to achieve a goal. Thinking of characters, I found it interesting that some of the most successful early animated features starred passive characters.

Snow White is almost an entirely passive character. She yearns for her prince, but does nothing to win him. She is a victim of the evil Queen and is rescued by the prince. The only positive action that Snow White takes in the film is to befriend animals and to serve as a housekeeper for the dwarfs.

Why should we care about her if she doesn’t struggle to achieve a goal? The reason, so far as I can see, is that we’re sympathetic to her. Sympathy turns out to be a major factor in whether or not an audience roots for a character and based on animation history, the character can be passive or active.

I can think of only three ways to make a character sympathetic. If a character obviously does not have the ability to protect himself or herself, if the character is treated unfairly for any reason, or if the character is attempting to help another, more needy, character. A character who is defenseless, the victim of injustice or altruistic will automatically gain audience sympathy.

The only case I can think of where possibly selfish behavior gains sympathy is a character attempting to be with someone he or she loves. My guess is that love and companionship are seen as necessities of life like food, clothing and shelter. Anyone who is deprived of these is seen as the victim of injustice and not someone who is striving selfishly.

We care about Snow White because she is naïve, someone who has no understanding of the Queen’s jealousy. She has no way of defending herself against a hunter with a knife or against the Queen’s magic. Because Snow White has done nothing to incite the Queen’s jealousy, the attacks on her are all unjust.

There are other characters besides Snow White that are passive yet sympathetic. Dumbo is ostracized by the other elephants. He loses his mother, who is locked up for defending him. He is the victim of Timothy’s plan for the elephant pyramid. He is the victim of the ringmaster’s decision to make him a clown. He unknowingly drinks water laced with alcohol. The only positive action that Dumbo takes in the entire film is to fly without the magic feather at the climax.

Like Snow White, he gains the sympathy of the audience by being a defenseless victim of injustice. Dumbo is a baby, hardly the type of character to have the resources (emotional or otherwise) to fight back. He’s not responsible for his large ears, which provoke taunts and cause him to trip.

Pinocchio is an active character, but again one who is innocent of the world. Because the entire film hinges on Pinocchio telling the difference between right and wrong, he has to make decisions. The fact that Pinocchio puts himself into trouble, as opposed to Snow White or Dumbo, makes him a less sympathetic character. Disney changed Pinocchio from a troublemaker to an ignorant child, so we don’t dislike him. However, the fact that Pinocchio places himself into danger makes him less sympathetic. Perhaps this is why Pinocchio was a relative failure compared to the other early features.

Bambi is another passive character. His first year, he experiences everything for the first time, being shown the world by his mother and Thumper. In his second year, his only goal is to hook up with Faline. The rest of the time, he’s purely reactive: fighting off a rival, hunters, their dogs and fire. Bambi gets our sympathy because as a baby he’s defenseless and has done nothing to provoke the attacks against him.

Note how all the main characters in the early Disney films are children who are undeserving victims. Whether they are active or passive, I think that’s the key to why audiences are sympathetic to the characters. Disney’s use of child characters continued throughout the animated features and the later live action features. Children as protagonists guarantee that the characters are sympathetic because they’re defenseless.

As the Disney features progressed, the characters became more active, but always remained sympathetic.

Cinderella is not quite as passive as Snow White in that she attempts to go to the ball and makes her own dress. However, she is still unable to achieve her goals by herself. She’s another innocent victim. Her stepmother is actively suppressing her in favor of her own daughters, so once again, our sympathy goes to Cinderella, as she is not responsible for living with a selfish stepmother.

In The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Mulan, we have female characters who are far more active in achieving their goals than Snow White or Cinderella, but they are still all sympathetic. Ariel is attempting to win the love of Eric and is being prevented by her father (the “selfish” injustice exception). Belle and Mulan both sacrifice themselves to save their fathers, the altruistic path.

101 Dalmatians is an interesting case, splitting the active and passive characters between the dog parents and pups. The parents are active in searching for their children. The children are mostly passive victims. Both have our sympathy. The parents have it because they’ve been robbed of their children. The children have it because they will be killed and turned into a coat. While the kidnapping motif has been used repeatedly in recent animated features, it’s interesting that none of the other cases split up a child and parent. The Rescuers, Raggedy Ann and Andy and Toy Story 2 do not invoke the parent-child bond. Finding Nemo, while not a kidnapping story with the same evil motivation as Dalmatians or The Rescuers, does replicate the parent-child separation and has gone on to great box office success. The film also mirrors Dalmatians in that Marlin is active and Nemo mostly passive (until the end).

Recent Disney films have avoided using children as their main characters and have not evoked much sympathy either. Hercules is an active character who is attempting to achieve the goal of returning to Olympus, but does this make him sympathetic? Can the audience be sympathetic to somebody who feels being human makes him second class? Treasure Planet fails to make Jim sympathetic. The early scene of him as a child with his mother shows that he could be nice, but doesn’t explain the root of his surliness. Is there any reason to feel sympathetic for Milo in Atlantis? Does the fact that Lilo and Stitch has a child protagonist account for some of the box office success relative to Hercules, Atlantis and Treasure Planet?

Another of the cliches of screenwriting is that the audience needs a character to root for. All well and good, but the reason the audience will root for a character is because the character is sympathetic. From what I can see the only way to establish this is to make the character defenseless, the victim of injustice or engaged in an altruistic act.


Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Great posts and great insights. Talking about Treasure Planet and Hercules... I found it interesting that the characters who I cared for most, respectively Silver and Meg, started out as villains (trying to look sympathetic to hide the truth).

I also feel that a sense of real-life adds to the sympathy towards the characters. Take Iron Giant... we already care for Hogarth before he even meets the giant, even though he is really (really) active. He just feels a lot more like an actual kid then in most animated films, is a lot of fun, and is placed in a completely recognizable environment.

Krishva said...

In the case of Lilo and Stitch, the two titular characters and Lilo's older sister are all sympathetic, for the same reasons you cited above.

Lilo's a victim of teasing and rejection because she's "different." Arguably she is a very strange little girl, but it's clear that she does not understand that her actions are strange, only that others think she's "different." Her parents died in a tragic accident and her older sister is struggling to take care of her.

Lilo is also altruistic--Stitch is a nasty little monster at first but Lilo continues to care for him and trust that he's really decent.

Getting stuck being a "mother" at a young age was unjust for Lilo's older sister, who also has difficulty getting and keeping a job because of Stitch. Child protective services threatens to take Lilo away from her, an injustice that involves breaking a family bond.

Stitch, well, starts out unsympathetic. You want him to get caught. He can't help that he's destructive, though--he was made that way. After some time spent with Lilo, he begins to understand the concept of family, at which point he becomes a helpless victim. He begins to want a family (implied: a family that is like him) but he can't find one. At the end he becomes altruistic, risking his life to save Lilo.

It isn't just the fact that Lilo is a child that makes her sympathetic. That movie fits pretty snugly into the model you described.

Craig D said...

Great post.

Jackie Gleason made a similar observation that comedic actors all needed to elicit the audience's sympathy. He noted one exception: Grouch Marx. "He didn'te need it!" was his comment.

Mark Mayerson said...

Craig, MGM tried their best to make the Marx Bros. sympathetic by having them work on the side of true love in A Night at the Opera and to save a sanitarium in A Day at the Races. Irving Thalberg made the Marxes altruists specifically because he felt that the audience (and especially women) didn't care about them unless their antics had a point that the audience was sympathetic to.

These days, many people prefer the more anarchic Paramount Marx films over the often sappy MGM films, but at the time, the MGM films were more successful at the box office.

Craig D said...


Groucho, himself, acknowledged that Thalburg was the only one who ever knew what to do with the team!

I think Jackie was getting at Groucho's comedic personna, specifically. And keep in mind, Jackie was known for drinking quite a bit...

Anonymous said...

Gleason himself relied on the character of Ed Norton, embodied by the great Art Carney, to cut some of the cruelty of his own Ralph Kramden.

Tom Minton

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. BUT you left something important to consider about feeling empathy towards animation characters? Villains.

They are not helpless, and are often portrayed caring for nothing except their selfish interests. Yet why are there villain characters that are so memorable, and sometimes even more appealling to the audience that the "heroes". From the classic characters I can think of course of Capt. Hook, Cruella Deville, etc. Even in more modern films like Hercules I think the viewer "connects" more with Hades than with the hero of the story! Why is that? Maybe it's because the directors use the villains as a resource for comedy relief, but there has to be more than that. I think perhaps villains that remind us of our own defects but portrayed them in a comic manner appeal to us and "feel" more real than heroes, like Jack Nicholson as the Joker, who makes a far better job than Keaton as Batman. After all, isn't it true than in life we are used to expect the worst from people? but in the movies at least evil actions are shown to entertain us!

Also, I'm betting most animators have more fun working with the villains in a feature, am I right?

Isabella said...

In the Hunchback of Notre-Dame, I felt like Frollo was the character I most sympathized with. It's and odd case, but as you've pointed out, he is being deprived of love, and in a way, has been a victim of an extreme brand of religiousity. And there's also the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. Two best'villians' ever.

Mike Caracappa said...

I think two characters that help break the mold are Woody and Buzz, and we sympathize with them because the injustice's they face are coming from themselves. Woody reacts out of fear that Andy might not love him anymore, and later Buzz's entire belief system fails him. It's interesting that Izzy points out a kind of similarity with Frollo in that both characters from Toy Story become deprived of love. The only difference is that Woody and Buzz manage to grow beyond themselves and find their way back to Andy, who loved them all along. I think it shows that characters don't always need outside forces attacking them in order for us to feel sympathy. Showing a character that has to struggle with themselves not only breaks a common cliche, but can lead to a much deeper and more meaningful experience.

Brian Tiemann said...

Izzy, I'm glad you mentioned Frollo. I've found him an interesting case study for years: he's almost unique among Disney villains, in that he believes he's doing good.

Just about every other villain (who deserves the title) is a moustache-twirling sociopath, a devilishly cunning schemer, an amoral hacker of society, a power-hungry despot, a fratricidal monster, a contemptuous enchanter—someone who goes "Nya-ah-ahhh, I love being bad!" Such storybook villains are fun, but they don't ring true. Frollo breaks the mold by being something we, the audience, recognize as evil (the pious, do-gooding hypocrite); but in his own mind, he's the savior of Paris.

Gargoyles aside, that's the main reason why I love that movie so much. About the only thing I love more is a movie where the "villains" don't exist as anything more concrete than conspiring circumstances or regretful must-be-done types, as in many Miyazaki and Pixar movies or avant-garde outings like Lilo & Stitch.

Bill Robinson said...

Excellent post! There's a lot of stuff in there that I knew subconsciously, but never really connected it all. Iron Giant is an interesting example because we are sympathetic to Hogarth, but also to the Giant. Even though he has his "evil killing machine" moments, we know that he is truly a good creature. And when he sacrifices himself to save the town and Hogarth...well I think it's one of the best animated sequences ever.

Compare this to Hercules, who sacrifices his powers/life to save Meg. We don't really care! It's because he's a self-absorbed jerk! And instead of feeling happy that he sees the error of his ways, we feel like he deserves whatever he gets. I'd love to hear more about this subject!

Mark Mayerson said...

Red Pill Junkie, villains are treated very much like supporting characters in that they're all personality without having a character arc. They can be wildly exaggerated in their behavior because the story never has to have them evolve into something else.

I have sympathy for Captain Hook because he's lost a hand and he's attempting to get even for it. Also, Peter Pan is a self-involved show-off and brat. I never found him a particulary appealing character.

But I don't have any sympathy for Cruella. She is very typical of Disney villains in that her main attribute is selfishness. She is willing to hurt others in order to get what she wants. The same is true for the Queen in Snow White, Stromboli and the Coachman in Pinocchio, the stepmother in Cinderella, Shere Khan in Jungle Book, Prince John in Robin Hood, Hades in Hercules, etc.

As we're all selfish to a degree and might be willing to trample anyone standing in the way of our desires, we automatically empathize with villains because we identify with that attitude. But I don't think that we automatically sympathize with them. We rarely see them as being justified in what they want in animated films because morality is at a level that has to be understood by three-year-olds. That's a subject for a whole other essay.

Izzy, I don't think that the beast is a villain. The whole point of the film is that he appears to be one but isn't.

Mike Caracappa, the nature of conflict is always character vs. character, character vs. circumstances or character vs. self. Of course, it can be more than one at a time. North American animated films tend to be character vs. character, though there are exceptions. Toy Story is character vs. character but also character vs. self as you point out. Miyazaki sometimes makes films that are character vs. circumstances (Kiki's Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro), which is one reason his films are so refreshing.

Brian Tieman, one of the greatest lines in film history is from Renoir's Rules of the Game when Octave says, "The horrible thing about life is that everyone has his reasons." There have been animated films where villains are given flimsy reasons and others where they're given good reasons. I once said that the difference between films for adults and films for children is that adult films have no villains, just people with conflicting goals. Using that definition, very few animated films meet the standard of being for adults.

Anonymous said...

I think when Hollywood grudgindly accepts that animation is a medium which does not necessarily have to teach a moral lesson for five year-olds, that we will begin to see more rich and complex characters. Is it impossible to make an animation movie in the vein of Scorsese and Tarantino, where ALL the characters are "villains" yet we sympathize with them nonetheless? Quentin Disney, are you out there listening???

Locadora do Werneck said...

Red Pill and Benjamin have got a good point, talking about villains. One of the "basic principles of animation" according to Thomas & Johnston was APPEAL. A character mst have appeal... yes, sure, but... how do we get this!?

I think this is the most difficult of the principles to explain. I personally have lots of trouble explaining that to students. They easily understand physical concepts like squash, stretch and drag... but how do you create appeal? There is no correct formula, it is a myriad of factors... every audience will respond in a different way to certain elements... there's design, color, voice acting...

Whoever discovers a 100% fail-proof formula to achieve character appeal that doesn't fade over time, will get filthy reach :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Mr Mayerson,

I've just posted your blog on this forum:

An interesting rebuttal from this discussion; it's not sympathy, it's empathy.

Empathy is more powerful than sympathy can express, so they say.

Would you agree to that?

Anonymous said...

I too, have just blogged about this article on a the Animation Writers Blog. I've reread this piece a few times and wanted to share.