Barracking Bad

Filed in Archive, Blog by on March 28, 2015 3 Comments

Breaking Bad - March 2015 What makes a reader barrack for the main character in a story? The answer in one word is empathy. Note: not sympathy, which is about feeling sorry for someone. But empathy, which is about feeling what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.

A good story will make you feel empathy for the main character right away. Yes, an intriguing concept or situation can hook you, but the reader also needs a character to care for, to worry about, to empathise with.

Professional writers know this and can employ a number of techniques to make the reader care for the main character immediately.

At the Digital Writers’ Festival in February I discussed empathy and how writers can generate it at will. This was part of a webinar with fellow panellists Paul Collins (owner of Ford Street Publishing and Penguin author) and Jane Pearson (senior editor with Text Publishing), hosted by Michelle Coleman of Freshly Squeezed YA Fiction.

(Click this link if you want to watch the whole webinar, titled “Crafting a Killer First Chapter”.)

Three commonly used techniques used by novelists and screenwriters to generate empathy are showing the protagonist:

  1. Suffering (e.g. rejection, failure, hardship).
  2. Has a sense of humour (makes the reader/viewer laugh or smile).
  3. Is the member of a family (mention mum, dad or siblings).

Only one of these techniques is needed to generate empathy, but Breaking Bad uses all three to generate empathy for Walter White at the start of the TV series. And Walter needs plenty of empathy from us because he is about make and sell the illegal and dangerous drug crystal methamphetamine, or “ice” as it is usually called.

Think about how the above three techniques are applied at the start of Breaking Bad.

A pair of trousers flying through the desert air is amusing, and even more so when we see the owner sitting in his old-style underpants (humour) while he is wearing a gas mask and barely managing to steer  an RV (suffering). When the RV crunches into a hole and stops, the character stumbles out gasping for air (more suffering).

He then reaches for a video to record a message to his family, telling them his heart was in the right place despite how things might look (member of a family).

Finally, he stands in the middle of a desert road and squares up to the sirens that are approaching from a distance (yet more suffering). He is holding a large pistol and might even be reminiscent of a character like Dirty Harry if he weren’t standing there in his ridiculous Y-front white underpants (humour).

And yes, even more empathy is generated following this opening scene. After a few credits we are taken backwards in time to scenes that reveal Walter’s son has a disability, Walter’s cholesterol is high, Walter is a talented chemist in a poorly paid job, and to cap things off Walter has lung cancer.

Empathy piled on top of empathy to ensure the viewer will keep barracking for Walter despite what he does in the many episodes that follow.

The next time you watch a movie or read a novel, see if you can identify one, two or all three of these empathy techniques at work during the opening. You will be starting to view or read a story as a professional writer does.

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  1. C1Blitz Cheat Sheet: Barracking Bad by Euan Mitchell | Freshly Squeezed | March 30, 2015
  1. Vicki Renner says:

    Absolutely! Not only have you inspired me to go back and give Breaking Bad a go (I didn’t want to care about an Ice-maker and was introduced to it after that opening episode), you’ve inspired me to go back to my two novels and re-look at how I create empathy.

    The thing that I always find hard is the ‘humour’ side of things. The explanation and examples you’ve given here have opened my mind a little to how humour can be depicted. It’s quite subtle by the sounds of things in this episode of Breaking Bad. I can do subtle humour.

    Great piece Euan! And the full panel on writing a killer first chapter is such great viewing.

  2. Euan Mitchell says:

    Many thanks, Vicki.

    Really glad this article has given you some practical info about this crucial factor in an opening chapter.

    It can be a lot of fun thinking up one or more ways to generate empathy.

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