Breaking Down Joker: 6 Ways to Create Empathy Toward Your Characters

Imagine you have a solid plot, compelling scenes, and exciting set pieces, but if your protagonist doesn’t connect with the audience, then nothing else matters. As Andrew Stanton states in his brilliant TED talk “The Clues to a Great Story”

“[This] is probably the greatest story commandment: Make me care” – Andrew Stanton

Likeability is not the same as empathy. You can disagree with the characters’ actions, and still root for him. Great characters are not created by chance, but by design. You can read the FULL SCREENPLAY of THE JOKER here.

Here are 6 ways you can immediately add a strong sense of empathy toward the characters in your script.

QUICK DISCLAIMER: Remember that like anything with screenwriting, these are principles, not formulas. They need to integrate organically into your story.

1. INJUSTICE

Seeing an injustice toward somebody creates a deep sense of empathy with that character. Injustice can be as small as an undeserved ticket (Erin Brockovich), or a strong unjust event. When the injustice happened in the past, you can turn it in what John Truby describes as the ghost in his book “The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller”.

  • What simple, daily life injustice can you include in your first act?
  • What is something that happened in the past, which is still haunting your character today?

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In Joker, while Arthur is peacefully working, he’s suddenly attacked by bullies and doesn’t fight back. He even justifies them when talking to his boss.

                               ARTHUR
                   It was just a bunch of kids
                   I should have let them alone.

We’ll see more and more injustice against him throughout the movie, he gets fired, betrayed by his best friend, fall in love with the wrong person, punched in the face by Thomas Wayne.

2. INNOCENCE

Innocence is a very powerful drive for us. We’re immediately prone to rule for characters that express innocence. Whether it’s from their appearances, their naive view of the world, or their limited intelligence.

Here are some examples:

Appearances:

Baby Yoda, Wall·E, Olive Hoover (Little Miss Sunshine)

Limited intelligence:

Homer Simpsons, Mr. Bean, Raymond Babbitt (Rain Man)

A naive view of the world:

Pinocchio, Michael Scott, Amelie, Forrest Gump, Jojo (Jojo Rabbit).

As we observed analyzing JOKER, even the darkest character can express innocence. Arthur is naive, he’s presented as an innocent abused child, longing for a father figure.

3. IMPERFECTIONS

You can add a touch of imperfection to your character. It can be physical, emotional, or both. If your characters is too perfect or idealized, then the audience won’t like them. Imperfections make us human.

Here’s a list of example that can spark some ideas:

  • The Kryptonite to Superman.
  • Nemo’s faulty Finn.
  • Amelie’s inability to connect with others.
  • The fear of snakes for Indiana Jones.
  • Raj’s inability to speak with women in The Big Bang Theory.

In Joker, Arthur has a mental disorder, and a condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably, which gets him into trouble. He wants to overcome his sickness to accomplish his dream of being accepted. We later learn, that this laughing condition comes from a history of domestic violence, which left marks on his skinny body.

  • Can you create four traits that show imperfection in your protagonist?
  • What are the six flaws that your character has to overcome before the movie ends?

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4. SAVE THE CAT MOMENTS

One of the most popular screenwriting books coined the term “Save The Cat”, in other words, have the character perform a good deed, even if it’s as simple as saving a cat from a tree. Small acts of kindness will help the audience root for your protagonist.