People love to be inspired. It’s what draws us to stories of underdogs, great achievers, and even, to an extent, celebrities. We love to see how regular people just like us can succeed against all odds.
Storytellers often try to cash in on this audience appreciation for underdogs, but we can easily miss the foundational element of an underdog story: empathy. The reason the audience becomes entranced by the story of an underdog is not because underdogs are fundamentally attractive; we are entranced because we empathize with them.
3 Steps to Cultivate Empathy and Craft Inspirational Stories
Empathy is one of the most powerful tools available to a storyteller. Whether you are writing a novel, nonfiction, a screenplay, or even an ad campaign, empathy can draw your audience into the story and, by the end, inspire them as well. This is the heart and soul of a powerful story.
I will provide you with three integral pieces of story structure that you can use to create empathy in your story: creating a relatable protagonist, developing empathetic conflict, and delivering a shred of hope in an otherwise hopeless situation.
1. Create a relatable protagonist
Anyone, or indeed anything, can be a protagonist. That's the beauty of modern storytelling. If Pixar has taught us anything, it's that you can take a child's toy, a clown fish, a basic emotion, a tow truck, an umbrella, or even the monster living beneath your child's bed and make it a relatable protagonist.
Relatability is the key attribute of your protagonist. It doesn't matter if he/she is human, inanimate, selfish, kind, or scary; if you can make a protagonist relatable, you invite your audience into a deeper connection with your story.
One of the most effective ways to build relatability is to give your protagonist a dream or ambition—something that will lead to perfect happiness. Everyone has a dream, and your audience can relate to having a dream or ambition. Depending on the maturity level of your audience you could keep it simple—being with the one you love—or make it more complex—bringing the joy of music to an orphanage of starving children in Africa.
2. Develop empathetic conflict
Making your protagonist relatable is the first step to building empathy. The second step is giving your protagonist empathetic conflict.
This is different than simply providing conflict. Anyone can create conflict. Left to their own devices, humans will eventually create conflict. Conflict on its own is neither inspirational nor empathetic.
The best way to create empathetic conflict is to return to the protagonist's dream and ambition. Since this is what your audience will find most relatable, it is also the most efficient way to tug at their heartstrings. Bring the dream/ambition into reach; give your protagonist—and your audience—hope that it can be attained. And then snatch it away.
We can all relate to the lost dream. After all, who among us hasn't had their own dream stolen by the harsh reality of life? Your audience can feel the pain of a lost dream because they have experienced it. You have created empathy.
3. Deliver a shred of hope
You could leave your story here. Some of the greatest stories of all time end in this fashion: Romeo and Juliet, The Fault in Our Stars, and Titanic, just to name a few. Such tales can have inspirational elements, but is that enough?
Stories are like magic: you can make something disappear and your audience will be shocked and surprised, but make it reappear and they will be astounded and inspired.
The final step to inspiration through empathy is to bring back hope when everything seems hopeless. It's the classic underdog story: the underdog has a dream, the dream appears within reach, an unforeseen outside force pushes the dream out of reach, the underdog gives it one last try, the dream is achieved.
Whatever you do, don't make it easy for your protagonist. Your audience can't relate to an easy life; they won't feel empathy for someone who has it easy. The more difficult the journey, the more empathetic your audience will be, and the more inspiring your story will become.
Empathy Leaves Lasting Impressions
Developing an empathetic connection between your audience and your protagonist will go a long way not only in the development of your story, but also in leaving a lasting impression. By creating a relatable protagonist, developing empathetic conflict, and delivering a shred of hope in a hopeless situation, you can turn your manuscript into an inspirational masterpiece.
What stories have inspired you and led you to empathize with the characters? Let us know in the comments.
Take fifteen minutes to write an inspirational story. In 100 words or less, write a short story that utilizes all three aspects of empathy development: relatable protagonist, empathetic conflict, and a shred of hope. Sound tough to do in 100 words? It is. Don’t let that stop you.
When you're done, share your story in the comments. Don't forget to leave feedback for your fellow writers!