Broken Inside: How to Make Your Audience Sympathize

Copyright © 1998 by Madhouse

Characters are messy, sometimes. They bleed across the page in torrents of dialogue, poor decisions, tortured backstories, and over-the-top actions that drive the plot forward. If you’ve ever read a Stephen King novel or watched an episode of Game of Thrones, you know what I’m talking about. It’s the sort of thing that peak TV is built on, for better or worse.

But, for writers, there’s a question about dealing with characters: how do we make them worth following?

Here’s a hint: it’s not just cool cars and clothes. It’s about feeling.

I’d like to introduce you, then, to a little something I like to call the “Alone in the Bedroom” scene.

I can’t lay claim to being a big-time published author, but I’ve written tons of fiction over the years. Time and time again, I’ve found that there’s a recurring motif in a lot of my stories. I like gettting into my characters’ heads, sometimes to juxtapose the difference between what they’re thinking/feeling, and what they’re saying/doing. All well and good, but there are times in each of my better-written stories were a character will take a pause in the action and wrestle with their flaws or fears early on.

This is what I call “Alone in the Bedroom.” Because, in a lot of my stories, the bedroom is usually where these quiet moments take place. It’s where the College Girl comes after a long day of classes and social events, so she can drop her pollyanna mask and gripe about the pressure she’s under back home. It’s where the Friendly Vampire, who’s spent a whole night out feeding on the criminal element of their city, retreats just before dawn, sliding into their coffin and wishing they could be among normal people during the day.

Revealing trauma, and how it motivates (or frustrates) a character, is a key step in any narrative. We can’t always relate to a survivor of abuse or a criminal kingpin, but we can relate to a quiet moment where they’re mourning a loved one’s passing or debating how to proceed in life.

For an example, even though it doesn’t take place in a bedroom, let’s consider a key moment from the 2003 South Korean thriller Oldboy (spoilers to follow).

Copyright © 2003 by Show East

After the film’s bloody climax, our antagonist Lee Woo-jin (played by Yoo Ji-tae) has just reduced his longtime rival Oh Dae-su to a blubbering, ruined mess and earned his vengeance after 15 long years. Except, standing alone in the elevator, with a pistol in hand, Lee Woo-jin can’t help but picture his sister before she ended her life on a bridge, and he breaks down. He decides to end his own life, having neither joy nor purpose left with his revenge complete, and he shoots himself in the head right before the elevator reaches the ground floor. It’s a powerful scene, rendered with no dialogue, but the visual cuts between a suicide 15 years in the past and a powerful man with blood on his hands creates this beautiful, painful tension. In that moment, for all the things we might hate Woo-jin for doing to Dae-su, we end up sympathetic for the grief that his sister’s loss still brings him.

The Alone in the Bedroom scene is an unguarded moment. It’s a chance for the writer to let us peek into the character’s head (or soul) outside the main course of action. Not every story needs such a scene, but it’s still crucial to give your audience a reason to appreciate the source of a character’s pain. Hamlet is still mourning his late father and bemoaning the rotten state of things in Denmark since his uncle took the throne. Frodo Baggins is a hobbit overwhelmed with the monumental weight of carrying the One Ring into the land of Mordor. Daenerys Targaryen is a descendent of royalty fighting for idealistic causes in a cruel, savage world, wrestling with the idea that she’s entitled to a crown and throne in a land she’s never seen.

I say all this not to preach, but offer ideas to other writers. Get creative. Dig into your character’s woes, and don’t be afraid to show them to us. Sometimes you get some of your best material in those small, quiet scenes.

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