Scientists finally proved it: puppies and kids get more empathy than adults…! (Cue “Thus Spake Zarathustra” and let Strauss’ bombast wash over you.)
But stay with me here. An important implication for narrative craft hides inside this patently obvious “discovery.”
Some science seems like simple, common sense. It is so obvious that we don’t even think of it as science. For instance, when that sledgehammer slips from your hand it will fall toward the earth and smash your big toe so flat that it’ll be nigh impossible to pry off your flip-flop. That’s the science of gravity. Or, if you step on a rake just right, the handle will spring up and smack you in the face, blinding you momentarily so that you’re sure to step on all the other rakes inexplicably strewn across the yard. That’s the science of leverage (plus the science of cartoons)… My point is this: obvious science is not bad science just because it is obvious. In many cases it may be the most important science you can use precisely because it is always there, and therefore in your power to capitalize on it.
So, how does the science of puppies and kids being cute help you as a narrative artist? Let’s start with what the research actually tells us:
“The fact that adult human crime victims receive less empathy than do child, puppy, and full grown dog victims suggests that adult dogs are regarded as dependent and vulnerable not unlike their younger canine counterparts and kids.” via ScienceDaily.com
If that sentence is a bit convoluted for you (as it is to me) you can read the short article at the link above, or take my word for it: what the study reveals is that, in the abstract, we have more empathy for children and dogs suffering abuse than we do for adult, human victims of abuse. The operative notion here is that our culture views children and dogs as generally “vulnerable and dependent.” Another way of saying the same thing would be: children and dogs do not have the informed agency to make good decisions concerning their safety. Therefore, dogs and children should never deserve abuse. Adults, the study suggests, are held to a higher standard; adults are more likely to be held accountable for the decisions they’ve made — even when we have no idea what those decisions were — that led them to being abused or beaten.
Setting aside the implications of “blame the victim” psychology for another day, for narrative artists the most basic ramification to this research is pretty straightforward: if you want your audience’s empathy and attention, place a child or dog at risk. Do that, and you’ll get people to empathize with little effort. You can see this practice in action during every hour of primetime television on every night of the week. Police procedurals tend to specialize in this technique, and it is very little different when Simon Cowell dresses down a naive high school folk singer.
However, we need not use this information so blatantly in order to capitalize on the underlying theory at work here; we need not grab the low hanging fruit and constantly spotlight crimes against the most vulnerable among us. Assuming you don’t want to write about dogs and children in distress, we can instead focus on the underlying implication of the science and translate one level up from the literal vulnerability exemplified by dogs and kids. In the research quoted above, scientists assert that in our cultural narrative — what we generally agree to be the truths of our society — adult humans are perceived as less vulnerable and therefore automatically garner less empathy. But this is true only in the abstract, when a scientist asks you — apropos of nothing, and with little context — if you’d feel worse for a dog that takes a beating or a fully grown adult who’s being beaten. Most people feel for the dog over the human. Yet, with sufficient context the reverse can be true: an adult can be found to be extremely vulnerable if his agency is abridged, and an abstract dog can morph into a specific monster seemingly teeming with agency. (For evidence supporting this argument, and for fun, see the Cujo trailer here.) Perceived vulnerability through loss or modification of agency is the pivotal tool at issue, more so than simply putting cuteness in the crosshairs and relying on the cultural narrative to earn your audience’s eyes. In many story situations, it is the duty of the plot to exemplify and specify the vulnerability of a character so that an audience begins to empathize. And a fundamental way to dramatize vulnerability in an adult character is to modify agency.
For an example of loss of agency as an effective tool to earn empathy and attention, look at Lear. King Lear does it to himself: he makes the decision to give away his agency — his power — over his kingdom. The Lear we see in the first part of the play is not a guy we can feel very much empathy toward. His pride is ugly to behold. However, once his agency is surrendered and he begins to realize that he has no power left to affect the outcome of the kingdom, or even his own fate, we start to empathize with him. A king like Lear is nothing like a puppy or a child. At rise he is a fully capable adult inhabiting one of the most powerful societal and political roles one can imagine. And still we empathize with him as the story unfolds because he is increasingly at the mercy of the world around him, unable to protect himself, and unable to make decisions that will extricate him from the hole he’s intentionally stepped into. (Yes, Shakespeare’s King Lear is more nuanced than the way I’ve just described it, and I am intentionally glossing it to make a point.)
Lear is an extreme example of loss of agency. A narrative need not focus on a single, giant reduction of agency such as Lear’s in order to earn an audience’s empathy. Ken Kesey’s novel Sometimes a Great Notion chronicles the story of Hank Stamper, the leader of a family logging clan in Oregon. Throughout that narrative we see Hank lose agency one little piece at a time because of his beliefs; he loses a friend here, and a contract there; his brother turns against him; the town turns against him; the union turns against him; his wife is alienated from him; his father is literally torn in half, and his best friend dies trying to help him as Hank continues to fight for the agency to do what he thinks is best. Each loss, by itself, removes a small piece of agency — removing possible escape routes from a dire fate — until Hank is alone with a final monumental task that threatens his life. And yet Hank takes on the final task anyway, unwilling to yield his agency, even when it comes down to a final decision between literally dying while trying, or living under the yoke of another’s decision making.
Aside from those two striking examples, often agency is not the central idea of the story, and possibly not even key to the story. But as a plot tool, modifying a character’s agency by narrowing the field of his or her choices can earn the audience’s empathy at any given point in a narrative. Reducing a character’s agency can even make us empathize when a character is not otherwise very appealing, as more than one recent cable TV series has shown. Your story doesn’t have to focus on a child darting out in front of a speeding truck in order to make the science of cute dogs and kids work for you. Instead, simply put the focus on the truck driver and take away her agency to do anything other than hit the kid or hurtle off a cliff to her death. Now you have an adult character we can empathize with no matter which dark choice she makes.