How to Create Character Empathy
Updated: Feb 3, 2022
This is Part 1 of Creativity Matters’ 4-part blog series on Disney’s Encanto. We’ll be exploring the lessons it offers to writers on craft, the writing process, our identity as writers, and more.
If I could shake the crushing weight of expectations
Would that free some room up for joy
Or relaxation, or simple pleasure?
Instead we measure this growing pressure
Keeps growing, keep going…”
— “Surface Pressure”
Whether you’ve streamed it on Disney+ or seen it in theatres, Disney’s Encanto has been a huge hit this winter. I’ve watched it four times this month, which, as much as I love Disney, is somewhat of an anomaly for me.
I think it’s the depth of the story and expert use of character development that has drawn so many people to it, which is why the movie is such a rich tool for understanding how good storytelling works.
I’ll try my best to avoid spoilers in this blog series, although hopefully if you haven’t seen Encanto, you’ll do your homework and watch it for yourself so you can follow along with this month’s posts.
However, if you haven’t seen it yet, the story goes something like this.
Mirabel is the youngest daughter of the extraordinary Madrigal family, which dwells in a magical house. Their “miracle” has given each member of the family a unique gift, which they are to use not just for the family, but for the betterment of the whole community—except for Mirabel, who never received one.
As a result, her family frequently demeans and looks down on her, especially her demanding Abuela, who believes each member has a responsibility in keeping the magic alive and that there is no room for weakness.
When cracks begin to appear in the house’s foundation and walls, though, Mirabel takes it upon herself to discover what is really happening and protect their miracle. However, she quickly discovers that the cause runs deeper than she thought, causing her to reach a greater understanding of how the family has been impacted and the vital role she plays in restoring their home.
More than any Disney film that’s been produced in quite some time, dynamic women are at the heart of Encanto’s story. Mirabel’s feistiness and insecurity go hand in hand as she tries to both save her family from encroaching destruction and discover her own identity.
There’s also her beautiful sister Isabela, who hides vulnerability and fear beneath a façade of grace and perfection; their compassionate mother, Julieta; and of course, Abuela’s sternness and high expectations.
In this diverse cast of female characters, though, the breakout fan favorite has been Mirabel’s other older sister, Luisa. Gifted with superhuman strength, Luisa is muscular and physically imposing—hardly fitting the model of small, thin Disney heroines of decades past.
In fact, Disney animators reportedly had to “fight for” giving Luisa a buff body type, making her a particularly groundbreaking character.
Despite this resistance, the movie has spawned an army of Luisa superfans. TikTok is replete with videos of little girls mimicking her dance moves and singing along to the character’s song, “Surface Pressure,” and one woman, who bears a shocking resemblance to Luisa, has even said the character helped her embrace her appearance after years of being told she was “too masculine to be feminine.”
However, to reduce Luisa to her physical strength and muscular body is to drastically oversimplify why her character resonates with film viewers.
The real reason for her impact is that the movie’s creators have done an exceptional job of building a character that audiences can empathize with.
This is a necessary, yet difficult skill for fiction writers to master. How do you make your character’s story not only interesting enough for readers to stick with for an entire book or movie, but also compelling enough for them to relate to her circumstances?
Luisa’s role in Encanto offers writers three key lessons on how to create character empathy in stories.
Make Your Character Vulnerable
I don’t know what other people’s experiences of Encanto were, but the first time I watched it, Luisa came across as gruff and distant. When Mirabel approaches her to find out if she knows anything about what’s causing the cracks in the house, Luisa appears uninterested and even annoyed.
The villagers are crowding around her with buildings and animals for her to move, and she seems way more focused on the work in front of her than the fact that her family may literally be collapsing.
But gradually, Mirabel’s interrogation makes her see that she can’t hide her real feelings from her sister anymore, prompting her to, of course, sing a song about it.
Compared to the strong, intense personality we’ve seen so far, “Surface Pressure” comes across as a shock to viewers as we watch Luisa confess her intense insecurity and frustration. Her struggles are unleashed in a way that instantly evokes our sympathy even as it educates us about her background.
We learn that she’s been taken advantage of, not just by people who know about her gift, but by her family. Assuming that she’s strong enough to carry their burdens, they’ve made her an emotional dumping ground, leaving her constantly on high alert and terrified that she will fail them.
“Surface Pressure” is sung against the backdrop of an action-packed sequence that carries the sisters from a Roman coliseum to the deck of a sinking ship to a cliff where Luisa is holding on for dear life, concluding with a totally sick finale that features her busting a move with donkey backup dancers. With so much going on, though, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s actually happening in the song: an emotionally abused woman is confessing her bottled-up emotions to her sister.
Without Mirabel’s insistence, there would be no way for us to know her situation. Instead, Luisa’s song to her sister completely changes our perceptions of her and takes us…well, “under the surface.”
One way to create an empathetic character is to give her someone to talk to. In doing so, your character becomes emotionally vulnerable in two directions: with the character in the story she’s sharing her feelings with and the audience, who now has a new level of understanding about her world.
Give Them a Relatable Internal Struggle
One of the reasons “Surface Pressure” has become one of Encanto’s most memorable songs is that the emotions it portrays are authentic and relatable.
In any story, a character’s internal struggle is often easier for audiences to identify with than their external situation. Luisa is a case in point: none of us are superhuman and come from a family that has magical powers.
But pretty much all of us have been in situations—especially family ones—where more was expected of us than we were able to deliver.
I’ve had two intense conversations about Encanto with friends and both dead-ended into the same place: how “Surface Pressure” spoke to their experiences as the oldest children in their families. Read the comments on YouTube and TikTok videos about the song and you’ll see the same thing.
Being the oldest child isn’t even a requirement. Only children identify with Luisa as well, as do chronic perfectionists. People with drastically different life experiences all hear the same song sung by the same character and feel a sense of emotional identification.
It’s one of the most powerful abilities writers have: creating a character with an internal emotional landscape that makes audiences say this person gets me.
Think about what aspects of your character’s internal conflict would make audiences identify with them and consider ways to more deeply explore those emotions in your story.
Tap into Your Own Experiences and Struggles
The above piece of advice can be difficult to execute because in order to understand your character’s emotional landscape, you need to understand your own; in particular, what makes you want to write about them to begin with.
For Encanto songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda, a large part of Luisa’s conflict came out of his relationship with his own older sister. Miranda has said that “Surface Pressure” is his “love letter and apology” for watching her navigate family burdens that were too great, and that he gave Luisa her frustration and emotional scars.
Along with Miranda’s obvious creativity and musical gifts, this real-life connection is what lends “Surface Pressure” so much emotional authenticity.
Your character comes from a part of you that intrigues you and draws you to explore it deeper, and part of helping readers empathize with them involves digging in to see what emotional connections you can make.
Want to learn more about character development? Check out my free Ultimate Writing Project Workbook.
It contains tons of worksheets, templates, prompts, and other tools to develop your plot, understand your audience, and creative more believable characters.
Click here to check it out.