TV shows. Movies. Books. What is it about them that draws us in so magnetically? What is it about these stories that is so compelling? I would argue that it is the characters that most intrigue us. There are few mediums able to convey as much depth, complexity and understanding of a character as TV, movies and books.
Perhaps the most captivating characters are those who are most deeply flawed, those who make big mistakes, and those who are faced with some of the most unfathomable decisions we could imagine someone ever having to make. For how can we not be compelled by moments and choices filled with so much intensity, and feel for the characters who are forced to navigate these tough waters. And for the most part, we sympathize with these deeply flawed characters.
Mad Men’s Don Draper might be a serial adulterer who drinks too much, but the window we get into his heart and mind, and our understanding of the anguish that drives him to make the mistakes he does, endears us to him. Tony Soprano is a mobster who has committed unspeakable crimes, but our intimate look into his life over six seasons makes us connect with his humanity and makes us want to understand why he has done the things that he has and try to forgive his actions. And in Game of Thrones, one of the heroines of the story ultimately becomes the villainess … but do we not still love her, because we understand her, because we know the depths of who she is?
But imagine that these characters existed in real life. Would we afford them the same sympathies? When we hear someone has cheated on their partner, is our first reaction not to label them a “cheater” and cast judgment? How often does our instinct lead us empathize with them? When someone commits an awful crime, would we ever think to try and understand what drove them to such madness?
Of course, it is natural that we should feel sad and angry when people hurt others, when people act in direct opposition to our morals and values. But isn’t it strange, on some level, that we show more empathy and compassion to fictional characters than we do to real living humans in this world?
Of course, the reason we do so, is because we know the characters so well in tv shows, movies and books. We have been given their life context, we have seen them at their lowest lows and are naturally, humanly affected by the depths of despair they have experienced. So even though they have done things we don’t support, they nonetheless invoke in us powerful emotions.
So what am I saying? Am I saying that I support adultery? Am I supportive of murder? No, I am not. But perhaps I can learn something from all the TV, movies and books I consume. Perhaps I can be a bit kinder, be more apt to give the benefit of the doubt to people who make mistakes, and not be so quick to categorically label someone as a “cheater” or as a “criminal” when I hear the most superficial details of a story regarding someone I barely know. Maybe the point of a compelling television character is to make us more understanding of people who make the same mistakes, because we know there is a rich, deep story to their lives that we cannot begin to understand. It is impossible to read the novel that is someone’s life and to understand what led them to who they have become. But maybe, I can try.