What’s Better in a Main Character: Empathy or Sociopathy?


(Originally published online with Nonbinary Review/Zoetic Press “Rhizomatic Ideas”)

by David M. Hoenig


Life, the passage of day and night, even stars and galaxies, all move in cycles.  So, too, apparently, does the nature of main characters in film and literature.  

As a writer, I generally subscribe to Ernest Hemingway’s admonishment: “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.”  And while, by convention, we refer to our protagonists as ‘main characters’, Hemingway’s point is something to strive for.  Like most of us, I tend to conceptualize the people in my stories by way of their psychology, and especially design them around flaws and strengths.  If there’s any rule about character creation, it would be to make them compelling.  Not necessarily likable, lovable, or even someone we can identify with, but to make them someone we want to read about, or watch in action.

I was struck the other night, watching the third Hunger Games movie, Mockingjay (part 1) on video, by how much Jennifer Lawrence brought to the role of Katniss Everdeen in each movie of the franchise.  I found myself tearing up when (spoiler alert) she fell to her knees after the bombing of the hospital in District 8, weeping over the murder of wounded in a spiteful attack by the Capital.  I asked myself why that was.  When I did so, it reminded me of similar moments in earlier films, like when she volunteered for her sister at the Reaping in the first movie, and then the reason crystallized for me as if by magic.

Katniss Everdeen is an incredibly empathetic individual, and Ms. Lawrence portrays that with such amazing skill that she brings me right along with her.  The character is so compelling for me precisely because she feels personal distress when things happen to others whom she cares about.

When I considered all this objectively, outside of the ‘feels’ in which the author, Suzanne Collins, and Ms. Lawrence kicked me, I thought of other characters whose empathy made me feel like I’d been a part of the story.  Tris Prior of the Divergent series is similar–she would rather risk her own life than see others abused.  The title character of the original Star Trek episode “The Empath” literally was being tested to see if her instinct to heal others through experiencing their pain was more powerful than her own self-preservation.  Similarly, the title character of the movie “Powder” was incredibly empathetic to others, even as he was being treated cruelly, and that, too, made me feel.

On the other hand, there has been a trend in books and movies which explore action and violence to have ‘heroic’ main characters who seem completely unaffected by the killing of multiple ‘bad guys’, except insofar as they provide a lead-up to some snarky one-liner.  While these characters are far less compelling for me, there is no doubt that audiences and readers become huge fans of them.  Witness a sixth movie planned in the “Die Hard” series following a ‘yippee ki yay, MF’ taunt by John McClain way back in the first movie, and nary a concern by him over the deaths of so many ‘bad guys’ in gruesome ways over the past five films  No post-traumatic stress involved for Officer McClain, just ‘get the job done and don’t worry about it’ because ‘they deserved what they got’.  

Villains or anti-heroes are certainly more effective if they’re not slaves to a conscience, but the tendency for heroes to be flippant about the costly damage they cause in the course of their ‘jobs’ seems concerning to me if readers and audiences are actually identifying with such characters rather than just enjoying the ride along with them.  And yet, there is no denying the mass appeal for action heroes who never appear ‘weak’ in the face of adversity.

For writers, both sociopathic and empathetic characters offer unique traits to draw in readers and tell our stories.  I have found one of the best guidelines to pay attention to when considering choices for personalities in my own writing was given by Ray Bradbury: “Create a character with an obsession, then follow.”