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An uptight sister, a hot priest, and a morally bankrupt heroine: a study in empathy

It’s been a solid year or so since I’ve been able to binge-watch TV. It used to be a staple in my life (I actually have a cherished t-shirt that reads “Let’s Binge-Watch Something”), but as my now seventeen-month-old son got older (and more active, God help me!), not only did I have less time to watch TV; I now have a much shorter attention span. So when I recently found myself unexpectedly staring down a single evening where my husband and I both had several consecutive hours free of work or chores, I sent out an SOS on Facebook: What show do I watch tonight after the baby goes to bed????

An overwhelming amount of people suggested Fleabag—and I won’t lie, the fact that the episodes are short was enormously appealing to me.

Thus, my writer husband and I sat down and watched an episode. When it ended, we glanced at the baby monitor. Sound asleep. I raised the remote. My husband nodded. I pressed play. We watched another. And another. In one night, we watched the entire first season. And the next night, after a full-court press to finish our work early, we sat down and greedily pressed play on episode one of season two. This time, it took a couple nights to finish the season. But the second season was even better than the first and my husband and I engaged in some seriously nerdy shoptalk immediately after finishing the last (gut-wrenching) episode.

“Why,” I asked him, “am I able to feel so much for a character I have nothing in common with?”

He thought for a minute and then said, “Yeah, but it’s not about having something in common with her. It’s about identifying with her conflict.”

Which kind of blew me away. Because yeah, actually. He was right. Okay, maybe I can’t identify with the exact conflict of having an absentee father and a jealous, attention-seeking stepmother. Or competing with an obnoxiously career-successful sister with a lecherous husband. Or falling in love with a hot priest (though Andrew Scott certainly had me questioning myself for a minute there).

But I have felt like a black sheep in my family. I’ve compared myself, and in my estimation come up short, against others’ accomplishments. And I’ve made self-destructive decisions despite knowing better.

So when Fleabag finds herself amidst constant conflict of the watching-through-your fingers variety, it strikes a nerve. In storytelling, conflict is the great equalizer. If you’re writing a character you’re worried is coming off as unlikeable or difficult to identify with, remember to consider your character’s conflict in order to draw your reader’s empathy. It doesn’t have to be universally identifiable in terms of specific circumstances, but variations on a general theme (going back to Fleabag: unrequited love, the black sheep factor, fear of rejection/intimacy) will help your reader to identify with and empathize for your character, whether protagonist, antagonist, or any character in between.

Kate is a full-time freelance editor and writer who likes to dissect books and television shows for fun. Kate is available for editing or author coaching, and would love to hear your awesome TV recs. Find out more about Kate here.

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