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Building Empathy

I’ve written about various facets of character development in the past, mostly in broad-stroke terms, such as quirky characters who dress like Buster Keaton. Such extreme character traits Brenda Leigh Johnsoncomplement some stories. Other stories require a subtler approach. Developing empathy for a character comes from seeing their idiosyncrasies and flaws, which allows us to identify with them.

Let’s face it. No one can relate to a perfect person, because we all have shortcomings of some kind. Which is why a character’s weaknesses inspire empathy, and in turn cause us to fall in love with them. A tough, no-nonsense investigator who stress eats Ding Dongs (and other sweets) becomes instantly more likable.

Creating empathy is a lot like building trust, it happens over time as we get to know the real person from the inside out.

What “The Closer” Taught Me About Character

Research for writing fiction can cover a broad gamut, including watching television. And you wonder why I love this job?

I write for young readers, and initially started watching The Closera Warner Bros. Televsion adult crime dramato analyze the mystery plot structure and well planned plot twists. The series had garnered more than a few Emmy nominations, and at least one win. I figured I could learn something from the writing. I was right in more ways than anticipated. The Closer showed me the power of everyday character idiosyncrasies as a method for building empathy.

For anyone who hasn’t seen The Closer, here’s the synopsis: The Closer is a police procedural series, starring Kyra Sedgwick as Brenda Leigh Johnson, a Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief. Brenda moved to Los Angeles from Georgia where she trained in the CIA, and gained a reputation as a Closer — a tough interrogator who solves cases and obtains confessions leading to convictions that “close” the case. Deputy Chief Johnson uses her femininity to disarm and distract, and at times resorts to deceit and intimidation to persuade suspects into confessing.

The Closer -- Cast

Brenda Johnson is an expert in her field, relentless and often intimidating. As perfect as she is when it comes to succeeding at her job, her foibles make her relatable and endearing. Here are a few of her characteristics that won me over and made me root for her:

  • She dresses feminine and understated like the Southern girl she is, rather than embodying the high-power-business-suit-chic of the other women at her job level.
  • She stress eats sweets, especially Ding Dongs, which she keeps stockpiled in her desk drawer.
  • As powerful as she is at work, she is unable to stand up to her father whenever he comes to visit.
  • She has episodes of disorganized absent-mindedness where she can’t find her phone and loses her purse. Hey, we’ve all been there.
  • Her single-minded focus that makes her so good at her job causes friction in her personal relationshipssuch as her FBI boyfriend (Jon Tenny) who she eventually marries.
  • She has trouble dealing with simple things in everyday life, like remembering the sex of the stray cat that comes with the house she buys. Brenda calls “Kitty” a “he” even after “she” has kittens. This drives Fritz, her then boyfriend, crazy.
  • She is relentless in her pursuit of a criminal, creating loopholes in the system to pursue justice, even when the victims were less than noble when alive.
  • She uses her Southern charm to get what she wants, always ending an unpleasant request with a sweet “Thank you so much” before anyone can object.
  • She stands behind the people on her team, protecting their jobs during budget cuts, and refusing to believe any one of them could be the cause of the information leak in her department.

Every member of the ensemble cast received their share of idiosyncrasies that endeared them to me as well. And the final season closed with all the necessary ingredients for a satisfying ending.

Brenda and Fritz - Final Season of The Closer