Call me an idealist, but I happen to believe there is goodness in every human being. It’s just that for some, we have to dig a little deeper to find it. It’s not an easy job, but we are the caretakers of our clients’ stories. When we tell those stories, we must do so in a way that reveals their humanity, creates emotional connections and leads to true understanding.
The fact that we are learning time-tested techniques from story professionals does not make the stories we tell in our cases any less authentic. Indeed, empathy-based storytelling is about digging deep to tell the whole truth about our client, their character, and their motivations. When we allow the decision makers to see, and more importantly, to feel that truth — we win.
Last week, I talked about how some great documentary filmmakers were able to build the bridge of empathy between their audience and a bunch of cute furry Penguins. (What Penguins Can Teach Lawyers About “Minding the Gap”). This week, let’s take a look at how some masterful story creatives give us permission to root for a cannibalistic serial killer by the name of Dr. Hannibal Lecter…
A client may do bad things, but if the lawyer builds the bridge of empathy by highlighting connective character traits, the audience will instinctively bond with the client and want good things for him. See Karl Iglesias, Writing For Emotional Impact 61-76 (WingSpan Press 2005)(Setting forth techniques for “instant character appeal and empathy”).
Consider some of the great “bad guys” in film and television– characters with whom audiences consistently connect with and cheer for, notwithstanding their evil deeds. Today’s prevalent pop culture heroes are actually “antiheroes” such as Walter White (meth king), Frank Underwood (ruthless politician), Don Draper (identity thief, serial philanderer), Jax Teller (murderous motorcycle gang leader), Dexter (serial killer)– and the list goes on.
Dr. Hannibal Lecter from the classic book/movie The Silence of the Lambs, may be the best example of character connection at work.
It is hard to imagine a more disturbing, unlikable character. Lecter doesn’t just kill his victims, he eats them! Yet, the audience is drawn to him. In fact, many who see this movie are actually quite satisfied at the end when (spoiler alert) Lecter escapes and announces his intention to devour Dr. Chilton, the sadistic psychiatrist who tortured him for years in the dungeon of the prison insane asylum.
Why is it that audiences rally behind this crazed killer? Because the screenwriter and author of the source material (Ted Tally & Thomas Harris) masterfully infused this complicated character with traits that reveal his humanity. These are traits that compel the audience to identify with, admire, and even bond with Lecter.
Do you remember? Lecter was brilliant. Don’t we all admire that level of intelligence? He was a connoisseur and creator of art. Lecter showed his capacity to care for other human beings, as demonstrated by his relationship with the protagonist, Clarice Starling. He had a moral code, and by and large his victims somehow “deserved” their fate. He was oppressed by the government– tormented by Chilton and double-crossed by the federal government who, for no just reason, reneged on its promise to move him to a cell with a better view in exchange for his help. The injustices inflicted upon him by those who abuse their power emotionally overshadow his own crimes.
Silence employs another effective empathy-building technique that we lawyers use to mitigate our own clients’ actions. Don’t we often juxtapose the (mis)deeds of our clients with similarly situated, but far worse actors? No matter how horrible Lecter’s crimes were, they paled in comparison to those of the monster “Buffalo Bill”, who saw his victims only as objects (“It puts the lotion in the basket, it does this whenever it’s told.”). Next to the “animal” Bill, the “civilized” Lecter looks like a boy scout… albeit a hungry one.
These are the kinds of qualities people see in themselves, perhaps even subconsciously, either in truth or in desire. All of these character connections combine to cause audiences not just to tolerate Lecter, but to root for him. The beauty of it is that this is all working deep below the surface to build empathetic bonds. That’s how good story and good character development works. It’s all about CONNECTION!
Allow me to finish by stating the obvious: Our clients are human beings, not monsters. Unfortunately, this reality sometimes gets lost in the grinding cogs of legal machinery. But if these techniques can convince an audience to cheer for a cannibalistic killer, surely they can be put to honest work in the same way for our clients. So, dig deep. Find the real story– and tell it well.