Kill ‘Em With Empathy: How Great Protagonists Help Create Effective Scares

When we talk about the great scares in horror projects, the dialogue often focuses on the immediate mortal threat: The serial killers, redneck zombie torture families, murderous onryo, Xenomorphs, or animated demon dolls causing chaos on-screen or on the page. Now, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I often judge projects by how well their monsters are presented and/or revealed; but in the last few years I’ve realized my emotional reaction to the monster directly correlates to the way I feel about the project’s protagonist. As in, the more I relate to and empathize with him/her, the worse the scare will be, regardless of whether or not I feel like the monster itself is particularly fresh or well-drawn.

My favorite example comes from developer Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic, survival horror video game, THE LAST OF US. (Bear with me now, because I’m going to make you watch two clips to illustrate my point.) The opening scene is nothing more than a humorous, gentle exchange between father and daughter, a chance to build rapport between the characters and the player. It’s a breathtakingly effective, effortless-looking scene:

In two short minutes, Naughty Dog’s hooked their audience — we’re already rooting for Joel and Sarah, at least unconsciously, because they are so easy to commiserate with. Most people can relate to work and/or financial troubles, the excitement of surprising a loved one or friend with a gift, the easygoing banter of two people who know each other well; and for the lucky ones, a relationship with a parent who truly loves them. While the vast majority of survival horror games lead with the terror, THE LAST OF US risks taking a human tack in the beginning to score a big payoff in the long run.

And boy, do they ever score.

Which brings us to clip number two, which I’d suggest those of you who are faint of heart and/or sensitive to violence skip. The second video takes place a few hours after the first, just as a national pandemic hits its tipping point and the number of infected people spirals out of control.

Be prepared, brave viewers. Your heart’s about to get ripped out of your chest.

When I first saw this, I was moved to tears by a video game. Not even Aerith’s death in Square Enix’s 1997 blockbuster Final Fantasy 7 undid me like this, leaving me a sobbing, tissue-snorting mess through the opening credits. Yeah, I’m flying my geek flag high and proud today. Shut up.

When I got myself under control, I was completely, wholly, and 100% dedicated to keeping Joel alive through whatever Naughty Dog saw fit to throw at us. Joel wasn’t just a bunch of pixels on my screen anymore, he was my friend, my ally, my brother-in-arms. So when the terror came in the form of a zombie-like creature called a Clicker, I wasn’t just scared.

I was terrified.


Behold the Clicker: A blind, fungi-fied zombie. Now, when I saw the concept art before I played the game, I thought: Whoop-de-doo, I’ve seen a hundred zombie variations in my lifetime, and just because this one is infected with the Cordyceps fungus doesn’t mean I’m scared. Just because they make a clicking noise reminiscent of Kayako in The Grudge doesn’t scare me, either. Been there, killed that via my X button of deadly-deadly-doom.

But the minute I was in the thick of it with Joel, sneaking around these unholy terrors in the middle of a skyscraper imitating the Leaning Tower of Pisa while trying to keep someone else’s little girl alive, I realized I was more scared than I’d ever been while playing a video game.

I was terrified I wouldn’t be enough of a gamer to keep these people alive.

Let me repeat that with emphasis: I was terrified I wouldn’t be enough of a gamer to keep these people alive.

And that’s when I realized what a protagonist coup Naughty Dog managed to pull off with Joel — they made their audience care so much about him, he became real, at least in some sense of the word. Every wound, careless mistake, or impossible decision resonated with us, affected us, and stuck with us. I began to wonder how they managed to pull such sorcery off in just two short clips, and realized there are takeaways from those opening scenes of the game that every writer can use to increase his/her audience’s ability to empathize with the character on the page.

1. First things first: Keep it real. Joel’s not a perfect father — he’s about to lose a job he desperately needs, his daughter’s a latchkey kid, and he’s barely got the energy to spend any quality time with her at the end of the day. Every person on this planet has something they wish they could be better at, something they know they should be better at; so keeping a character’s foibles and weaknesses real and deeper than just surface traits is essential. We see our own issues and problems reflected in these characters, and that makes us want to see them succeed all the more. If the character can succeed despite their failings, so can we.

2. The devil’s in the details . . . er, character beats. THE LAST OF US succeeds on so many fronts when it comes to acting — I could write a blog post on Tess’s death scene alone — but do you see the timing of Joel’s gaze flicking from Sarah to the television set right as she says, “You wish?” How he keeps her waiting on his response to her gift? Or even how he leans his head against hers as he carries her up the stairs? All of these tiny details tell us volumes about how their relationship functions and how deeply they care about one another. In fiction, these little character beats sprinkled among dialogue can tell us more about a character than description or exposition ever could. These moments are more than mere shrugs, grins, and glances; they make up the fabric of a real, breathing, three-dimensional character.

3. Make your characters bleed. If fiction is your laboratory, you should be testing the tensile strength of all your characters’ best (and worst!) traits. Be fearless. As you can see, THE LAST OF US wins when it comes to placing protagonists in high-risk situations . . . and the effect is nothing short of captivating. I dare you to try to look away as Joel sobs over Sarah. Go on. Try, you heartless thing you.

Unfortunately for Joel, losing his daughter’s only the beginning of the virtual hell Naughty Dog puts him through.

4. Realistic motivations. In my mind, motivations serve not only to drive a character forward, but to keep a reader embroiled in the plot. We as the audience have to be fully invested in whatever the protagonist is fighting for — be it to keep a scrappy, 14 year-old-girl alive on a cross-country trek across a post-apocalyptic wasteland, or simply to cross a room for a glass of water (as Vonnegut famously said). In Joel’s case, the two opening scenes become the foundation for many of his actions throughout the game; though his exterior wants and goals may change, his underlying motivation remains the same: To fill the void his daughter’s death left him with in any way he can.

To whip your drama into a frenzy, your protagonist’s motivations and desires should be in direct opposition to your antagonist’s . . . and we see this happen with staggering, heart-rending effect at the end of the game, which I won’t share with you because SPOILERS! (But trust me, it’s good.)

So there you have it! An argument for bolstering your horror scare factor by creating three-dimensional characters your audience empathizes with. Now go forth and write amazing and terrifying stuff!

Stay scary,


Categories: Games, Writing

1 reply


  1. Pics, Posts, and Lists– Last Week’s Link Roundup | John M. Cusick

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