How To Create Empathy With Your Characters

Orange Is The New Black is a show that I didn’t love at first. In fact, I thought it was kinda boring and I honestly didn’t think that the producers couldn’t explore so many characters. However, a few episodes later, I was totally connected with Piper and the other inmates.

So today I’m gonna explore the creation of characters that people care about. Let’s talk about flashbacks and character development, two powerful ingredients that can make your story a lot better.

If you watched Orange Is The New Black, you might be used to the plot and the format of the episodes, but if you have never watched it, the show is about the day-to-day life of some inmates, like Piper Chapman, a woman who’s sentenced to serve fifteen years in prison for a crime she committed in the past. Each episode usually explores the past of one of the inmates through flashbacks that blend into the present.

But how can you use flashbacks?

If you’re wondering, flashbacks are by definition “an interruption in the chronological sequence of a story to tell a past event.”

A very common mistake among writers is to fill the story of flashbacks early in order to explain the behavior of the characters. But the point is you need to first develop a conflict before inserting flashbacks. After all, if people don’t even care about the character’s future, why would they care about the past?

In Orange Is The New Black, we first know that Piper is going to prison and we are curious to know about her future. And it’s only after that we start having flashbacks.

So once again, create a conflict that makes people care about the future of the story before talking about the past.

An interesting thing is that you don’t need to make your story linear to talk about the past. You can also mix present and past in a narrative, as in the movie Annie Hall, 500 days of summer and Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind.

In Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, Joel accepts a process that promises to erase the memories of his ex-girlfriend, Clementine. But he regrets in the middle of the process and begins to struggle to keep the woman’s memories. And it’s as he travels through his own mind that we learn more about his relationship with Clementine and what made them break up. It’s certainly a very creative way to use flashbacks.

And another tip I can give you to write a flashback is: always use a flashback that will move the story forward and reveal more about the characters. Never put unnecessary flashbacks. They all need a proposal on the scene.

In Orange Is The New Black, flashbacks are inserted to show how the prisoners went to prison and also explain their character, often making clear their arc.

Another example is in The Godfather II. In the movie, we see flashbacks from Vito Corleone’s past that create a parallel with his son and show that Michael is following in his father’s footsteps.

Remember: Flashbacks should always serve to better characterize your characters and move the story forward.

The interesting thing about Orange Is The New Black is that the characters’ past almost always talks of their inner problems. Crazy Eyes, for example, deals with the differences in her social environment. Taystee is a child no one wants to adopt. And Morello is a woman who gets devastated when she realizes that the man she loves actually loves another. Okay, maybe she goes a little further than being devastated, but it doesn’t matter now. The point is that here comes our next subject: character development

When we read or watch something, we wanna see real people dealing with real problems. No one wants to see happy people enjoying their beautiful family lunch without any kind of conflict. We like to see people struggling with problems cuz we identify with them.

In Orange Is The New Black, Soso is not just the crazy oriental who never stops speaking. She also suffers from failing to make friends in prison and staying by her own.

And even though Piper becomes a stronger woman through the seasons and get used to her reality, she still has to deal with her own selfishness.

Daya is perhaps the most focused woman in her group, but she also has to deal with the hard situation of being pregnant with a police officer.

See that all these characters have their problems to deal with. But they also have their qualities and flaws, their fears and the need to keep moving forward.

Good characters need a background story, qualities, flaws and a problem that they need to solve at the same time that their qualities distract them from these achievements.

To illustrate this better, think about Game of Thrones. We have Tyrion who dreams of being loved and acknowledged for his intelligence, but at the same time he must deal with all the discrimination of people because he’s a dwarf. Daenerys wants to take the Iron Throne, but she’s a girl who needs to deal not only with people who betray her but also with all the problems that the early age and lack of experience bring her. Arya and Brienne wanna prove their worth, but they have to deal with gender discrimination.

The fact that these characters fight even with all the disadvantages makes us see ourselves in them. That’s why we like stories like Game of Thrones and Orange Is The New Black. We like stories that inspire us, talk about problems and also talk about love. Because even though life might be hard and horrible most of the time, there are also some good times and people worth living for. Convey this to your story and you will create a much bigger tie with people.



  1. That is probably so.
    It has been such a difficult time for me as you could probably read in all recent posts, that I feel myself on a different level of reality at the moment.
    However, it’s good to take off mind from the very harsh hit, so, I would agree that the choice f color matters. I speak a lot about that on my art blog, I have 2 blogs and websites.
    Thanks for stopping by!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Erwin, many good tips to consider, specially flashbacks. I mention this because of a story from, True Detective, an annual 10 part series on I think HBO. This season series focused on a policeman’s present, past and mid-point of his life. The story was made much more interesting this way and kept us viewers on our toes, like, where is he now ? And what is his present perspective working on the same unsolved case he has been working on throughout the series. Extremely well done.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Some excellent points to keep in mind! I’ve found that sprinkling flashbacks throughout the story, but keeping them tightly connected to the main character & giving more insights into their hopes & dreams, really helps explain their characters more than just ‘he was … at a younger age, he’s changed now’ 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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