Agape (Ancient Greek ἀγάπη, agapē) — a Greco-Christian term referring to unconditional love
Agape is probably one of the most unlikely forms of love explored in any other character beyond the occasional extreme hero in the hero's journey because it's also one of the hardest forms of love to portray in a way that's relatable to readers. But why does the latter part matter?
"Why things matter" is the question we're unpacking this week. Why things matter to characters, and therefore why they matter to readers. Why even the worst offenses can be forgiven by a moral reader by giving context of the character's ongoing conflict. Redemption arcs, corruption arcs, hero's journey arcs, and everything in between:
The answer, in its simplest form, is love.
There are a million other things we can probably dig into in the creation of characters as well, but for the sake of this blog post, we'll be focusing on love as the main theme that connects characters to their conflict and the conflict to the reader. Let's get into it:
We have a narrative, which consists typically of three main components: character, plot, and setting.
In the character(s) we're presented with, we have conflict. That conflict is what will drive the plot forward, and the plot will take us on a journey through the setting with a combination of our thoughts as well as the character's being the lens through which we view the setting.
And so we have the first step in making the narrative impactful to our reader:
We have to make them care.
The reader will probably only care if the character cares about something first. Let's use Zuko as an example: he cares about his honor, and that's the gist of what we need to know first. A character caring about something is a promise to the reader that they will do something during the narrative about it. If it's something they're currently denied (Zuko's honor), their caring is a promise that they will reclaim or restore it. If it's in danger, they will protect it. It sets the reader up to know that this character will do almost anything to have the thing they care about.
This can also lead to more plot points when branching out to logical paths. As an example, let's take Snape, now, instead: Snape loved Lily with all his heart. Now that she's been killed by Voldemort, he'll project his feelings of love onto her son, Harry, setting him up as willing to protect Harry at all costs—almost.
Here is where the conflict comes in. Snape also loves to loathe Harry's father, James. He will project that love (of hating) onto Harry, James' son by punishing him as much as he can while also not bringing Harry into any danger because of his love for Lily. Yet when the final conflict arrives, disrupting the solution he used to have, he will have to choose between his two loves — the projected love and projected hate.
That conflict draws us in. We may just begin to care.
Now we come to the next step in building an impactful narrative:
Redeeming the character in the eyes of the reader
By now, we've (hopefully) hooked the reader enough to make them care about the character and their conflict. Still, this doesn't mean the reader sympathizes with the character. Here's how love does that:
Love is context. To understand the character's love is to understand why they do what they do and to understand the character themself.
Everyone understands love. Everyone's experienced it before, somehow, even if they haven't experienced all forms of it. Readers understand wanting things and being willing to do almost anything to get them. They understand having to weigh between two things they might want, or going out of their way to show their love for something or someone.
Even if they don't understand the specifics of actions carried out by the characters, they understand the motivation behind them. Those that don't understand loss yet could still imagine it because they understand what it is to love. And brings sympathy from the reader to the character. That is simply human.
Love equalizes us all.
Finally: empathy and love from the reader.
This one is hard, and mostly up to the reader. There is no master formula. Writers can create the most understandable and redeemable characters while still never succeeding in a reader's heart. Ultimately, complete empathy and love for the character lie in the reader's heart. And what works for a reader at one age may change as they grow.
Having said that, here's my take on creating empathy for the character. The closer your character's love is to your readers', the easier it'll be to create empathy. Because empathy is about shared experiences: understanding the person, not simply about the person. Empathy happens when we see ourselves in someone else.
Teenagers (or anyone, really) are less likely to relate to Snape than they are to Zuko, simply from their ability to empathize fully with the character.
As far as I know, there's not much you can do about this level impact to your readers; the bulk of it lies at their heart alone. These are the characters that change readers, or at the very least, stick with them for a long, long while.
Love plays a huge part in the impact of a narrative. This applies even — and especially — in grim stories. Through it, we bridge the gap of wildly different lives and personalities between the reader and the character to make them care and follow them along their journey through the story.
How do you use love in your story?
Janelle Yapp is a writer and self-dubbed professional daydreamer. Her work has appeared in Unpublished Magazine and Paper Crane Journal, among others. She is also a staff writer at Outlander Magazine.