Hi everyone!! Today, I have a very special post… I am absolutely THRILLED to have Angela Ackerman on my blog! She’s here to talk about character empathy. So, without further ado, I’ll hand things over to her. 🙂
Gluing readers to the page. This is a writer’s goal each step of the way, from gaining the attention of an agent, to compelling an editor to make an offer, and finally, to enthralling an audience. We strive to make people experience something powerful when they read our words. To genuinely FEEL. To care.
Sounds…um, not easy? I know! Building empathy requires skill, knowledge and practice. Writers must become deeply in tune with a reader’s emotions and learn how to use these feelings to bind them to the story.
Make Outsiders Become Insiders
When a reader opens a book, they have certain expectations. They know the book’s genre and the jacket copy offers a peek into what the storyline is about. However, at this point, they are still Outsiders. They have not yet invested in the protagonist or their journey. The author has a narrow window of time to draw readers in and convert them into close confidants. Insiders.
Encouraging empathy is the way to make this happen. When readers are brought into the hero’s or heroine’s point-of-view, they not only begin to understand the character’s world, they actually can share their experiences, something done by keying into real human experiences.
Each of us knows how it feels to make a mistake, to screw up in a way that disappoints others and ourselves. Likewise, we also know what it is like to face a difficult challenge and triumph, proving to ourselves and others that we are capable and worthy. These are two situations out of infinite possibilities that readers will read and recognize because they too have had these experience and felt the emotions that go with them. When a writer shows emotion-bound experiences like these through the character’s eyes the reader connects to them and the character. They remember their own past experiences and it created a sense of shared understanding—brotherhood. And this allows empathy to form.
Empathy is a powerful bond where a reader invests in and cares for the hero or heroine. The character is more than a name on a page; they take on bones and shape, and become someone worth caring for. This emotional investment means a reader will feel discomfort and anguish at the losses and excitement and satisfaction at the wins. Whenever readers find themselves caring about what is at stake, the author has succeeded at making them Insiders who root for the protagonist all the way to the finish line.
5 Ways To Encourage Reader Empathy
Humanize your character. Real people have strengths, flaws, and weaknesses. Characters must also have a blend of these. They should be imperfect and make mistakes, but also be likable. Give your hero at least one commendable trait that makes him worthy to cheer for.
Get inside their bones. Make your protagonist believable by giving him realistic desires, emotions, thoughts, and fears that an audience can relate to. These commonalities will resonate with the reader’s own beliefs and feelings, reinforcing that bond. Allow the character’s self-doubt to bleed through to some degree, showing the reader his vulnerable side.
Clearly define the needs, goals, and stakes. Scene to scene, readers must always know what the character is fighting for. Leave no doubt as to what he is trying to achieve, why, and the cost of failure.
Hobble characters through challenges that readers will sympathize with. Readers bring their own life experience to the book, so use it. Story conflict and personal stakes will remind readers of their own past where they faced similar roadblocks. Pile on challenges, make the hero sometimes fail, but also show growth and successes on the journey.
Never betray the reader’s trust. Writers must know their characters inside and out, and make sure their actions, thoughts, and beliefs align with who they are. If a character acts in a way that does not fit his nature, the reader will feel betrayed. Dig deep. Get to know the character, including what past wounds haunt him. And always plot with intent. Manipulating a character’s choices or actions just to bring about a plot twist or complication will always ring false.
Remember, well-drawn characters are worth the work of developing because they are the ones readers can’t forget…not a week after reading the story, or a month, or a year.
What are some of the stand-out characters you love? What drew them to you and caused that empathy bond to form? Let me know in the comments!
Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, as well as five others. Her books are available in six languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, an innovative online library built to help writers elevate their storytelling. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.