Ten Ways to Create Character Empathy

At the Writing for the Soul conference, one of my six fiction classes will focus on creating immediate character empathy — in your novel’s first chapter.Illustration of a Tearful Girl Reading a Book

Why create empathy? Because even in a plot-driven story, characters are everything. The most intriguing plot will fail if a reader doesn’t care about your characters.

 Most of these methods work best when combined with at least one other. (In the Writing for the Soul class, I’ll go into more detail about each.)

 Readers will empathize if the character is:

1. Clearly displaying a valued trait
Showing loyalty, love, or courage is especially important if the protagonist soon makes a questionable choice. It’s far easier to create empathy right away than to erase negativity. Before any negative choice, show the protagonist helping a child, tending a sick loved one, or standing up to a bully.

2. Particularly good at something
She’s not just talented, but she’s also stunning. This approach requires details. We’re not merely told a hunter is good with a gun. We see him treat the rifle lovingly, oiling it, practicing with it. He’s portrayed with a keen eye or inexplicably detecting prey before it’s seen. Depict the proficiency of his hands, the angle of his body as he sights, his absolute stillness until the perfect moment to squeeze the trigger.

3. Hurt or treated unjustly
This approach can work on its own, although other techniques can enhance it. People naturally feel compassion for someone who faces injustice.

4. Wishing for something universally understood
This includes longings such as love, acceptance, and a purpose in life. Universal desires tend to soften characters — even those who might be difficult to like.

5. Thrust into danger
The jeopardy can be anything from a snowstorm to a bad guy with a gun. But by itself, this isn’t enough. No matter how compelling, a circumstance does not establish an empathetic character. I can thrust a protagonist into the most fascinating crime imaginable, but if my reader doesn’t see something about that character herself to like, she won’t care. So use in tandem with at least one other technique.

6. Thrust into grief
This one also needs a supporting approach. The problem with thrusting a character into grief right away is that we don’t yet know the character enough to grieve with her. So it’s tempting to load in a bunch of backstory. That will slow your story. Find ways to incorporate other character empathy approaches within the action.

7. Caring for others, especially at a cost
This approach is commonly used to humanize the bad guy via a “pet-the-dog scene.” Here the bad guy shows his tender side: kill the human, kiss the hound. Two points to remember:

  1. Overdone, the scene can become syrupy.
  2. The caring needs to be given in an unassuming manner. A truly caring person doesn’t stop to think about her own compassion.

8. Unique, attention-getting
The possibilities are endless. The character may:
● do off-the-wall things
● look different
● think in unique ways
● have an unusual first-person voice

Mix this approach with at least one other. People can act in all sorts of unusual ways, but that doesn’t mean you’ll like them.

9. Trying to overcome a fear or make a change
These are issues with which readers can identify. We don’t like change, and we don’t like facing our fears. But this approach brings challenges:

1.) You need to present the problem so readers understand what’s to be overcome and why it’s hard for the character — without loading in backstory.

2.) Sometimes the battle is primarily internal. The character may be deciding whether to walk out on a relationship, or she may have conflicting desires. To make an inner struggle compelling, present it in the context of action.

10. Facing an inner struggle
The character isn’t trying to change. She’s burdened and doesn’t know how to handle that burden — whether guilt, depression, bitterness, jealousy, or hate.

 The character doesn’t even have to know she’s burdened. She may be in bondage due to intense bitterness, but not realize it. The bitterness has become such a part of her, she accepts it. This gets tricky, as the reader needs to be given just enough to know more than the character knows herself. If you manage that, it gets even trickier, because we want the reader to like her, not think she’s an idiot.

Read the scene where you introduce your protagonist. Which of these techniques have you used? Which might you add to make your character more empathetic?

Brandilyn Collins is a best-selling novelist known for her trademark Seatbelt Suspense. Awards for her novels include the ACFW Carol (three times), Inspirational Readers’ Choice, and Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice. Brandilyn is also known for her book on fiction techniques, Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors. Read the first chapters of all her books at www.brandilyncollins.com.

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