Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Creating Character Empathy, Part One: having empathy as a writer

image by adamr,
Every now and then, a story comes along with characters who get under our skin. We start thinking of them as real people. We feel their hurts, cry when they go through heartache, celebrate when they succeed, perhaps even catch ourselves praying for them.

In those stories, the author has succeeded in creating character empathy. To do this:

1.     The writer must have empathy for the character, and
2.     The character must create empathy in the reader.

We’ll start by addressing the first component today.

Writer empathy

If a writer feels nothing for her characters, how can we expect the reader to feel something? Our lack of emotional investment will show on the page. Our characters will feel wooden, stereotypical, and lacking in life.

Here are some ideas for developing empathy with your characters.

1. Know your character
To feel empathy for our characters, we need to know them like we know our best friends in real life. We need to know their strengths, flaws, quirks, fears, insecurities, and what makes them laugh.

The more we know about them, the more three-dimensional and real they will become in our minds. When they are real to us, they will start to become real to the reader.

image by hyena reality,

2. Walk a mile in their shoes
Empathy requires you to put yourself in someone else’s situation and imagine how it would feel.

If your character is going through something you’ve never experienced, don’t just guess at what it would be like. Do some research. Talk to people who’ve been through a similar experience, and ask them to describe their feelings.

Their reactions may not be what you’d expect. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to feel when facing a difficult circumstance. Real and honest writing requires you to dig beneath the “expected” responses and tap into what is true.

Of course, it should go without saying that you’ll need to be extremely sensitive in how you approach this. Your research is always secondary to the real feelings of the person you’re interviewing, and how ready they are to talk about their experience. Some people will find it cathartic to talk through their emotions; you can help them feel heard and give a voice to their experience. Others will not be ready – in that case, don’t push.

If the topic you are writing about is a very difficult one, consider reading first-person accounts instead. Blogs, online forums and biographies are all good sources. You will get a more complete picture if you access a variety of sources and/or speak to a range of people.

3. Find the universal emotion
Even if your character is going through something you’ve never experienced, chances are you’ve felt some of the emotions that arose from that experience.

image by David Castillo Dominici,
By tapping into your own experiences, no matter how different, you can access those universal emotions and put them to use.

Say your character has a son who’s gone missing. She feels panic and helplessness. You’ve never had a missing child, but you’ve felt that fear and helplessness while you waited for your husband to undergo risky surgery.

Or perhaps your character is waiting for medical test results for suspected cancer. You may never have been through this exact scenario, but you’ve waited nervously to hear whether you got a job that you desperately needed. Or you’ve waited fearfully for the vet to tell you whether your beloved pet will need to be put down. You can take that grain of understanding and extrapolate how it might feel to face something even larger and more overwhelming.

Our emotions occur on different scales and for different reasons, but at the core of them, we have all felt the same things at some point in our lives – whether it be fear, sadness, anger, joy, jealousy, nervousness, betrayal, excitement or hopelessness.

4. Practice empathy in real life

The more empathy you allow yourself to feel in real life for people going through a range of circumstances, the more your heart will open with compassion and a deeper understanding of humanity. These things will only enrich your stories.

This great little video will interest you if you’ve ever wondered about the difference between sympathy and empathy. (Or if you’ve ever found yourself using the phrase “At least…” to a hurting person!)

image by imagerymajestic,
5. Let yourself feel
It’s okay to cry over your characters. The more we feel for them, the deeper and more real they will become on the page. Allow yourself to open your heart, even if it feels strange at first to care for a person who doesn’t actually exist.

Soon, it will feel so natural that you’ll catch yourself thinking about your character in between writing sessions, and wondering how they are faring. And that’s the first step toward creating the same powerful emotional response in your reader.

More on that next time.

Over to you. Do you find it easy or difficult to develop empathy with your characters? Do you find yourself drawing on your own life experiences as you write? - and how do you write about situations you haven’t experienced? How do you feel when you’re going through a tough situation and someone tries to downplay it with the words “At least…”? (Or have you found yourself doing that to others?) Anyone ever cried over a character, or am I the only one??


Writers, have you ever cried over your characters? You should! Here's why: Click to Tweet

To create empathy in the reader, you must first have empathy as a writer. Click to Tweet

Why caring about your characters can help your reader care too: Click to Tweet

Karen Schravemade lives in Australia. When she's not chasing after three small children, she spends her spare minutes daydreaming about the intricate lives of characters who don't actually exist. Find her on her website and Twitter.


Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Oh dear...I've never cried for my characters while writing. Is that awful?

One of my top 5 strengs (from the Strength Finder's test) is empathy. I can usually put myself in someone else's shoes and understand what they might be feeling. That is a good thing, except when I "feel" for 2 sides that are combating each other. I would probably make a good mediator, huh?

Great post!

Krista Phillips said...

Sherrinda, I've never cried over a character either in my own book... I have other OTHER people's characters though, but it's rare.

I think, though, for me, it takes a lot of me to cry over an "emotional" reason, even in real life. That, and I do a lot of MEAN things to my character in the name of creating a good usually when my character is going through a hard, cry-inducing time, I'm sitting at my keyboard manically rubbing my hands in an evil author way.... :-)

I definitely draw from own experiences though, and I do FEEL for my characters, definitely.

In Sandwich, I actually had a bit of a soft-spot for my villain. I made her pretty bad, and most people didn't like her AT ALL, but I knew her back-story. I knew what made her the way she was, only I couldn't get it down in paper (I want to show her own story in a future book.) So I can't wait until I"m able to write that and show readers the redeemable heart behind such a not nice lady.

Pepper said...

Oh KAREN!! I have that video to use for my kids with Autism!! I LOVE IT!!! :-)

You know, I can't write a character unless I have deep feelings for and with them. It shows when I'm not connected to the characters emotions.
And yes...I cry with them and for them, or laugh out loud. I've even gotten embarrassed for them.

Real life is so interwoven into my stories - and it's a GREAT teacher for writers. This last year my family expereinced a roller coaster of various emotions and one of the first things I did was WRITE THEM DOWN. I put them in a journal so (after the hard emotions had healed) I could come back and draw from those times for my personal growth and my characters

Pepper said...

Oh good grief, I HATE the 'at least' console-ers. However, humans do human-stuff ;-)especially when they don't know what to say.

Love this, Karen!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Sherrinda, yes. AWFUL. Completely heartless.

Wait, Krista is heartless too.

Maybe I'm the weird one....

(But how could that be possible??) ;)

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Actually I quite enjoy making my characters suffer, and then crying over them in a self-indulgent melancholy way. It's all rather a lot of fun. Ha!

Pepper said...

Oh great! We've found Karen's evil side!
I knew it had to be somewhere ;-)

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Pepper, I love your emotion journalling idea - that is awesome!! It must be difficult to imagine how those emotions will later benefit your writing when you're in the midst of the crisis. But what a healing process. Top points for forward-thinking.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Of course, Pepper. I'm evil to the core. You wouldn't want to run into me in a dark Alley.

Wait. We are in an Alley. Muhahaha!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

(Are you scared yet? I think I just scared myself a little.)

Pepper said...

I'm laughing at your 'lack of scary' LOL

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Krista, I like working out backstory for my villains as well - how they got to where they are. Good lesson for life, too. If we only knew everyone's backstory we might be a lot more understanding. I love that you have a soft spot for your villain!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Pepper. Don't laugh. Not nice!! (*pokes out tongue*)

I am FIERCE. Do my CAPITALS scare you? (chanelling Mary Connealy)

Ok, the tongue-poking thing is not really working for me scary-wise, is it.

Pepper said...

Nope - even your 'caps' are cute. LOL

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Karen, what an amazing post. I appreciate the points you are making here, and they're definitely ones I need to consider. I've only cried over one character, and it was when he was asking his wife for forgiveness for something big. I think if I know my characters better I'll have more empathy for them.

You've given me a challenge to learn more of who they are.

Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom!

Julia M. Reffner said...

I like to read tons of real-life experiences. As you said, it really does help you get a stronger sense of your characters' emotional make-ups. Lots of great ideas here!

Krista and Sherrinda, I, too, am heartless. You definitely do have the gift of empathy though, Sherrinda. I think that test pegged you well in that area.

Krista, I can see your expression and hear your evil laugh.

Karen, we're seeing a whole new side of you...and its lots of fun. :)

Amy Leigh Simpson said...

Oh this hits home for me! I have most likely cried over every main character as I walk them through their greatest fear or stuggle. Or even in their moment of redemption.... man, that always gets me! I've always been extremely empathetic. Probably overly so. I am just a weepy mess, even without the rampant pregnancy hormones.

That said, I do--Pepper, Sherrinda, and Casey can probably attest to this--like to torture my characters. Wow, I sound so twisted! My mind is a scary and slightly unhinged playground.

Interesting to see the different sides here. Somehow though, I'm not surprised about Krista's lack of tears though. Something about her snark ;)

Angie Dicken said...

This is a great post! I struggle most with "walking a mile in their shoes" since I write historical...HOWEVER...finding the Universal Emotion is KEY for me. Even if what I've experienced is small in comparison to my character, it still taps into that core emotion and I am able to expand on that.
And yes, I usually cry at least once in each novel I write. Great post, Karen!

Angie Dicken said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Jeanne, yes, I think really knowing our characters is the key! Sorta like how in real life, our empathy is tripled when something bad happens to someone we know and love, as opposed to a complete stranger. It's that heart connection.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

All jokes aside, I don't think any of you girls could be heartless if you tried. :)

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Yes, the moment of redemption is a big one for me, too. Most I've ever cried - after deciding to tragically kill off one of my favorite ever characters, and then having him get beautifully saved on his deathbed. I was a mess!

Even though I was the one finishing him off.

Hmmmm. Looks like I too am slightly unhinged, Ames. The mind of a writer is a scary place!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Yes, the universal emotion concept would be essential in historical fiction writing! I hadn't thought of that - good point, Ang!

It's kinda cool to think about how emotional responses are universal no matter what the era. So we might not be able to literally walk in the shoes of someone experiencing a Nazi concentration camp, or the sinking of the Titanic, but the feelings of fear and loss are common to humanity across the ages.

Phew.... deep. :)

Amy Leigh Simpson said...

It certainly is, Karen :)

Susan Anne Mason said...

Great post, Karen. I love that little video!

I think I have cried once or twice with my characters. (I am a very hard person to make cry, and have only cried during books a few times). (This does not apply to movies where pets or lovers die. But I don't even go to those!)

I now have a new goal - see if I can make myself cry! LOL.


Julia M. Reffner said...

Sue, just don't let the word get around that after reading The Writer's Alley posts you have an overwhelming urge to make yourself cry. ;) Might scare some of our friends away...then again if WE haven't scared them yet ;)

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Hahaha! Oh, that is funny. I feel so inspiring. LOL!

My tweetable about how you "should" cry was pretty tongue in cheek. I was just trying to come up with a dramatic hook - haha! Of course you all know there's no rule that says you have to sob your way through a box of Kleenex with every novel you write. I think it's more about feeling empathy instead of just manipulating our characters at arms' length.

But I give bonus points for actual tears. ;)

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

See, Pepper?? JULIA thinks I'm scary. So there.

Julia M. Reffner said...

We're ALL scary here, Karen. :)

Unknown said...

As we talked about last night on Twitter, I'm really new to writing fiction but I did catch myself offguard when I cried twice about two things happening in my WIP (currently at 14K words). it's been a while since I worked on it so I actually can't remember what one of them was, but the other one that tore at me is when 3 different people are experiencing the same event and they are making assumptions about what is going on, and there's a lot of pain that comes through--if only one had the courage to speak up, then there'd have been joy & healing, but they are all too angry, hurt, & afraid. Hopefully it'll work out as well once it's all written as it does in my head ;)