Writing | Creating Empathy with Characters


One of the first pieces of advice given to me when I started writing and looking for feedback on it involved building a sense of empathy between the reader and the character. By empathy, I don’t mean making the reader feel sorry for them—I mean making them care about what happens to that character. Depending on the individual reader, the amount of time they allow an author to get to that point varies. Some people might put down a book if they feel ‘meh’ about the main character on page one. Some might give it ten, twenty, maybe even forty pages if they’re generous.

Recently I started reading a book by one of my favorite authors, but wound up feeling nothing for the characters. I found myself fifty pages in and wondering why I was continuing (Okay, I admit – I was continuing because “I bought this book dammit; I’m going to read it.”) despite being ready to put it down. I’m not writing this post to slam the book, so I won’t mention it by title. The story opened with one character. The next chapter showed us a different character, and the third returned to the character we met in the first.

The characters, though not ‘cardboard,’ didn’t come off as all that interesting or in any particular circumstance that made them compelling. The narrative offered a sparsity of detail that left me thinking who the heck are these people and why should I give a damn what happens to them? The female character seemed bored with life, had a failed career as a singer, had written a book, and lost half her money in a market crash—but was still comfortable. She sensed (rightly so) that she’d be pressed into the employ of a man she didn’t like, and despite hating him (for reasons not yet explained) she decided to work for him anyway. Yawn. She’s comfortable, her only conflict is that she ‘really doesn’t wanna’ work for this guy… it’s like we’re expected to feel bad for a rich girl because she can’t choose one pair out of 500 shoes to wear that day.

On the other hand, the male character was doing something that at first seemed like it might be interesting: some manner of smuggling, but he wound up taking tracings of (drumroll) jeans. Apparently, the entire plot is to revolve around tracking down the source of some super-rare designer denim so a company can produce military inspired clothing for mass markets. James Bond this is not.

Anyway, by page 58, I was sorely tempted to put this thing down (if not for the aforementioned $16 I’d spent on it) plus the ‘but… but…. I like this author’ feeling.

In an early draft of Division Zero, what is now Chapter 2 was Chapter 1. I figured I’d jump straight into some action like they do on a lot of the cop shows, the so-called ‘cold open.’ I had a few people comment that they wanted to know who this woman was and why she was getting shot at so they had a reason to care if she made it out alive. So, I added the now-Chapter-One to introduce the reader to Kirsten before things get all dusty and laser-y. Without that, she’s only an unknown blonde chasing a possessed man through an abandoned asylum while telling the spirits of the long-departed everything’s gonna be okay.


Build a Connection

It’s important to present the reader with a character that they want to invest in (preferably sooner rather than later.) Many posts and articles on writing claim the first five pages are the place to make sure the reader cares about the character and wants to keep going. Not everyone is going to wait until page fifty-eight to decide if they are going to give a damn what happens. The sooner you have the reader’s attention, and empathy with the character, the better. When the reader invests, and cares what happens to the character, you’re doing it right.

Some ways to build empathy include:

Conflict ― What’s going on in the character’s life that is forcing them into a situation they don’t want to deal with but have to? Lay out the groundwork for the conflict facing the character and build that sense of endearment early. This connects also to scene setting. If the opening is vague and difficult to tell what the environment/setting is like, your conflict may lose impact. For example, a teen trying to lug a container of water home takes on an entirely different meaning if he’s in 2015 suburb normal compared to 2040 post-apocalypse Nevada with the last four gallons of water in the nearest store.

Illustrate why the character is motivated to endure the situation rather than fleeing. Is the conflict something an average person can relate to? (Some people might not grasp how critical it is that the ninth-born daughter of the Phyrrian Dynasty make it to the Centauri sector before the triad moons align right off the bat.) Is the character coping with the recent loss of a loved one? Do they have an illness / handicap? Are they in a situation that makes them a target because of who they are or what they believe in? Are they living in an abusive relationship?

Personality ― Another way to build empathy with a character is to show the reader who they are inside. Portray a character with traits that endear them to the reader (and that doesn’t mean every endearing character has to be sweet – look at House MD). If the reader can’t wait to see what your character does next, you’re doing it right. If a character feels like an archetype or a slab of cardboard… or is so ‘everyman’ or normal that they meet fifteen different versions of that character at the office every day, consider changing something.

Humanity ― One of the surest ways to lose reader investment in a character is to have them be plastic. A character that’s somber and crying over their lost family in one scene, but in the next chapter forgets they ever existed to throw herself at the male lead she’s only just met, is not going to feel like a real person. (Unless the MC has multiple personality disorder or some other mental issues.) Even if a character is superpowered well and away beyond anything normal – show a little bit of normality in them. (Maybe even Supergirl trips over her underwear sometimes in the morning while trying to get dressed.)


In short, the most important thing you can do within the first five pages of your novel is Make your reader care about the character. They don’t have to like them; they need to want to invest in them to see what happens. If the reader is ambivalent about what happens to the characters, they might not keep reading.

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