How to create character empathy early on
By Becca Puglisi
Last year, for purposes that are unclear even to me, I kept track of all the books I read. This information wasn’t particularly interesting—except for one little tidbit. Apparently, I started 15 books that I never finished.
This shouldn’t surprise me. I’m kind of a book snob; because of the sheer number of books on the market, I’d rather not waste time on characters I couldn’t care less about. In talking to others, I’m finding that failure to connect with characters is a common reason why people stop reading a book. As a writer, this is good to know. I definitely want my audience to be invested in the hero. To make that happen, empathy is key.
Empathy draws readers in and keeps them engaged. In today’s market, with its growing availability of affordable books, it’s imperative that we hook readers from the very start. To achieve this end, here are some elements that can help create reader empathy early on.
Wounds are sad. Painful. They make us vulnerable, and vulnerability in a hero is attractive because it makes the reader root for him. As in real life, a character’s past helps define his present, molding him into the person he is at his core. Show your hero’s wounds and it will tug the reader’s heart strings, bringing the reader firmly to the hero’s side.
As emotionally engaging as wounds may be, it’s hard to fall in love with someone you just can’t stand. Give your hero some endearing traits: Compassion, humor, loyalty, courage. Show these traits early on—in the opening pages, if possible–and the reader will be that much closer to jumping on the hero’s bandwagon.
Readers come from all cultures, backgrounds and experiences, making it hard to create a hero that everyone can relate to. It helps to incorporate universal themes or problems into your story: The loss of a loved one, wanting to fit in, self-doubt, a moral dilemma that makes him question his beliefs. Your hero could be a giant porcine robot from the planet Porkus, but including a common theme like redemption makes him relatable. Readers get him because they’ve desired the same thing, or know someone who has.
You could have all of the above elements, but if the stakes are too low, the reader will inevitably ask every author’s least favorite question: So what? So what if she doesn’t get the part? So what if he doesn’t get the girl? For readers to root for the hero, they have to believe that success is imperative for him, that his life as we know it cannot go on if he doesn’t succeed. If your hero fails and he is not in some way destroyed because of it, the stakes aren’t high enough. Make sure that your circumstances are dire, and the reader will stick with your hero to the very last page to make sure he comes through okay.
These are only a few ways to amp up the empathy factor in your opening pages. What do you think? Have you read a book lately that utilized any of these techniques? What other methods might we use?
Becca Puglisi is one half of The Bookshelf Muse blogging duo and co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. Listing the body language, visceral reactions and thoughts associated with 75 different emotions, this brainstorming guide is a valuable tool for showing, not telling, emotion. The Emotion Thesaurus is available for purchase through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes,Kobo and Smashwords, and the PDF can be purchased directly from her blog.