Being a Better Writer: Empathy for Your Characters

Greetings from Alaska, readers! Yes, that’s right, I’m home visiting my parents for a few days. And old friends. It’s fantastic. I flew in Sunday morning, after a nice long layover in Seattle which was most of my Saturday. As usual, the trip to my hometown was roughly a full day’s journey. That was okay, however, as I’d brought my WiiU with me.

Yes, I own a WiiU. I also own The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. So when I had my fifteen hour layover, well … I had plenty to keep me occupied. No spoilers, but man is that game fun. Complete, go anywhere freedom.

Again, no spoilers, so I won’t say much about my journey thus far. But it has been an excellent one. You ever played Fallout? Well, imagine that kind of freedom and setting applied to the land of Hyrule and Zelda series, and that’s Breath of the Wild. The scale is titanic, the world ambitious beyond almost anything I’ve ever played, and the tools and toys you can play with offer a kind of freedom few games can match.

Of course, we’re here to talk about books, not games, so maybe I should change my topic. Bring things back to the site’s primary focus. Being a Better Writer, right?

So, what is the topic of choice today? Well, if you’ll check the topic bar for the day, it’s actually having Empathy for your characters. This topic is one that actually hadn’t made it to my list, if only because it came in via message from one of the readers here (So … Hello Feather Note, this is your ship coming in), and as I was traveling, I figured “Well, why not? That’s a good topic worth discussing, and I can pull it off from a borrowed Chromebook.”

So, empathy for your characters. There are a couple of angles I can come at this with, so I’m going to talk about the most obvious one first, or the one that, I think, most readers will jump to first: getting the reader to have empathy for your characters.

I’ve talked about this before, actually, in different context. I’ve talked about writing characters that our audience connect with, and I’ve also talked about characters that are unlikable, unrepentant punks that readers will still enjoy reading about. Both of which came back to, in a way, having empathy for those characters. Since I have talked about this before, I’m not going to do a full dive into the topic here, but I will reiterate the most important aspect of character empathy that came from those articles: that of creating a character that shares a recognizable commonality with our reader. Something that the reader can latch onto, be a desire, drive, shared interest, or likewise that gives the reader some common ground to establish themselves on, and thereby connect over.

Again, if you want to go into more detail on this, check the prior posts I’ve written on this topic. But that’s the gist of it: We give a reader empathy for a character by giving them something to connect over, be that a rough job, a string of bad luck … whatever. Something that a reader can nod their head to and think “Oh man, I hate it when that happens.”

This kind of connection is good. As a reader establishes some common ground with a character, no matter how basic, they feel invested in them, connected to their story and their accomplishments. Which means that as the story carries on, the events that transpire with the protagonist will resonate with the reader. When the character is betrayed, the reader will feel betrayed. When the character feels success, the reader shares in it. And so on and so forth, creating a cycle that pulls the reader and the character closer together. Which in turn, leads to the kind of fan bases you can see developing over shared connections with characters in all sorts of mediums. Take, for example, (and for a book 6 Harry Pottervspoiler) the reaction readers had to the “betrayal” of Albus Dumbledore by Severus Snape. The internet exploded over that event. Readers were heavily invested into the lives of Harry and his friends, so when Dumbledore died at Snape’s hand, it was a blow. It was one of those moments that kept everyone talking, because they personally felt invested, and by context, betrayed.

Okay, so you get the picture. You want your characters to resonate with readers and build a common ground so that your reader feels for your protagonist’s situation. Cool, cool, if you want more check those earlier posts on the subject.

But this actually wasn’t what my reader wrote in to ask about. I covered it because it’s a natural stepping stone, and likely what most expected upon seeing the title. But no, it’s not what they asked about. Instead, they wanted advice on writing this kind of empathetic connection for the authors. Not in terms of how to do it, but how not to be effected by it.

If you’re not a writer, that last line probably confused you, but to me, it made perfect sense. As already discussed, an empathetic character is something we strive to achieve in a story, a character that readers share emotions and experiences with. But when creating those characters as an author, we have a tendency to get pretty attached to them. This reader wanted to know exactly how empathetic was too empathetic, and if they should be concerned about potential side effects to writing a character that they were very close to.

Seeing the possible issue yet? To a reader, when a well-written character, say for example, dies, it’s a blow. It’s like they lost an acquaintance, or worse yet a friend that they’d known for some time. It’s not as brutal as losing a real friend, of course, unless the author is an unabashed virtuoso, but it’s still a blow. A character death, or sudden tragedy, or what have you that the author pulls can leave a reader feeling low, shocked by the suddenness of the event.

Now imagine, for a moment, what that does to the author, not the reader.

See, as an author, we get close to the characters we write. They become good friends, people we can count on. People whose every experience, from love to laziness, we experience and share in. We connect with it. We understand them. And we empathize with them.

And then we do something horrible to them. They suffer a loss that leaves them wrought with tragedy or despair. And we’re right there, experiencing it with them.

And you know what? That’s a blow. A good author, in my opinion, feels for their characters. And when we drop a bomb on them, well … It hurts. There’s no way around it.

And honestly, I’d say you should feel that hurt. Just a little.

Let me sidestep for a moment first, however, and cover something connected only slightly. Personally, I’ve long suspected that there are two “types” of writers, just as there are two types of “actors.” There are method actors, and there are “representative” actors (I’m putting that in quotes because I’m not 100% certain of the title of that last one, classical probably also applies, but “representative” is probably close enough for our purposes).

Now, the representative actor? Their role is simply that: A role. They walk onto the stage or set, and then they represent that character. They mirror their actions and emotions. They, to the best of their ability, represent that character as they would appear. But it’s only a representation. They’re simply … standing in, and then carrying out the directives they’d been given. And some writers, I think, like the actors, are like this. They’re not feeling much of anything for the character, they’re just telling you what happened.

If it sounds a little clinical, well … it is. It’s the clinical approach. The other, however …?

Well, the method approach is for the actor to put themselves in the shoes of that character, the mindset of that character, and be as close to that character as they can for that moment in time. They, if possible, are that character. And likewise, I believe that a lot of writers (myself included, as I am definitely in this boat) are this kind of writer. We are in our character’s heads, thinking like they think and writing out their responses and actions. That’s how we make them come to life. That’s how we make them real.

The challenge? Suddenly a lot of the harshness or trials that come upon our character come up “us” as well. We feel them, even though we know these characters aren’t real, because we feel for their experiences. We were “there,” so to speak, when the lost their battle with the antagonist, or wrecked their car, or lost a loved one, or whatever … and it effects us.

It’s hard to explain this to someone who hasn’t done it or hasn’t experience it, because it sounds, well, strange. But we imagine ourselves in the moment, with these characters that to us are very real “aspects” of our story and our mind. And when something bad happens … we absorb some of those emotions and feelings.

It happens to me all the time. When I wrote the finale of Colony, the sequence with Jake, which I will not spoil here but was very intense? My heart was pounding. My breath was coming fast. I was stressed, if not nearly as stressed as Jake, and when the scene was over and characters were sinking back in relief. I sank back in relief. I felt wrung out, a little. Not enough to stop writing, but still a little pressed.

It was even stronger when I wrote Beyond the Borderlands. For those of you who have not perused my fanfiction side of things, halfway through Beyond the Borderlands I pulled a sharp one on readers: I killed a main character. Barnabas. The protagonists met up with a surprise reveal of the real threat, Barnabas refused to take the sudden change sitting down, and in response, the big bad killed him. Boom. Dead. Gone. Nothing the main characters could do.

And you know what? Despite it being words on a screen, that death rocked me a little. I took a day to compose myself after that chapter, because I felt it. As satisfied as I was with the way the scene had turned out, it still hurt a little, in some strange way. Even though I knew none of it was real, that Barnabas was just a creation of my own mind … it still felt real in a way. It left a mark, a sense of loss. Not a hefty one, but a real one all the same.

And you know what? I say we should feel that. We should feel that little bit of loss. And you know why? Because we care about our characters. They’re ours. They’re real to us. And when we lose them or they get hurt … we should feel loss. Even though they’re really just words on a screen (and we shouldn’t forget that), we should be in tune enough with our characters that we feel for them.

Now, there’s a catch here. Sure, we might feel for our characters, or even need a short breather after something particularly climatic, but what we write shouldn’t get to us so deeply that we stop writing altogether. Nor should it affect us so much that we’re deeply torn-up over it. While we as authors should empathize with our characters, we should not do so to the degree that we’re getting wrecked by it. Let that happen to our readers. Us? We need to remind ourselves that what we are writing is just a story and keep writing it. No matter how close it feels, it’s still a fictional event.

So, should you feel for your characters? Sure. But remind yourself that they’re just that: Characters! Don’t let the connection become such, don’t invest so such that you yourself are torn apart by things. These are characters, close as they may seem.

Now, one last note I feel that should be approached on this topic: Catharsis and working things out. Sometimes we write stories as a way of working through things, a way of touching upon emotions and visiting things that are tough to work through. In this case, this may be one of those things where letting the characters and story affect you more than normal could be a good thing, as long as you are sure that by reaching the end of what could be an arduous experience, you are expecting to come out of it feeling better for what you’ve gone through. If you aren’t going to come out of it feeling better, it’s not catharsis.

Right, summary time. As authors, we should feel in touch with the characters we right. We should feel for them. But we shouldn’t feel so strongly for them that our own writing suffers. They are, after all, characters we created, and we shouldn’t forget that. They aren’t real, no matter how real they may seem at times.

So write some characters that you feel for. Suffer and celebrate with them … but only in part.

Good luck. Now get writing!

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