Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Creating Character Empathy, Part Two: stirring empathy in the reader

If you missed Part One of this post, you can read it here.

I can pick up this pencil, tell you its name is Steve, and then snap it in half - and part of you dies, just a little bit on the inside. Because people can connect with anything. We can sympathize with a pencil, we can forgive a shark... People can find the good in just about anything except themselves.
— Jeff WingerCommunity.

It's true, isn't it? You might think, for instance, you could never sympathize with a rat. But the creators of the children's movie Ratatouille got us to do exactly that.

The miracle of human empathy is what enables a writer to create a powerful emotional response in the reader. The reader knows the people she is reading about are not real.

Yet still, she cares. 

And if she cares enough about the character, she cares (even quite deeply) what happens to him.

She's invested in the story.

This is the experience every author should strive to create in the reader.

But how? We can't make someone care for an imaginary person, can we?

Well, no - not exactly. Stirring our reader's emotions to create an empathic connection is not like pressing a button on a CD player - it's more like wooing a lover by playing the violin. 

There's an art to it, a subtlety. It takes practice, and each musician brings their own style and flavor to the piece. 

But like any instrument, it can be learned.

Here are some skills to add to your repertoire.

1. Capture the little human details
Your first job is to convince the reader that your character is, in fact, real. To make them so flesh-and-blood, so living and breathing, that the reader stops thinking of them as a character in a book and regards them instead as a real person.

You can do this by incorporating the small, realistic, quirky details that seem lifelike precisely because they imitate life - in all its variety and personality and color.

Jodi Picoult is a master at capturing lifelike details in just a few sentences. Take this simple description of the protagonist's grandma:
"She was the same as always, picking the skin off the roasted chicken to eat when my mother wasn't looking, emptying her purse of perfume and makeup samples she'd collected for my sisters, discussing the characters on All my Children as if they were friends she visited for coffee." - Jodi Picoult, The Storyteller

Picoult doesn't describe the grandmother's hairstyle or wrinkled skin here: instead she captures personality. In these couple of sentences we get a feel for who this woman is. 

It's the little things that make a character seem real. An author could tell us a string of facts about this old lady and who she is or where she's lived, but none of that is as vivid as showing us an image of her picking the skin off her chicken over dinner.

2. Use deep POV
This is an entire subject on its own - but suffice it to say that your use of Point of View can either create distance between the character and reader, or bring the reader right inside the character's head.

One way to do this is by expressing the character's thoughts right in the flow of narrative, without setting
them off in italics. In the classic, "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers", Browne and King state, "One of the signs that you are writing from an intimate point of view is that the line between your descriptions and your interior monologue begins to blur."

For instance, instead of this: 
Stacey looked at her boss lounging in his chair, stomach bulging over his belt, and felt revulsion. I wish that lazy pig would do something for himself instead of ordering us around! she thought.

Try this:
Stacey looked at her boss lounging in his chair. His stomach bulged over his belt. Ugh. What a disgusting pig of a man. If only he could be bothered to lift a pinky finger for himself once in a while instead of sitting there ordering everyone else around, then perhaps he wouldn't be such a lump of lard.

The difference? There's no need to "tell" the reader that she "felt revulsion" - we're inside her head, experiencing her revulsion firsthand. This sort of intimacy is essential to creating empathy.

3. Give your character a wound
Even an unlikeable character can be made empathetic if we know the reason why they are the way they are.

I've just seen the movie Saving Mr.Banks, which portrays the author of the beloved Mary Poppins books as a crotchety, rigid woman, impossible to please and generally quite rude to everyone around her.

And yet, by the midpoint of the movie I felt for this wholly unlikeable woman so deeply that I was dabbing away tears several times before the end. How did the screen writers achieve this? (Spoiler alert)

By giving her character a backstory - a larrikan father who loved his daughters and delighted them with his playful nonsense, and yet ultimately drank himself to an early grave. Throughout the movie we were shown this tragic decline through the intimate eyes of his daughter: the father's slow slide into alcoholism, the way his irresponsible behaviour shamed and ruined his family, the increasing stark hopelessness of the mother. 

Without being told, we could intuitively understand how a young girl would be scarred and shaped by these events for the rest of her life -- how she might re-make herself as a person as far removed from her loveable but reckless father as possible: hard-edged, sensible, determined.

4. Use humor
The thing about giving your character a wound is to avoid making her a helpless victim. Someone who sits around feeling sorry for herself and moaning "Woe is me!" doesn't inspire empathy so much as irritation.

Sue Monk Kidd does this brilliantly in her novel, "The Secret Life of Bees." On the third page, we're let in on the fact that Lily's mother died when she was four. Lily carries a deep wound in her heart, that much is quickly clear, but there's nothing maudlin about the way she tells us:

That night I lay in bed and thought about dying and going to be with my mother in paradise. I would meet her saying, 'Mother, forgive. Please forgive,' and she would kiss my skin until it grew chapped and tell me I was not to blame. She would tell me this for the first ten thousand years.

The next ten thousand years she would fix my hair. She would brush it into such a tower of beauty, people all over heaven would drop their harps just to admire it. You can tell which girls lack mothers by the look of their hair. My hair was constantly going off in eleven wrong directions, and T. Ray, naturally, refused to buy me bristle rollers, so all year I'd had to roll it on Welch's grape juice cans, which had nearly turned me into an insomniac. I was always having to choose between decent hair and a good night's sleep.

It takes a very good author to take a tragic circumstance and inject humor, without taking anything away from the real feelings involved. Instantly, we're on Lily's side, and we feel for her deeply.

So there are four ideas for creating empathy in the reader. There are so many more! Why don't you share some of your tips in the comments section? Which of these comes naturally for you, and which do you struggle with?

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.


A good author can help you empathize with anyone - even a rat! Don't believe me? It's been done!
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The miracle of human empathy enables a writer to create a powerful emotional response in the reader. Click to Tweet

Want your reader to empathize with your characters? This is a must-read! Click to Tweet


Pepper said...

I love this, Karen!! And I love using these strategies in my writing. If characters are not relate-able in some way, readers lose interest pretty quickly.

I enjoy sprinkling humor in my writing and definitely going for the wound.
I really want to become better at capturing the little human details because that builds so much into the story. I bet you're good at that, Karen.

Tessa Emily Hall said...

Great post!! Character empathy is so important. And I agree, the screenwriters for Saving Mr. Banks were a genius. One thing I love about that movie is how they wove in her backstory throughout the movie; that way, the viewers know ahead of time that there is a reason her personality is so strong. That way, people aren't immediately turned off by her. They want to find out why she is the way she is. I also loved the way they injected humor to make her come across as more likeable as well.

Thanks for these reminders, Karen!

Julia M. Reffner said...

LOVE THIS, Karen! The examples you picked are fantastic here. Love the chicken picking detail.

Its amazing how many "unloveable" characters we've cared about because of the author's ability to create empathy in us.

Mary Vee Writer said...

What I especially liked were your examples. In reading stories many narratives have slumped into broken records, repeating the same ol' thing over and over. He smiled. She grinned. Her heart pounded. Blech. I am really quite tired of these. But you have presented fresh examples that will help us cast away the used for refreshing and empathetic means of drawing the reader into the character's life.

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Love this post, Karen! Your examples really brought home your points!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Good morning from Australia, everyone!

Reading your lovely comments as I eat some vegemite on toast for breakfast (and supervise the kids' breakfast/ getting dressed/ morning jobs - nothing like a bit of multi-tasking!) ;)

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

PEPPER, you are awesome at sprinkling through that zesty humour! And from the bit I've seen of your writing, you rock the wound as well! (Ok.... that sounds kinda weird. You know what I mean. I'm still waking up...)

As for the little details... it's more something I aspire to rather than something I've mastered. I have to really consciously think about it and often rack my brains for fresh new details that don't feel stereotypical. I actually find this part really hard!

I have a writing observations notebook, and when I think of it (which sadly I don't often enough!) I jot down little observations of people that I can use later. Just the everyday quirky stuff that happens all the time, all around us, but when I'm trying to think of one my mind is one big BLANK.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

TESSA, yes - great point! Right from the start in Saving Mr. Banks, we see this carefree and imaginative little girl, and we know there's a story there about how and why she changed. It really did stir my curiosity, and I wanted to know what happened to her.

Some people don't like flashbacks, but I'm a bit of a sucker for them if they're done well - and these ones really were!

It was such a heartfelt movie. I went along expecting a bit of a playful romp - NOT predicting that I'd be bawling my eyes out by the end! Note to self: ALWAYS bring tissues to the movies! I'm such a soft touch!

Ashley Clark said...

Karen, this is such a helpful post! Stirring reader emotion is one of the areas I struggle with. I was just chatting with Pepper about this yesterday! The quick dialogue comes easy to me, but I cringe giving my characters struggles. And yet, as you said, the reason behind why a character is the way she is often is the very thing that stirs the reader to care so deeply. Always love what you have to say!

Ashley Clark said...

Karen, this is such a helpful post! Stirring reader emotion is one of the areas I struggle with. I was just chatting with Pepper about this yesterday! The quick dialogue comes easy to me, but I cringe giving my characters struggles. And yet, as you said, the reason behind why a character is the way she is often is the very thing that stirs the reader to care so deeply. Always love what you have to say!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

JULIA, thank you - and that is SO true!

It's amazing really how we can be led to sympathise with just about anyone, even criminals and villains. Something to aspire to as a writer, for sure!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

MARY - yes, fresh is hard, but so much better! And yet still I find myself reaching for the same old tired turns of phrase out of laziness or habit. It really is a mental discipline to stretch ourselves beyond the cliche.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

JEANNE, thank you! I'm so glad! It took me a while to come up with just the right examples - I'm really glad they were helpful!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Thanks, ASHLEY! I can imagine you wouldn't like to torture your characters too much, because you're SUCH a tender-hearted gal! And you probably already care for your characters quite deeply, because you're intimately acquainted with them.

Getting the reader to make the same emotional investment is quite another thing. But yes, like you said - showing the reason behind a character's behaviour is the key! If we can truly understand a person and where they're coming from, we'll forgive them just about anything.

Casey said...

This post is BEYOND brilliant!! You hit it home with so many of your points tonight with me, Karen. I'm eager to watch Saving Mr. Banks, man, I've heard nothing but good things about that film. It's a perfect reminder to crawl into our character's heads and live out their lives to make them real. This post is chock full of good reminders!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Aw, thanks so much, Casey! And yes - the movie is a must-see. I really enjoyed it!

Amy Leigh Simpson said...

Okay, totally awesome Karen!!! Writer gold here! I love giving my characters quirks that will take them beyond a two-dimensional page. Quirky sayings, overeating, nibbling cuticles, nervous rambling. We can all relate to those types of things in one way or another. We are not simply cutouts of what we seem. Blonde, average height, stay at home mom. We are defined by our actions and our details. And it's precisely those little character nuances that endear the reader. Love this post!

Angie Dicken said...

I am sooo late to this, but it is such great stuff, Karen! I've really been careful about my point of view getting as deep as possible without switching to first person. It's tough...always sloughing away the "felts" and "wonders"!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

AMY, I love this!! - "We are not simply cutouts of what we seem. Blonde, average height, stay at home mom. We are defined by our actions and our details."

Brilliantly put - and so true! We need to dig beneath the surface impression to really know someone, in writing as well as life. Such a great observation.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

ANGIE, this is SUCH an excellent tip. The thing about cutting the "felts" and "wonders" - I really had to think about that, but you're exactly right. Those tags really create distance. I would love for you to write a blog post about this!