Wednesday, April 6, 2011

E is for Empathy

The goal for authors is: empathy for characters, especially for the protagonist.
Why? Because we want the reader to BECOME the character. The wonder and beauty of written fiction is it is the only medium in which a human being can become someone else. But it can't happen without empathy. Empathy is the identification, understanding and often sharing of, someone else's feelings and/or motives. I would even go so far as to say readers should have empathy for 99% of characters--that's what keeps us reading. The one exception is a particularly fascinating antagonist/villain, such as a Hannibal Lecter.

Of course, authors have many tools at their disposal to tell their stories and engender empathy. These include dialogue, character's thoughts, description of setting and action and narrative. There are some special writerly mechanisms to make characters empathetic:
  • make the character an underdog or experience some kind of trauma
    Note: it's important the character not feel sorry for him/herself
  • show the character caring about other people
  • show other people caring about the character
  • have the character protect or help someone less powerful than themselves.
As examples, Harry Potter was a huge underdog at the beginning of his adventures, and Katniss Everdeen took her little sister's place in The Hunger Games, and we liked them immediately! Character's thoughts and backstory can be particularly effective in making characters empathetic. And don't forget to give you character some flaws! :)

It has been said that the ability to create fiction and other artistic works is a fundamental aspect of human culture and one of the defining characteristics of humanity. So, why not use all the tools at your disposal to create fiction that engenders empathy and hence insights into the human condition?


  1. Lesley, excellent discussion of empathy. You touched on its different aspects.
    I went back and checked out a-d. All are well-written. You might have a how-to-write book by the time you get to Z.

    MM the Queen of English

  2. Yeah, I had someone mention lately that they found it hard to like my character because she was so nervous/depressed and not able to enjoy the awesome opportunity in front of her. Which had never occurred to ME, as the author who loves her own character and is evidently too close to the story ;)