Reader Empathy

Reader Empathy: Catch It & Keep It

 by Angela Ackerman 

Quote_Ackerman2Gluing readers to the page. This is a writer’s goal each step of the way, from gaining the attention of an agent, to compelling an editor to make an offer, and finally, to enthralling an audience. We strive to make people experience something powerful when they read our words. To genuinely FEEL. To care.

Sounds…um, not easy? I know! Building empathy requires skill, knowledge and practice. Writers must become deeply in tune with a reader’s emotions and learn how to use these feelings to bind them to the story.

Make Outsiders Become Insiders

When a reader opens a book, they have certain expectations. They know the book’s genre and the jacket copy offers a peek into what the storyline is about. However at this point they are still Outsiders to the main character and his world. They have not yet invested in the hero or his journey. The author has a narrow window of time to draw readers in and convert them into close confidants. Insiders.

Encouraging empathy is the way to make this happen. When readers are brought into the hero’s POV, they not only begin to understand the character’s world, they actually can share his experience. Empathy forms a powerful bond between character and reader, carrying them deep into the story and plight of the hero. They become emotionally invested and worry for him, with losses causing pain and frustration while wins are celebrated because readers care and want to see him succeed.

5 Ways To Encourage Reader Empathy

Humanize your character. Real people have strengths, flaws and weaknesses. Characters must also have a blend of these. They should be imperfect and make mistakes, but also be likable. Give your hero at least one commendable trait that makes him worthy to cheer for.

Get inside their bones. Make your protagonist believable by giving him common desires, emotions, worries and thoughts that an audience can relate to. These commonalities will resonate with the reader’s own beliefs and feelings, reinforcing that bond. Allow the character’s self doubt to bleed through to some degree, showing the reader his vulnerable side.

Clearly define the needs, goals, and stakes. Scene to scene, readers must always know what the character is fighting for. Leave no doubt as to what he is trying to achieve, why, and the cost of failure.

Hobble characters through challenges that readers sympathize with. Readers bring their own life experience to the book, so use it. Story conflict and personal stakes will remind readers of their own past where they faced similar roadblocks. Pile on challenges, make the hero work and sometimes fail, but also allow for successes on the journey.

Never betray the reader’s trust. Writers must know their characters inside and out, and make sure  actions, thoughts and beliefs align with who they are. If a character acts in a way that does not fit his nature, the reader will feel betrayed. Manipulating a character’s choices or actions just to bring about a plot twist or complication will always ring false. We recommend using some of our Character Creation Tools to better understand your character’s emotional range, behaviors, backstory wounds and motivations to write him authentically.

TIP: Showing believable emotion in your characters is really key to forging empathy. If you struggle in this area, a brainstorming tool like The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression  might help. Amazon’s ‘Search Inside’ feature offers a sample of this tool which pairs the thoughts, body language and internal sensations that go with a particular emotion, helping you to convey your character’s unique feelings clearly to readers. Also, thinking about your own emotional responses as you enjoy a book will help you as a writer looking to build that empathy link!

Your Turn!

As a reader, what makes you empathize with characters? Why do you care enough to root for them? Let me know in the comments!


 

angela_ackerman

 

Angela Ackerman is the author of the bestselling writing guide, The Emotion Thesaurus, and most recently, The Positive Trait and Negative Trait Thesaurus books. Centering on the light and dark side of a character’s personality, these new resource books help writers create layered, compelling characters that readers relate to and care for. Visit Angela’s website, Writers Helping Writers for friendly support, description help, free writing tools and more!

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  1. My main character is a 5 year old little girl. I always worry that I might, accidentally put adult characteristics into her. Every time I write something new, I read it to my preschool class.(3 to 5 year olds) I listen for comments like, “I feel like that sometimes.” or “I did that!” If I don’t hear comments about how they relate to her, then I will go back and change something’s .

    Thanks for the advice Angela. You are right when you talk about getting into our protagonist bones. Sometimes before I write, I will watch Sesame Street and eat pop rocks to help me start feeling her. I also write down words and phrases my students say.

    There are many children’s stories that at times I have had a hard time believing that a child would say or do. I have stopped reading because I did not believe in the character. I did not feel the character. I am trying hard to keep my character real, believable, and most important that she touches the hearts of my readers. I want them to support her, cheer her on, cry for and with her, as she tells her story.

  2. My main character is a 5 year old little girl. I always worry that I might, accidentally put adult characteristics into her. Every time I write something new, I read it to my preschool class.(3 to 5 year olds) I listen for comments like, “I feel like that sometimes.” or “I did that!” If I don’t hear comments about how they relate to her, then I will go back and change something’s .

    Thanks for the advice Angela. You are right when you talk about getting into our protagonist bones. Sometimes before I write, I will watch Sesame Street and eat pop rocks to help me start feeling her. I also write down words and phrases my students say.

    There are many children’s stories that at times I have had a hard time believing that a child would say or do. I have stopped reading because I did not believe in the character. I did not feel the character. I am trying hard to keep my character real, believable, and most important that she touches the hearts of my readers. I want them to support her, cheer her on, cry for and with her, as she tells her story.