When I was a teenager, I read a book with a main character that didn’t react emotionally to anything.
His mentor died. His family died. Everything he had was torn away from him, and he was left running for his life from people who wanted desperately to either kill him or shove him into prison for forever and a day and not let him out again.
And he never reacted in a believable way. (I won’t tell you which book, because I’m not trying to bash the author or the story, which was quite good despite this flaw.)
He didn’t cry, he didn’t feel sad, he didn’t do anything. He barely got angry.
It made him almost impossible to like.
“Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes.”
~ Daniel H. Pink
I don’t know about the rest of you, but if I can’t empathize with a character or care about him in the slightest, I drop the book. I don’t read another page. I don’t have any interest in characters who are cut out of cardboard and flung into the fray to be chased down and killed. Sure, that’s traumatizing. But if I don’t like him to begin with, there is no way I’m going to stumble through fire and death in his wake.
I have to come because I care about him. I have to love him. And believe me, it’s hard to love a character that doesn’t act in a believable way.
Tips to Cultivate Empathy.
1. When you are writing the massive chase scene, the heroic death, or the meaningful moment . . . pause. Take time to go a little deeper into the scene, to get into the character’s head. Yes, he’s sad. So, how does that feel physically? Mentally? Believe me, there’s more to crying than tears and there’s more to grief than sobbing on the ground for ten minutes, then moving on with your day.
2. Research. Seriously. The five stages of grief. PTSD. Survivor’s guilt. Phantom pains. Something. When traumatic things happen in your book, either a death or an injury or even just a breakup with a middle school crush, there is a response. It’s your job as the author to research and know just what that response should be—and how to manifest that in your character.
3. Remember it. Grief lasts longer than a chapter. If your character’s father dies, and he never notices, feels sad, or thinks about it again after the chapter it happened in . . . he’s going to look like a jerk, and you’re going to look like the kind of author who kills characters because you want the shock value or because the character became inconvenient. Not good.
4. Look for the change. Deep emotional experiences—deaths, near-death experiences, romantic attachments—cause a good deal of change in a character. They change the way the character perceives the world, himself, and the people around him. If a significant event in your story is not changing your character, it may be time to step back and question why. The point of a story is to take your character from A to B . . . not to throw a series of calamities at him, have him dodge them all with ease, then go home and get back to his normal life.
Good luck, dearest writer! May your tea be hot and your dreams wild.