Do you know how to make your characters empathetic? Handsome Hansel of Dance of Romance gives us a hint or two.
That is where it begins as well as ends for the characters we birth for our stories. I won’t insult anyone who reads this by providing the definition of Empathy; a writer’s trick I despise along with preceding an intention with quotes from a song lyric. We all know empathy is different than sympathy and, I am a VERY STRONG believer that we have to empathize with ALL of our characters if we want our stories to be believable.
Let me continue this post with something I NEVER do: reveal something personal. I have five amazing children and will pimp-slap anyone who tells me different. My oldest is 21 years old and severely developmentally delayed. He can’t speak, didn’t take his first steps until he was four and if asked a question, can’t return an answer by any means given him. Yet…I understand him.
Is it simply because I’m a parent and that’s something inherent in parenting? I don’t believe so. I believe empathy is what makes me understand him. Not SIMPLY putting myself in his shoes (which a lot of people think empathy is) but living day in and day out in his skin. I am forced to think for him. Just like we are forced to think for our characters.
When it comes to developing a character, most, not all, people leave the “look” of a character to define them: “Short auburn hair, lean legs, and nimble fingers…”, “Angled features exaggerated by a month’s old beard and stoic look.”, or “ With her crinkled brow she channeled every frustration which preceded Hansel coming into her life.” These items help but don’t complete our characters.
It takes a willingness to go deeper. Find the internal voice of our characters. I do believe we invent our characters but don’t understand them completely until we dig deeper. Just like we may strike up a conversation with someone at a coffee shop but ask no questions deeper than if they think the weather will improve. Our readers recognize rather quickly if we put the effort in.
When we give life to our characters there is a foundation with which we begin building upon. It may be someone we noticed at the local grocery store or another we read about in the newspaper; no matter what, our initial groundwork is laid and now the heavy lifting begins.
Today when I ran to the grocery store, I was turning left into the parking lot as a rather frumpy looking man in a $60,000 sports car was turning right out of it. In the blink of an eye I noticed a crisp white golf shirt (even though it was 45 degrees out), a very receding hair line with a frock of hair falling way beyond the collar of his shirt, and the saddest set of adversarial eyes I’ve ever witnessed. In the matter of three and a half seconds I had the basis of a character. I can’t say why this person resonated with me but he did, and for the next 15 minutes in the parking lot, I sat and empathized with him. What gave him his success? Hair gone in the front coupled with Old-school Billy Ray Cyrus hair in the back means, what? Eyes which I’m sure when presented across from an attractive female scream confidence yet ooze insecurity while alone. What does that mean? It is the answer to questions like those and similar which we should impose upon the him and her of our writings.
So, how on earth do we do that? Pay attention. Pay attention to the inner workings of those around us. People who don’t live lives the way we do. People who try to fly under the radar need to be on ours. All it takes is to take a breath and notice. Translate what we see into words. Words which bring the players of our stories to life. Phrases like: He’s upset he lost his wife., She couldn’t keep from crying., or The pain in Hansel’s leg knew no bounds., are weak. Compare them to: With the loss of his wife he knew the embrace of their bed would never be the same. Or, The tears from her eyes pebbled the pavement in mock of every relationship she ever had. Or, Hansel could no longer handle the pain in his leg and wished for the pain he felt in his heart to return in order for it to subside. These are the kind of things which speak to understanding of our characters; Aka, Empathy.
We’ve all been in some relationship or another. The ones who have given us attention and noticed what we were going through without having been asked are the ones who got our attention. We need to be that person to our characters; the one who pays attention to what is going on with them. We are not visiting them, we are living with them. Our readers are living with them. By empathizing with our characters we allow our readers to do the same. In some cases the relationships with our characters are deeper than the ones in real life.
Empathy, empathy, empathy. Dig deep into the ones you choose to bring to life. It makes all the difference to not only you but your readers and fans. At the end of the day when I get it just right for my uncommunicative son and he wraps his arms around me smiles a very rare smile I know I got it right. Require the same from your characters.
RU Crew – how do you gain empathy for your characters?
Join us on Monday for Adam Firestone.
Bio: Like most of us, I’ve been around the block a time or two (or three) in the relationship world. I like to think of myself as having a pretty thick skin, however, that skin doesn’t surround the heart.
I’ve been in love; I’ve been in lust. I’ve been hurt and got up to do it all again, each time having learned more of myself as well as “wants” and “don’t wants” for my next relationship. Amazingly enough, I never gave up on that one true love wrapped in Romance. You can visit me here, at http://thedanceofromanceonline.com
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