Posted On November 2, 2012 by Print This Post

Empathy. It’s Where Characters Are Born – Handsome Hansel

Do you know how to make your characters empathetic? Handsome Hansel of Dance of Romance gives us a hint or two.

Empathy.

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: Hes upset he lost his wife., She couldnt keep from crying., or The pain in Hansels 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.

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RU Crew – how do you gain empathy for your characters?

Join us on Monday for Adam Firestone.

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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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23 Responses to “Empathy. It’s Where Characters Are Born – Handsome Hansel”

  1. What a great post! And the story about your son is fantastic.

    For me, walking does the trick with just about everything writing-related. I can work out plots, but I can also get inside my characters’ heads while I’m walking. I completely agree about the difference it makes, both for the reader and the writer. The better I know them, the better I can tell their stories.

    Posted by LynDee Walker | November 2, 2012, 7:20 am
    • Thanks for your kind words, Lyndee.

      And I concur that the depth we give our characters help the reader tremendously. Personally it is the need to get inside my characters heads that keeps mine busy! :)

      HH

      Posted by HH | November 2, 2012, 9:26 am
  2. Hi, Hansel –

    Thanks for this great reminder just as I’m crafting some new characters!

    Do you find your empathy for and understanding of your characters grows during the drafting process or do you “know” them intimately before you write word one?

    Thanks so much and have a great weekend!
    Kelsey

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | November 2, 2012, 7:43 am
    • Hi back, Kelsey!

      I hope what I’m about to say answers your question…

      My dad was an MP in the Army. While he intended to go into law enforcement when he returned home he was forced back into a factory job he left in order to join the Army. Yet his MP instincts never left him and my upbringing was peppered with lessons of being aware of my surroundings and notice EVERYTHING.

      In my adult years, I’ve become a bit of a party trick socially. My closest friends know that almost nothing gets past me. If we head out to a restaurant, before we are even seated I can tell you how many people are already seated, which couples are forcing a date, who is actually enjoying themselves and how uncomfortable the heels the blond at the bar are on her; in spite of the poker face she’s giving her date. Some days it’s a curse others I welcome it.

      I think character development is always an ongoing process. Our characters need to grow up as we write. Even though they may never age in our story. (Make sense?) For the most part I have them pretty well nailed down. Of course when it comes to writing I’m a “pantser” not a planner.

      Thanks again, K!

      HH

      Posted by HH | November 2, 2012, 9:47 am
  3. Morning HH!

    I always have to remind myself my characters aren’t ME….lol….my first instinct is to write what *I* would say or do what *I* would do. Once I begin to separate myself from them, it becomes easier to find out who they are….but the first couple chapters of a book? Nah, I’m still struggling.

    Beautiful post, thanks for sharing your son’s story. =)

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | November 2, 2012, 9:21 am
    • Oh Carrie, Carrie, Carrie! (Channeling my inner Cindy Brady there!)

      We’ve been trough a lot in our short time together. In just the last few days it’s been floods, cats and that damned “.pages” snafu. :) But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Honest. Love being here at RU.

      I can see the need to take ourselves out of the equation of our characters. I will admit however, I never add me in in the first place. Perhaps it’s because I find myself rather boring and my characters so interesting.

      Dialogue is another story. (Or topic for December?)

      :)

      Have a great weekend, Carrie and stay safe.

      HH

      Posted by HH | November 2, 2012, 9:55 am
  4. Hi HH,

    Empathy and sympathy sometimes overlap. I offer my characters no pity, just understanding.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | November 2, 2012, 9:33 am
    • Hello Mary Jo,

      Empathy and Sympathy can’t help but overlap. I do believe that it is the Empathy we share with our characters that give them believability.

      I LOVE your line: “I offer my characters no pity, just understanding.”

      HH

      Posted by HH | November 2, 2012, 10:03 am
  5. Great post! And gave me pause for thought as I too am in the process of thinking about characters for my next novel. Made me think back to my latest as well…”the bad guy”… I actually did empathize with him by the end. Some would say he didn’t deserve it but I think he did, in the balance of things.

    Posted by Mary Metcalfe | November 2, 2012, 11:12 am
    • Thanks for commenting, Mary.

      Because empathy isn’t sympathy, it’s ok if you empathized with your Bad Guy. That’s the point. I would look at your readers saying “he didn’t deserve it” as a compliment. You did your job and did it very well!

      HH

      Posted by HH | November 2, 2012, 4:21 pm
  6. Thanks for the tip on carefully observing others and imagining the story behind what we see. Brilliant tip and a good excuse for going out of my home office to work sometimes. People watching can offer all sorts of character ideas.

    BTW sharing that you have five amazing children and will pimp-slap anyone who tells you different just made us love you that much more.

    Thanks for the insight.

    Posted by Roxanne | November 2, 2012, 11:30 am
    • Roxanne,

      So sweet are your words for me.

      I can’t speak for everyone (writers) but we are in most cases nerdy, wordy, and absurdy. (Yes, I just made that word up. Call Webster.) However, it takes us to open up to our surroundings in order to paint the pictures we need to paint for our readers. If you had never seen the sky, how would you know it was blue?

      HH

      Posted by HH | November 2, 2012, 4:26 pm
  7. Always appreciate personal tidbits.

    When it comes to writing, I actually just know the inside of any character before I even actually know who I am going to write about. Does that make sense?

    When it comes to the physical appearance, I actually have no clue before hand.

    Sometimes I even write a character with whom I have a very hard time empathizing with when in fact it is a character that I own and for a lack of a better word, invented. Some of them are redeemable and some, even for me, as the creator, are simply not redeemable. However I can always sympathize with them. I always understand them. Do I agree with them? Sometimes.

    When it comes to character development it is a process… A strange one at times, a process none the less.

    Posted by Soraya E. | November 2, 2012, 12:02 pm
    • Soraya… Aka…My Little Sis,

      I DO understand knowing the “inside” of a character before knowing “who” you are writing about. It’s looking at your character from the inside out which is what, I feel, most writers don’t do.

      Physical appearances… are where writer’s afterthoughts should lie. Polish the details of your characters after they are “built”.

      It IS important that you empathize with ALL of your characters. You may not understand why your male lead killed someone ages ago but you can empathize with his current struggle and need to get past it.

      Thanks Lil’ Sis!

      HH

      Posted by HH | November 2, 2012, 4:33 pm
  8. HH,

    For me I get inside my character’s skin by pretending I’m a therapist and they have just come in for their first visit with me. I note what they look like, ask questions, note body language and any “tells” the character has. I interview him or her on paper and learn all I can about him or her. Then and only then, after I have a fairly detailed backstory do I name my character and move on to the next important character in the story. I find I have to wait a day or two between “interviews” though or the previous character bleeds over a little into the next one.

    Posted by Tracy Riva | November 2, 2012, 3:17 pm
    • Tracy!

      Glad to see you have your internet back!

      Your therapist approach is a very good way to do it. “Interviewing” your characters is a solid way to prepping them for your stories. Thanks so much for a great, insightful, and intriguing approach to character development.

      HH

      Posted by HH | November 2, 2012, 4:37 pm
  9. Welcome back, HH!

    I love this post because I’m people watcher. As writers, we’re fortunate that we can translate our observations into words.

    I look in other people’s shopping carts when I’m standing in line at the grocery store. I make up stories about them. A guy with a porterhouse steak and a six pack of beer, who doesn’t make eye contact with the checker, might be a recently divorced man. A woman with three gallons of milk, an economy pack of ground round, and a fistful of coupons probably has a family. Happy to be out of the house, she makes small talk with the checker. Both are characters readers understand and can empathize with.

    It takes me a long time to develop a character, and it never really ends, not even when I’ve finished the story because I can’t turn off the observation switch.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | November 2, 2012, 3:46 pm
  10. You have 5 kids? I’m the oldest of five kids! I loved having lots of brothers and sisters (2 of each), but didn’t want that many for myself. Big families are fun, but hard work!!

    Your topic is very timely as those of us who live safely inland empathize with those who were in the path of Sandy’s wrath.

    Your relationship with your son sounds very special – you clearly have a strong connection that enables you to understand him. I’ll bear that in mind when digging into my characters – thank you!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | November 2, 2012, 9:22 pm

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