Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Empathy is Crucial

I just didn't connect with the main character. If you’ve ever heard these words from an agent or publisher, you’re certainly not alone. That statement is quickly becoming commonplace in rejection letters, and for good reason.

Fostering an emotional connection between the main character and the reader is imperative. It could easily make the difference between getting a work published and not getting it published.

Why? Because if that initial connection with the character is never made, there's less incentive to continue at all. Why keep reading, if you don’t care what happens to the characters, whether they live or die? It’s a waste of valuable time. On the other hand, if an emotional investment in that character is established early on, the reader be willing to go almost anywhere (plot-wise) with the character. The reader needs to fall in love.

So, how on earth do we, the writers, create a tangible connection between an imaginary character and a reader we probably won’t ever meet? How do we manufacture love? How do we capture it, then channel it?

1) Be ‘in love’ with the character, yourself. If you, the writer, are rooting for a character, if you don’t mind spending hundreds and hundreds of hours in his/her presence, there’s a good chance that will translate to the reader. It doesn’t mean you always agree with your character’s choices or have on rose-colored glasses. As in real life, you see the flaws and decide to love in spite of them.

2) Show their weaknesses. As the cliché goes: a perfect character is a boring character. We humans aren't perfect people, so how can we relate to perfect characters? Let us see from the start that your characters, even the well-intentioned, "good" ones, are flawed. Show us their jealousy, their frustration, their temper, their insecurities. There’s no need to hit the reader over the head with these, though. A subtle action—or reaction—can do the trick.

3) Let readers empathize with the character. This might be the most powerful way to establish a fast “connection” between your character and reader. Let your flawed, imperfect character be the object of the reader’s empathy. In real life, isn’t it easier to like someone with whom you empathize? In literature, my favorite example of this comes from Colleen McCullough’s sweeping novel, The Thorn Birds. I read it more than fifteen years ago and can still remember with great clarity the opening scene. On her fourth birthday, little Meggie sits, gazing at her new doll, every detail lovingly described. The doll is precious because Meggie had longed for it for months, and finally, her mother had saved enough money to purchase it.

Then, the unthinkable happens. One of Meggie's rambunctious brothers wrenches the doll from her hands and tosses it to her other brother. She sits helpless, watching in horror as the doll falls between them, watches them rip away the doll’s beautiful golden hair, contort her limbs into unnatural positions, strip away her delicate pink dress. I'll never forget the emotional connection that I had to that little girl at that moment. I sympathized with her. I wanted to scoop her up and hug her, repair the doll for her, make her smile again. And because of that initial connection, I was able to follow Meggie through the rest of the novel, into adulthood—even watching her make irresponsible decisions or display anger and jealousy toward men and even toward God. If it weren't for that first scene, I'm not sure I would have rooted for her quite as strongly as I did.

In the end, it’s not about techniques and manipulating characters into heart-wrenching situations to force an emotional response (in fact, to be believable, the emotions have to feel natural). Ultimately, it’s about letting characters reveal their human nature. And when that happens, readers will recognize themselves in the character—like a mirror—which will establish the strongest connection of all.

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