Writing Empathy Series Part Two: Empathy For Your Character

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

Empathy for your CHARACTER

I have a bunch of best friends. Evangeline, Lyra, Mac, Calliope, Fauna. They happen to be protagonists in my novels. I love them! They’re full of life and loss, like most of us. And, like the real people in my life, I want to protect them, hide them away from harm, so the world doesn’t beat them down. 

Only I can’t. 

Because I’m the one bringing the world down on them!

It’s the paradox of writing fiction; we love our characters but we make their lives miserable. We are the ones who upend their lives and make them suffer. We have to. Our stories would be boring if we didn’t. 

But how is that showing empathy to our characters? Why do we even have to be cruel to our characters in the first place?   

Because life can be cruel to us. Our characters become avatars for our readers; the audience of my YA fantasy Evangeline’s Heaven may never have angel wings, but, like Evangeline who learns the truth about her beloved father, they may have had conflict with their parents.

Which brings us to another paradox of writing fiction. Yes, we’re the ones who destroy our characters’ lives, but we’re also the ones who show them the greatest amount of empathy. 

As writers, our job is to ensure our readers feel what our characters feel. To do that, we need to get inside their head. We need to understand what they’re thinking and why. We need to explain not just how they solved their problems (assuming they do) but also their thought process leading up to their decisions. 

It’s the difference between “showing vs. telling”, that age-old writing adage that seems spectacularly vague and at the same time fundamentally essential. I used to think I understood the difference. I thought “telling” was simply explaining to the reader how the character felt. “Mom was angry when her son Luke came home late, long after curfew.” And I knew enough not to “tell”. I’d show my readers instead. “Mom crossed her arm and tapped her foot, glowering when her son Luke snuck in the back door two hours after curfew.”

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books

PG will ask, “Is Snuck a word or not?”

It didn’t used to be, but Donald Trump didn’t used to be a former president.

3 thoughts on “Writing Empathy Series Part Two: Empathy For Your Character”

  1. Snuck is definitely a word, but strikes me as a bit odd as it turns sneak from a regular to an irregular verb but is a younger word than sneaked. However it has firmly ensconced itself in the language.

  2. I was jumped over using “snuck” in one of my books. When I replied that it appears as an alternative past tense of sneak in dictionaries, my critic informed me if I’d had a proper education, I’d know better.

    Congratulations, PG.

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