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What gives the characters empathy?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Writer’s_Magic, Jun 3, 2018.

  1. I always read: give your characters empathy therewith the readers/viewer love them. (I don’t divide them into protagonist and antagonist. If you saw Marvel’s Black Panther, you know an antagonist can have empathy, too.) But what’s giving the character empathy? Is it the looser guy, who tries to get the popular girl at high school as the girlfriend? Or is there much more than just giving goal?
  2. K.S. Crooks

    K.S. Crooks Inkling

    Suffering for something for which they had no control of the outcome is always a good way to build empathy. This is what Disney does in the beginning of many movies- The Lion King, Finding Nemo, Up, Big Hero 6. All of these have the death of a loved one early in the story. The main character, and the viewer, must learn to deal with the loss.
    Failure is another way to go. If the character tries to accomplish something early in the story and fails in the attempt much of the story can revolve around trying to attain their goal. Progress can be made with a few setbacks, which can further build a connection for the reader.
  3. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    Shoot their dog, heh heh.
  4. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    Now this is a great question - how to get readers to empathize with your characters...

    I think the first step towards empathy is understanding. Our characters need to act in ways that our readers understand. Without this understanding there's no way for the reader to relate to the character. Without being able to relate, it's difficult to empathize.

    I believe the part about relating is trickier than the one about understanding. Understanding is about logic and reason. Relating is about feelings and emotions.

    To simplify things a little, let's say that in order to relate to someone the reader needs to be able to imagine themselves in the shoes of the person they're reading about. It's probably a lot more complicated and personal than that, but let's keep it simple.

    Another factor I believe is important is time, because with time we get to know the characters better. The better we know someone, the easier it is to understand why they do what they do, and the easier it will be to relate to them. It's kind of like with friends and strangers. It's a lot easier to empathise with someone you know well, than with someone you've only just met.

    1. Make the reader understand the character.
    2. Make the reader relate to the character.
    3. Make the reader spend time with the character.

    I'm sure there's more to it than that, but it's a start.
    Penpilot likes this.
  5. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    You spelled "save the cat" wrong. :p
    goldhawk and Demesnedenoir like this.
  6. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    Yeah, yeah... save the cat... that’s what I meant.
    goldhawk and Svrtnsse like this.
  7. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    Fingers slipped. The keys are so close together.
    Malik, goldhawk and Demesnedenoir like this.
  8. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    Sorry, am I reading this right, kill the wife? What's that? In the most tragic way possible?
  9. Firefly

    Firefly Troubadour

    Yeah, essentially just do really horrible things to them :)

    It really needs to be on a more emotional level though. Killing the character's cat/dog/unicorunicornn is a lot more effective if you understand why and how they care about their cat/dog/unicorn.

    The characters I love the most are the ones that have some sort of vulnerability of deep emotional issue their dealing with. Giving the reader insight to parts of the character that they'd normally keep hidden can help build a deeper connection.
  10. staiger95

    staiger95 Scribe

    Providing your character with empathy may be less important than providing your reader with it. I like the way someone above mentioned the diffrence between understanding and relating. Make the character beleivable. Real human beings don't ever just think through a situation, they feel through it. Most times it is the difference between thought and emotion that creates the most dramatic conflict.

    And tragedy is not necessary for empathy. Psychologically speaking, emotionally tragic events can oftentimes damage our empathic responses, making us less likely to feel others rather than more. The reader is not required to feelsorry fora character in order to like them more. The choices they make in the midst of the story are what the reader responds to, especially if they are genuine. More often than not, the 'wrong' choice is more believable than the 'heroic' one. Such is life.
  11. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

    Empathy doesn't equate to sympathy. They often overlap, but sympathy is only one way of creating empathy with a character. Empathy is the ability to convey emotion through a shared or similar experience. Your character got his high school diploma? Great. Most people can empathize with that feeling. The heavy lifting comes when you, as the author, want to convey the emotional impact to the character for such a feat.

    Empathy is a tricky thing. As I said, the reader has to have shared or has had a similar experience. That is why the death of a loved one is often used to create empathy. Although not all have lost a loved one, almost all will have the fear of losing a loved one. That is what the death is supposed to play off.

    But becoming a CEO of a fortune 50 company? That may cast a smaller empathy net. Unless you focus on the more general of emotions; accomplishment, validation, and agency.

    This is the finer art of creating empathy. Boil down an event in the character's life to the most basic of human emotions. If you put the words together skillfully, you'll create empathy.

    Well, provided you keep in mind the qualifier: plausibility.

    Without plausibility you've created a distance between the reader and the character. Who can relate to the man who woke up one day with a package delivered from a long lost uncle with a trillion dollars worth of gems in it? Or of a woman who hates her life, decides to change it, and when she opens her car door to go home and do something about it, she discovers a genie's lamp in her front seat with a note "Love you - The Universe" on it?
  12. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    All this is why shooting the dog builds empathy so well. My personal favorite is the Outlaw Josey Wales, which does a fabulous job of building empathy for a guy who wouldn’t otherwise necessarily deserve it so quickly. Not everybody has lost a loved one (especially in audiences targeted toward young people). Field of Dreams had way more impact on me because my dad passed away.

    But a huge % of people have lost a beloved pet. And of course, the dog’s PR firm has done a fantastic job of painting them as the loyal best friends of people... so, killing the cat or gold fish lacks the same impact, heh heh.
    Heliotrope likes this.

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