We all know people read fiction for entertainment. There’s nothing like getting lost in a new world and living vicariously through characters: slaying monsters, solving murders, saving the family farm...even falling in (or out of) love. But while this is going on, whether we consciously realize it or not, we also read for another reason: insight. We’re secretly looking for answers to life’s questions.
Why? Because none of us have a roadmap to this world of ours and we sometimes (okay, often) fumble through situations we’re not equipped to deal with. Our emotions can end up knotted and twisted like a basketful of yarn ends that we don’t know how to unravel. Storytelling provides a unique window into how someone else works through the challenges that the universe throws their way.
As authors, we can use the reader’s desire for insight to draw them deeper into the story. This is done by exposing them to a protagonist’s deepest emotions, allowing us to build empathy. But, to achieve this, authors must bring their A-game.
Creating bonds of empathy only happens when the writer knows their character inside and out, and can build a protagonist who feel like flesh and bone. This means digging deep to understand who the protagonist truly is, and giving them realistic human traits, good and bad, as well as needs and desires readers can identify with.
Pulling readers in so they empathize with the point-of-view character is all about creating a sense of “shared experience.” This is where an emotional moment is rendered so well an echo of the protagonist’s emotion is felt by readers.
Here are two techniques that facilitate shared experiences.
Several years ago I attended an all-day workshop with agent Donald Maass, who is a master of characters and emotion in storytelling. A lesson of his has stuck with me since: use emotional writing to give readers something new to experience. I wrote about it here in depth, but the cliff note version is that Donald encouraged us to take a highly emotional moment and dig within our character for something hidden, reaching past common emotional responses. We were to look for a feeling that was part of this moment, but one that a person typically might not dare voice or show in real life.
For example, take a hero who cared for his mother during an illness, one that slowly ate away at her strength. At the moment of her death, typical feelings would be a huge sense of loss and grief. But what else might be there? What else might he feel that he would never dare to voice to others present in the room?
Relief. And not just relief that his mother’s pain was at an end, but that his own pain was too--that the endless doctor visits, ambulance rides, medications, and sleepless nights listening for (and dreading) her struggling, hitching breaths were finally over.
This type of deep honesty pulls readers in because it is unexpected, but completely understandable (and maybe even brave to write about). After all, it’s not proper to say one is relieved that one’s parent has passed after having to live with the ordeal of illness for so long, but it doesn’t make it less true. Likely shame and guilt would quickly piggyback on the relief; and echoes of these mixed feeling would wash over the reader as they remember a time when they felt relief even though it wasn’t proper to do so.
This shared moment brings readers in close, and they empathize deeply with the hero’s vulnerability and what he’s going through.
Sensory Description Triggers
Becca and I have created a Setting Thesaurus at One Stop For Writers that has the sights, smells, tastes, sounds and textures for over 220 different locations. We did this because one of the most powerful ways to pull readers into the story is through sensory detail.
Rich and layered, describing the smells or sounds or textures of a location not only can transport readers into the scene more fully, it can also trigger emotional memories, bringing them right back to a time when they experienced the same emotions (or situation) as the character. This creates that shared moment we’re striving to achieve, and results in readers becoming more emotionally involved.
Imagine a character who has just experienced a stillbirth at nearly full-term. She’s sitting alone in a hospital rocking chair, lights dimmed, cradling her bundled baby as she says goodbye. She’s been left alone for this private moment, and through her senses, everything is on mute: the sounds of the hospital around her, the smell of antiseptic, the movement of people striding past in the hall. It is only her and her son, and the silkiness of his hair as she runs her hand over it again and again. Written well, most readers will be brought back to a moment where they too were transfixed by a silken tuft of new hair, possibly their own baby’s. Through this powerful sensory detail that triggers memories and feelings, even a reader who has never experienced this type of loss can imagine what that raw heartbreak might feel like, and a shared moment is created.
When the character’s emotions join with the reader’s own through shared experience, it brings them closer, bonding them together. Empathy is powerful and, once it grabs hold, it is difficult to break. Choose the right scenario, and dig for that hidden emotion, or look for the sensory trigger that will act as a hardwire connection to your reader’s own memories.
How do you create empathy? Do you use shared experiences? Let me know in the comments!
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Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling resource, The Emotion Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, as well as the bestselling duo, The Positive Trait Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes and The Negative Trait Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws. A proud indie author, her books are available in five languages, sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors and psychologists around the world.
Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site, Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop For Writers, an innovative online library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.
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Thanks, Angela. This is encouragement I can use. My life has been complicated. Therefore, I have a deep well of emotional experiences to draw upon. What I sometimes lack is the courage to lay that raw emotion down in black and white for the world to scrutinize. Using your example about caring for a mother who melted away from disease. My mother had Alzheimer's and became extremely mean. I began to wish she would pass. It was a horrible feeling (guilt, pain, sadness, anger, helplessness, and shame all wrapped into one) and I have never had the nerve to admit I felt this way, but I bet I'm not alone.
Oh Stephanie, I'm sure you wouldn't be! I'm sorry you had to go through that - and I hope your exposing it here, helps you get it on the page. It's funny, we all worry about exposing those feelings, but when we do, we much more often than not, get support and understanding rather than the scorn we think we'll find. Hugs, Hon.
Thanks for the hugs!
Digging around in our own emotional past can be difficult, but when we do, we bring out a deep authenticity that readers connect to. I am sorry you had this experience, and agree completely with Laura that sharing these things often opens a door where healing can happen because people are usually very understanding, especially as these types of confessions are usually with people who we have a caring relationship with.
And even if we can't talk about something openly, sometimes writing about the things that have hurt us through our character provides a measure of release as well. 😉
Angela, it's taken me a long time to get to the bottom of this blog, because I keep going back to my WIP and making notes of what to change! Thank you for the reminders...
I'm going back and reading the Donald Maass articles I have today.
Awesome stuff here.
Very glad you found this helpful, Laura 🙂 That Don Maass is so knowledgeable. If you ever get a chance to workshop with him, take it! 🙂
Thank you Angela, for this powerful reminder of why I ever longed to write in the first place.
And thank you for visiting and commenting. I think as readers, we seek to understand more about the world and ourselves, and as writers we write to connect and have a deeper side of ourselves revealed and understood. What a terrific job we all have! 🙂
Thank you Angela - of course the emotional connection is so obvious that most of us miss it! you have put into context - a great help
Very glad this was helpful to read, Glenda. Happy writing!
Thanks, Angela. In order to hold onto the insights you are providing, I found myself clicking back and forth between your post and a"revisions" document I'm maintaining. Now I have snippets of your advice pasted after the name of my main character.
That's awesome that you are able to so directly and immediately apply these ideas! So glad this was helpful--good luck with your revision 🙂
Excellent post. Emotion is something I really work hard on bringing out in my characters, and I know I still have so much to learn to get it right. This is a great reminder to keep at it.
Great to hear this post helped, Kimberly!
thank you Angela, its a great article...as are your books.
Hugs to Stephanie while I'm here.
Aw, thank you very much, Maggie! Group hugs all around 🙂
My copy of the Emotion Thesaurus is well worn. I'm in the middle of a rewrite and started looking back at certain key moments and making notes. Thanks for your blog today.
I love hearing that, because it means it is pulling its weight! Glad this post helped!
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Angela...Your post came at exactly the right time for me. Yesterday, I was facing the task of writing a very emotional, very important scene with my WIP. After reading your advice, I used the 'unexpected emotion' slant and found exactly what I needed to make my protagonist's reaction deeper. Thanks so much.
Hurray! So glad this came along at the right time and you were able to apply the technique!
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How timely that you mention Donald Maass. I'm reading his book entitled "The Breakout Novelist," which is chocked full of examples about writing with reader empathy in mind.
His books are very good. I especially enjoyed his 21st Century fiction. Excellent stuff!
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Thank you for another informative and engaging article. You're the best. You asked how we create empathy for our characters. One of the tools I use is the Enneagram. I was introduced to it twenty years ago and have studied it ever since.