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.
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