Empathy is the Key to Emotion

By Joe Moore

If I asked you to name your all-time favorite fictional character, chances are it would be someone that you related to on a strong emotional level. It was a character you fell in love with or one that gave you night sweats, one that you cheered for or one that you cried with. It was the character’s emotions that grabbed you. You empathized with them. Why? Because you’ve felt the same real-life emotions they felt.

The dictionary defines empathy as the “ability to identify with another’s feelings.” I believe empathy is the key to creating memorable fictional characters. It’s not because they’re beautiful or handsome, fashionable or rugged, brave or risky. It’s that they have believable human emotions. Emotions that you have felt at some point in your life.

So if empathy is the key to your reader becoming attached to your characters, what is a proven method for creating emotions?

parking_cleanedLet’s say you want your character to be afraid—to experience fear. You could always just tell the reader that he or she is scared. That would mean little or nothing because not only is it telling, it paints an unclear picture in the mind of the reader. Scared could mean a 100 different things to a 100 different people. Now ask yourself what it felt like when you’ve experienced fear. Perhaps you were in a parking garage late at night. The sound of your high heels seemed as loud as hammer strikes. The shadows were darker than you remembered. You could see your car but it appeared miles away. Then you hear someone cough. But there’s no one around. You pick up the pace. Your heels become gunshots. You shift your gaze like a gazelle that sensed a stalking big cat as you hug your purse to your chest. Your pulse quickens. Breathing becomes shallow and frantic. Palms sweat cold. Legs shake. You press your key fob and your car’s lights flash but your vision blurs. You hear a strange cry escape your throat—a sound you’ve never made before. Your car is only yards away but you don’t feel like you’re getting closer. Were those your footfalls echoing off concrete walls or were they coming from the shadows? You reach for the door handle, your hand shaking, fear gripping you like a cloak of ice.

Here’s my point. It may not have been in a dark parking garage late at night but we’ve all felt it. Paralyzing, heart-stopping fear. In your story, you need to have your character feel the same. Describe it so that your reader will empathize. So that their hands will shake and their chest will tighten. Make them sweat, even if it’s only in their imagination. Approach every emotion your characters feel in the same manner. Use your life experience. How did you feel the first time you felt love, hate, jealousy, rejection. If you are honest in expressing true emotions through your characters, your reader will have empathy for them, and very possibly come to list them as their all-time favorite.

OK, Zoners. What technique do you use to impart believable emotions into your characters? How do you get your readers to feel empathy?

23 thoughts on “Empathy is the Key to Emotion

  1. Your post makes me think of something that seems to be prevalent in much of today’s writing – strong, almost overpowering emotions. This is pure grist for the thriller writers’ mills, but it seems to have been done to death (he yawned). I get more pleasure out of creating empathy with subtle techniques. Everyone’s had the experience of thinking of the ideal riposte an hour after you needed it. But you can give that capability to your character and create a quick jab of admiration. I think many writers ignore the lesser emotions because they are a bit more difficult to capture, and they don’t arouse strong feelings on the part of the reader. But they work just dandy for engendering empathy.

    • Good observation, Stephen. In some instances, style comes into play, either with a specific author or even across a genre. But making the reader feel what the character feels is still the goal however it’s achieved.

    • I couldn’t agree more. I don’t necessarily want to experience the same emotions as the character, but when I find empathy for a character such as Enoch Cain in From the Corner of His Eye, then that author did his job correctly. How could I empathize for a man who just committed murder and was about to get caught red-handed?

      Another example is when you have a young boy in a classroom who gets a paddling in front of the class, it’s supposed to be shameful and we feel badly for him. But change the dynamic just a tad bit and have him notice his crush, Suzy Carmichael, sitting in the front row of the classroom. For me, that dynamic just bumped it up a notch and my stomach goes into knots for the kid.

      I know that’s probably a simple and cliched instance, but it’s what I like in developing connections with a character, it’s how I remember them or separate them from any other ordinary character.

      • On the surface, it seems logical that you couldn’t empathize with a murderer. But have you ever felt rage? Perhaps the murder was committed in a fit of rage. You don’t have to agree with a character’s actions in order to share the emotion that caused them. And if he’s about to get caught, there could be fear, panic, remorse or many other emotions that we’ve all felt in some form or another. At least you know how the character feels even if you don’t approve what he’s done.

  2. Every emotion has elements to it, as you’ve broken down in your example, Joe. I like how you built on escalating fear in the garage. Whenever I feel a strong emotion, I put my writer hat on and examine that feeling and imagine how I would explain it.

    But it shouldn’t only be about the “symptoms” of the emotion. Whatever the character is feeling, it should reflect on them and give insight into who they are so the reader can build an understanding that grows as the pages turn. Make the character struggle with internal demons or deal with conflicting emotions.

    Thanks, Joe. Excellent post.

    • Spot on, Jordan. Emotions are prime tools for building your characters and making them believable. Combining their emotions with their actions and reactions creates 3-dimensional heroes and villains.

  3. Nicely put, Joe. What you describe is similar to what a great actor must do in a part. “Sense memory” of past emotions is brought in and shaped to fit the role. So, too, an author can recall emotion and then start filtering the sense memories through the character in a way that readers can relate to. You’re absolutely right that this is the primary key to connection between character and reader. I’d remind writers, too, that this applies to the “bad guy” as well. The most memorable villains will be those for whom the reader has some empathy … even when they don’t want to!

  4. David Copperfield was the most powerful character I’d ever experienced. It’s not that I could relate to the character, but that I wanted to save him from the cruelties he experienced.

  5. Joe, This is exactly what I want to do. In your example, the metaphors stream out of you like water from a sprinkling can. For me the metaphor is a brick wall, stops my writing cold. Do I try to mine my life? Yes. But I keep digging up the same old ore. I have nothing fresh like “high heels become gunshots.” You’ve never worn high heels, so where did you get that? Did it just come to you, or do you have a process? Help!

    • Thanks for the comments, Nancy. Metaphors are a secondary descriptor. They add to and compliment the primary or subject of the sentence. They can paint a picture in the reader’s mind that is sharp, vivid and solid. One of my favorites is by Thomas Harris: “blue as a meat inspector’s stamp”. They can also stop the reader cold and throw her out of the story. “The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.”

      When you write, sometimes a metaphor will jump into your head and you go with it as the “heels like gunshots” did for me. Other times, it’s that brick wall you mentioned. My advice is to keep writing through the wall. Let your sub conscience rummage through your life experiences and hopefully, come up with something clever. But no great story ever failed for lack of metaphors. Good luck!

  6. My all-time favorite novel–I know y’all here at TKZ get tired of hearing about it–is Harrison High by John Farris.

    It’s about a three-sport jock who likes group sounds music, petite girls, and makes good grades.

    Except for the good grades, that’s I. I knew Jim Trent well.

  7. The exact same way, by pulling from real life. Brandilyn Collins has a fantastic craft book entitled Seven Secrets Novelists Can Learn From Actors. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve read it, but she uses a scenario similar to this…

    This week you’ve worked 70 hours and you’re barely able to keep your eyes open. The commute was a nightmare, horns blazing, drivers screaming obscenities out their windows, as if that could make the traffic jam move quicker.
    You slog up the front stairs and practically fall into the house. Remind you never to volunteer for overtime again. The only thing that’s made this nightmare even remotely bearable is the novel that awaits you, a new thriller from your favorite author. For an entire year you’ve waited for the release, and it finally came. Yay!

    Y’know what’ll make this night even better? A nice, hot cup of tea. Oh, good. You still have a few Salada bags left. This is gonna be so great. Lord knows, you deserve this after fighting off your boss’ advancements all week.

    Novel in hand, you snuggle into the sofa with the angora blanket tossed over your bare legs.
    Ahh…new book smell. Is there nothing better? You flip to page one. Wow. The author really upped her game with this one. The story is out of this world. So suspenseful and action-packed. What a perfect ending to a busy week.
    Zzzz. A fly lands on the page you’re reading.
    Without losing your place you swat it away. The storyline heats up. Oh no. The killer’s after Jason. Not Jason. Anyone but him.
    Go bother someone else. You shoo him away.
    Your gaze travels to your tea. Not only have you not had a sip yet, but his butt is hanging over the tea while he rubs his wings together like he’s having a grand ol’ time for himself. How dare he?
    You swat at him, then turn your attention back to the book. Where were you? Oh, that’s right. The car chase. Wow. Close one. The killer almost ran Jason off the road. Your heart thump, thump, thumps, adrenaline coursing through your veins. Best story you’ve read all year!
    Zzzz. The fly sweeps your cheek, circles back around and lands on your nose — taunting you, mocking you, testing your resolve.
    You swat him away. Where were you again? Oh, right. The car chase.
    He’s back, with that God-awful buzzing. This time he lands on the sofa arm, inches from your hand. It’s like he’s daring you to catch him.
    Zzzz. He’s ruining everything. Is it too much to ask for one hour of peace?
    Zzzz. He circles your head.
    Zzzz. Now he’s back teetering over your tea. If he falls in, you swear you’re gonna…
    That’s it! He’s got your full attention now, boy. Just your gaze at first, following his every move so he doesn’t know you’re on to him. The element of surprise…perfect strategy.
    Zzzz. When he lands on top of the TV, you rise to your feet. It’s on now, pal. One of you must die.

    One step, then another, you stalk closer. Slow. Methodical. Deliberate. The last thing you want is your presence known. Not yet.

    From the corner of your eye you spot last week’s newspaper on the coffee table. Yes. That’ll do nicely. Your fist tightens around the folded weapon, knuckles white from your death grip. All doubt washes away like watercolors left in the rain. You’re committed. It’s him or you. This room isn’t big enough for you both.
    Gross. Look at him, with his bulging eyes and skinny legs. Disgusting. Every muscle in your body tenses as you hold your breath and raise the newspaper. Careful now. Any quick movements and he could escape.
    Zzzz. If you have to hear that one more time…
    Yes! Perfect shot. You loom over his squashed corpse. What a mess. Now you’ll need to polish the TV because of him. With two fingers you flick his remains to the hardwood floor, stomp him good, grinding in your heel, ensuring he never disturbs anyone ever again. Serves him right. How dare he bother you.

    In the kitchen you tear off a paper towel and bustle over to the mangled fly. In one fluid motion you sweep up his grotesque corpse. Job well done. You’ve rid this world of another annoyance. A quick tap to the trash barrel’s foot lever and the lid springs open. Once you deposit the fly you brush your hands together. Against your will the corners of your lips arch to a smile, and you snicker. No one messes with your quiet time.

    You are now a killer. You’ve plotted, stalked, murdered, and disposed of the body. 🙂

  8. I try to remember those emotions, Joe. Sort of like an actor.
    I remember picking up a prescription for my husband in a Walgreens at 3 AM when the lights went out. Suddenly, that familiar store seemed vast, and I realized how lonely it was, surrounded by a black asphalt sea, and how easy it would be to kill us. My heart was still pounding when the emergency lights came back on and I’ve never forgotten those feelings.

  9. This post is a perfect one to follow Kris’s post on Intimate POV yesterday, because showing emotions means you’re in that character’s head, and (one hopes) the reader will be, too. I recall a workshop given by Suzanne Brockmann where she had finagled an interview with a Navy SEAL, since she was writing a series with them as her protagonists. The SEAL was surprised that she didn’t want him to talk about all the weapons and all the things he’d done in his career. She wanted to know how he FELT while he was doing these things.

    And at another workshop, Gennita Low told us how when she was a young child, she went to a bazaar with her grandmother, and they were separated. She remembers the fears she felt and can use them in her writing.

    There’s a nice little book called “The Emotion Thesaurus” that might help jump start writing those emotion scenes.

    And I’m with Nancy on the metaphors. When I do manage to come up with something I think will work, if my critique partners don’t shoot it down, my editor does. CJ Box had written “ducks and geese scattered the lake like errant punctuation” and I asked him at what point in his process he created it. He said that one just rolled out in the first draft. Grrrr. (But once you use a winner, you should make sure not to use it again. Box used the same “errant punctuation” in another book to describe something else, and all it did was pull me out of the story. Of course, who keeps track of metaphors?)

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