Melody Carlson

Melody Carlson is one of the most prolific novelists of our time. With around 200 books published and sales topping 5 million, Melody writes primarily for women and teens. She’s won numerous honors and awards, including The Rita and Gold Medallion, and some of her books are being considered for TV movies. Melody has two grown sons and makes her home in the Pacific Northwest with her husband. When not writing, Melody likes to travel, bike, camp, garden, and walk her yellow Labrador in the great outdoors. Visit Melody at her website:

The E-Factor

I’m often asked how I manage to create believable characters—and I take that as a huge compliment, but it recently got me to wondering, Just how do I do that? Remembering back to when I first became passionate about fiction, as a reader I was mostly drawn to character-driven novels. As a result I decided those were the kind of stories I wanted to create. Of course, I had no idea where to begin, but in my usual way I simply took the plunge, determined to figure it out as I went along. And that’s pretty much what I’ve done.

But many, many books later, as I pondered this question today, I wondered if there was some secret ingredient—something I’ve been subconsciously utilizing—that’s been an integral part of creating my characters and stories. The answer came to me while taking a shower (funny how water often seems to inspire me). But about the time I was squirting out hair conditioner, it hit me: the key to my characters is the e-factor (and, no, I don’t mean electronics).

My most helpful tool to creating realistic characters might be empathy. The more I considered it, the more convinced I became that I’m able to ignite empathy for my characters because I experience so much empathy for those around me. Sometimes more than I would care to admit. In fact, I learned long ago not to watch certain heart-tugging movies and even some TV commercials because they could play havoc with my emotions.

And as a young person I was considered “overly sensitive” by some. I would often feel pain for others to the point it would bring me to tears. Naturally, back then I saw this trait as a weakness—who wants to cry in front of her friends? But I’ve come to appreciate it as an adult . . . especially in regard to my writing. Because I’m certain that feeling the emotions of others is a great asset in creating lifelike characters.

According to Webster’s, the first part of the definition of empathy is “the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it.” While that is a mouthful, what I think it means is that empathy allows me to use my imagination and to infuse emotions into an object—mainly my characters. It’s like the e-factor helps me to breathe life into what would otherwise be flat, one-dimensional characters. Because I am taking something that is actually nonexistent, unreal, make-believe, I attempt to bring it to life by infusing it with my imagination. In a way, it’s not so very different from what I did as a small child playing with dolls—because I loved my dolls, I would turn them into “real” people as I created dramatic dialogue and little scenes straight out of my imagination.

That brings me to the second part of the definition of empathy. “The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this.” Thanks to my “overly sensitive” nature, combined with an innate ability to quietly observe others, I have always been able to take in more than most people. It’s as if I experience conversations and emotions on a different level than does the casual observer. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been like that.

I can remember sitting under the kitchen table while my grandmother and aunts were talking about a family scandal (something a small child wasn’t supposed to overhear), and yet I crouched down there, soaking in every word, letting the undertones roll around in my head, and probably misunderstanding some of it, but at the same time absorbing a lot more than a preschool child should grasp.

This makes me believe that I was hardwired to be a writer from early on. Even though it took me until my thirties to figure out that I wanted to write, I can see how many things (including this

e-factor) were preparing me to do so. Ironically, it’s many of the so-called negative influences that have had the most positive impact on me as a writer.

And as much as I despised my embarrassing tendency to overreact as a child, I now realize that what I once considered a curse is actually a blessing. And perhaps this ability to get into the skin of others, to feel what they’re feeling—or at least imagine it—is one reason my characters feel lifelike to my readers. Because, as I write, it does feel that I am vicariously living through them—at least for the course of the book. And that, I believe, is all the result of the e-factor: empathy.

So, does that mean that all writers must have an empathetic nature or possess the e-factor? Probably not. Because really there are so many writing styles—I know it’s different for everyone. But I do think that if writers want to improve their craft, they ought to attempt to nurture a sense of empathy in regard to their characters. For instance, if I was writing about a visually-impaired person, I’d want to imagine what it would feel like to be sightless. Perhaps I’d blindfold myself and stumble around a bit just to experience the sense of frustration that would come with being blind. And then I’d write about it.

Jane Austin is one of my favorite authors. I believe that her understanding of characters and personalities was unsurpassed in her era—maybe even in this era. And yet I know that she lived a relatively sheltered life, even what some would describe as a rather uneventful sort of existence. So what is the explanation of her uncanny ability to tell a story bigger than her own personal life? How did she create such lifelike characters? My guess is that she had the gift of empathy—perhaps, like me, she even had considered it a curse as a child. But I’ll also wager that she spent years listening, observing, sensing; and when she put her pen to paper, she was experiencing all the depths of the emotions that she wanted to portray in her characters. Empathy at work.

The beauty of empathy is that it transports you to another place—without ever leaving your desk. It allows you to walk in someone else’s moccasins without even taking off your shoes. So I’m sure that I’d be unable to write as I do without the e-factor. At least it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. The funny thing is that I’m surprised to be just figuring that out now. But sometimes that’s how it is with a natural gift—we take it for granted. However, I do know this about gifts—they are useless unless we utilize them. So I’m thankful for empathy and that I’ve been able to put the e-factor to use.


All For One