Amber Morn
Brandilyn Collins

Brandilyn Collins is a best-selling novelist known for her trademark Seatbelt Suspense™. These harrowing crime thrillers have earned her the tagline “Don’t forget to b r e a t h e …®”. She writes for Zondervan, the Christian division of HarperCollins Publishers, and is currently at work on her 19th book. Her first, A Question of Innocence, was a true crime published by Avon in 1995 and landed her on local and national TV and radio, including the Phil Donahue and Leeza talk shows. She’s also known for her distinctive book on fiction-writing techniques, Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors (John Wiley & Sons), and often teaches at writers conferences.
Visit her blog at Forensics and Faith, and her website at Brandilyn to read the first chapters of all her books.

Ten Ways To Create Character Empathy

1. The character highly displays a valued trait such as loyalty, love, or courage. This is especially important if the protagonist soon makes a bad or questionable choice. It’s far easier to create empathy for a character right away than to erase negativity. Better to start at zero than minus ten. So before any negative choice, show the protagonist helping a child, tending a sick loved one, standing up to a bully for a friend, etc.

2. The character is particularly good at something. Emphasis on “particularly.” She’s not just talented at the piano, she’s stunning. This approach involves details. We’re not merely told a hunter is efficient with a gun. We see him treat the weapon lovingly, oiling it, practicing with it. He’s portrayed with a keen eye, perhaps inexplicably detecting the smell of prey before it’s seen. The proficiency of his hands, the tilt of his body as he sights, his absolute stillness and measured patience until the perfect moment arrives to ease back the trigger . . .

3. The character hurts or is treated unjustly. This is one approach that can work on its own, although other techniques can enhance it. It’s human nature to feel bad for someone who meets injustice.

4. The character wishes for something universally understood. This includes needing love, acceptance, a purpose in life. Universally understood desires help soften characters—even those who first come across as selfish or uncaring. For that reason, #4 is a great approach to use for those characters who might be more difficult to like.

5. The character is thrust into danger. The danger can be anything from facing nature to a bad guy with a gun. But #5 by itself isn’t enough. Numbers 5 and 6 (thrust into grief) are alike because they aren’t character traits. They’re circumstances. A circumstance in itself, however compelling, does not an empathetic character make. I can thrust a protagonist into the most intriguing crime imaginable, but if my reader doesn’t see something about that character herself to like, the reader won’t care. So make sure you employ at least one other of the techniques with this one.

6. The character is thrust into grief. This one’s tricky. As noted, it needs at least one other approach for support. The problem with thrusting a character into grief right away is that we don’t know the character enough to grieve with her. At the same time, the temptation to load in a bunch of backstory to “enhance” the grief becomes particularly great. Don’t do that. It will slow your story. Instead, find ways to incorporate other character empathy approaches within the action.

7. The character cares for others, especially at cost to oneself. This approach is commonly used to give the bad guy in a suspense a little three dimensionalism in a “pet-the-dog scene.” Here Bad Guy shows his tender side: kill the human but kiss the hound. Two points to remember in using this technique for any genre: (A) Overdone, the scene can become too syrupy. (B) The caring needs to be given in an unassuming manner. A true care giver doesn’t stop to think how caring he’s being.

8. The character is unique, attention getting. The character may do off-the-wall things, may look different, may think in unique ways, may have an unusual first person voice. The possibilities are endless. This approach needs to be mixed with at least one of the others. People can act in all sorts of unusual ways to make you look twice. That doesn’t mean you’ll like them.

9. The character attempts to overcome some fear or make a change. These are two challenges that readers can identify with. We don’t like change, and we don’t like facing our fears. But this approach presents two challenges: (A) You need to present the problem well enough so readers understand what’s to be overcome and why it’s so hard for the character—without loading in a bunch of backstory. (B) Sometimes this approach is more of an internal battle. The character may be making a decision on whether to walk out on a relationship, or he may have conflicting desires. To make an inner struggle compelling in the opening scene, you’ll need to put it in the context of action.

10. The character faces an inner struggle. This is different from #9 in that the character isn’t trying to make a change. She’s burdened and doesn’t know how to handle that burden—whether it’s guilt, depression, bitterness, jealousy, hate, etc. An interesting note: The character doesn’t have to know he’s burdened. Your character may be in bondage due to intense bitterness but not realize it. The bitterness may have become such a part of him that he just accepts it. This gets tricky, as the reader, even while in the character’s point of view, needs to be given just enough to know more about the character than the character knows himself. If you manage that, it gets even trickier, because we want the reader to like the guy, not think he’s an idiot. Again, you’ll need to mix in other approaches.

Challenge: Read the scene in which your protagonist is introduced. Which of these techniques have you used? Which might you add to make the character more empathetic?