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
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
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?