Writing Characters with Empathy

Empathy is a trait where you not only sympathize with another person’s situation, but you share feelings with that person. You walk a mile in their moccasins. How can writing utilize empathy for more effective fiction?

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s look at the ways in which empathy can improve fiction:

Empathy, Three Ways

Psychology identifies three types of empathy: cognitive, emotional and compassionate. The first, cognitive, basically means “empathy by thought.” This type of empathy enables a person to see another’s perspective—where they’re “coming from.” If your readers can relate to or understand your protagonist’s goals and motivations, these readers are more likely to keep reading.

Emotional empathy means that you give your character an emotion and your readers “catch” it and feel the same emotion. In a tense scene, eliciting an emotional response that matches the POV character will further cement the bond readers create with that character. In life, emotional empathy can be distressing—a person might become overwhelmed by their emotional empathy. But in fiction, the more emotion you raise in readers, the harder it will be for them to stop reading.

Finally, there is compassionate empathy. In life those with compassionate empathy not only feel another’s emotions, they act to help. In fiction, your character might be so strong and moving that readers will be changed forever. This type of empathy is usually found in classic literature or where the author has a deep and global understanding of the human condition.

Why Empathy?

Empathy is vital to good fiction because it centers on how people feel. Feeling is crucial to keep readers not only interested but invested in a character’s story. I’ve written before about the role emotions must play in any story.

If you concentrate too much on the outer aspects of your character, the result is usually a flat reading experience. Even worse, a seemingly unfeeling character will be perceived as cold or uncaring. Even your antagonist should have feelings—even if those feelings justify wrong actions or thinking.

And what about a character who’s been so hurt that he/she vows never to feel again? This is a well-worn set-up for a character who starts out rejecting feelings and winds up embracing a new way to feel. I think even this character must show their wounds and hurts to the reader, even if in the opening that character is steely or ambivalent toward other characters in the story. Readers must be willing to see this character’s humanity to sign on for the rest of the story.

Writers’ Empathy

Giving your characters strong feelings is a great way to hook readers. But what about the writer behind these characters? I think that fiction is a wonderful outlet for our deepest hurts and disappointments. We can translate these feelings into our characters. Yet the writer’s empathy is also important.

If you hold uncaring views about people or certain populations, this attitude will likely shine through into your story. Your lack of good will or your neglect to understand other groups or types of people may spill over into what you write. Of course, this is a great thing if you hold bad feelings against someone who is trying to blow up the world. But if you don’t empathize with your Main Character, readers probably won’t either.

The older I get, the more I want to write from a compassionate empathy. I may not be a Toni Morrison or a William Faulkner, but I can stay aware of the Empathy Factor as I write. Even if I only achieve Emotional Empathy for my characters and readers, those feelings will take readers a long way toward relating to my stories. As you write, I hope you’ll consider the empathy present in your fiction and in your life.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

6 comments on “Writing Characters with Empathy

  1. Hi, Linda! Just wanted to say hello. Still in Tennessee, now in the Bible dept at Thomas Nelson. I love all your cat photos! How are you? What are you writing? Miss you. Holly Halverson

  2. Holly!
    Wow it’s great to hear from you. If you’re ever out Oregon way, please get in touch. We had five cats and they all are old, so only two left. Plus a lop-eared bunny that “found” us.
    Glad you’re still around.

  3. Create a Voice Thread discussion post, and describe the steps needed to perform one of the MS Word Document activities covered in Chapter 1 or the training exercises. Review and respond to posts from others in the class. For full credit, respond at least three times on separate days of the week (make your first response before Wednesday). COMP 100 FULL COURSE LATEST

  4. Dear Linda,

    Thanks for your thoughts on this.

    I have got some pretty good heart-wounds myself in real-life unfortunately, but was able to get them conveyed into two novels that have been very well received, but my trilogy is struggling. With a protagonist that has a Doctorate in Mechanical Engineering, and working in a male-dominated industry with a sense of false bravado as a character flaw; it is not the kind of person that generates lots of empathy for a reader. You gave me some ideas to bounce around though, and maybe create a bit better protagonist.

    Sorry about your cats, although I must admit I am a bunny-person with two bunny’s.

  5. Travis,
    I’m a bunny person too! We have a bun that rescued us–a beautiful butterscotch lop who hopped into our yard about 6 years ago. She lives out back in a converted greenhouse we call the Playboy Mansion (cuz there’s a bunny in there!). Good luck in all your writing and thanks for stopping by!
    Keep Writing,

  6. Thanks for the encouragement.

    Yes, writing is just who I am and while it is bad grammar, I have always said,” I cannot, not write”.

    I’ve got 10 books now of which 7 are novels, but got a few more started.

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