October 12, 2010

character empathy

As a writer, I think the greatest skill in writing stories deals with the characters. Some people believe the most important thing in a story is the plot, the prose, or the voice. I am a character person. The characters are the most important aspect of a book for me.

I’m a sissy baby. I’ll admit it. I am guaranteed to cry at least once while reading a book, watching a TV series, or watching a movie. This is a fact. I just watched Beauty and the Beast (which I have seen more than a dozen times) and cried. I cried during Rugrats: The Movie. I cry every time I read Harry Potter. I bawled my eyes out nearly every episode of LOST and Battlestar Galactica. I cry a lot. This is another fact.

My episodes of incessant crying are not always triggered by sad moments. I cry when I’m happy too. I also laugh when I’m happy, just so you know I’m not a complete sissy cry face. I am a very emotional person, and my husband can attest to that.

So the point of this is, I cry or feel sad when a character feels sad: character empathy. I can also be just as exuberant when something good happens to a character.

I have wondered lately if my emotional instability is caused by the writing or acting – whether it be dialogue, inner monologue, the actions, or the way the situation is handled – or if it’s just because I’m a sissy baby cry face.

Is character empathy written into a story, or is a certain level of it ingrained into each individual reader? You may not have cried when Rose and Bernard were reunited in Season 2 of LOST, but when they saw each other, I felt their happiness. I cried. Without ever experiencing something like that, I knew exactly what thoughts and what emotions were running through those characters, and I cried my little eyes out. On the other hand, I didn’t cry during a single Percy Jackson novel, and that may be because the level of emotion in those books is rather minimal.

Is character empathy reserved for writers? We know how much effort goes into writing a good character, someone who makes you laugh and cry, but does that make us more sensitive to other writers’ creations?

I don’t know the answer. I don’t know the mystery behind character empathy. I do know that I want to write characters that readers can relate with on a level that connects them emotionally to the story. My goal as a writer is to have a reader empathize with my characters. I want them to cry. I want them to laugh and feel angry with the characters in my novels. If I publish one book, only one person reads it, and they tell me that they cried, or they laughed, or they hated with the same ferocity as the characters, I will have done my job as a writer. I would have accomplished my goal, and I would be content never writing another word. 

And that is a fact.


  1. I agree with you 100%. Characters make the story for me. If I'm interested in the characters, I'll forgive a lot of other things about a plot.

    Hopefully, my characters are interesting and engaging. I shoot for the same goal as you--if one person reads it, identifies, and empathizes with a character, I'll feel like I've done my job.

  2. And here I thought I was the only one leaving a trail of tears across every book, movie, television show, and commercial. :-) The personality and growth of the characters are what is most important to me. I want to see them change, learn, grow. Or at the very least I need to feel their pain and be completely engaged in their stories. This is definitely something to remember when developing characters in my stories.