Sunday, March 13, 2011


I feel so sad for all the people affected by the tsunami in Japan. I hope the worst has passed and the people can start healing.

On that note, today I wanted to write a little about empathy.

Last Thursday, I was reading a book with my three-year-old son while his big sisters were at school. He stopped me, mid-sentence and said, "I wish [big sister] was a boy."

I asked him, "Why do you wish she was a boy?"

He replied, "Because it hurts her head when you brush her hair."

So sweet. He wasn't thinking of how cool it would be to have a big brother, he was worried about the pain his sister goes through every morning when we brush out her long tangley hair.

The conversation got me thinking about empathy.

I've read several books lately where I was unable to connect with the main characters. The authors tried to create sympathetic characters. The ingredients were there, (sad past, dismal looking future, and a lot of personality), but for some reason the characters didn't work for me.

Then I read I AM THE MESSENGER, by Markus Zusak. WOW. I was so invested in the main character. I felt his pain. I wanted him to find happiness. And because I was felt so much empathy for the main character I loved the book.

When I write a character I try to make her real. I try to make her likable. I want the reader to care about what happens to her. I don't always succeed.

I wish I could give you a checklist for "how to create characters that people care about," but the truth is I have no idea how to do it. For me, sometimes a character works, and sometimes he doesn't. Sometimes half of the readers love him and the other half don't. It's something I'm working hard to get right in my current WIP.

So, since I have no easy answers, I'll ask you.

How do you create characters people will care about?


Tricia J. O'Brien said...

As a novice at novel writing, I can only guess. But it seems to me the first step is the author must care deeply about the character. Next would be to use all the tools we learn, such as conveying the character's emotions and thoughts through action and dialogue. That's all I've got!

Lisa Aldin said...

Um, I have no idea! Ha! I would say they just have to be real. They can't be perfect. They can't be all bad. They just have to be somewhere in between. They have to be human.

Riv Re said...

I think I read this somewhere, and it's kinda true, I think: Don't have your main character someone to pity. They should be someone you feel bad for at times, of course, but mostly someone you root for. You don't want a character you pity with a tough life. You want a tough character with a life you pity.
See the difference? (Am I rambling insanely and babbling incoherently?)

Jade said...

This came up the other day on a Twitter chat. Someone said that readers tend to care about characters who care about something. I thought that was interesting.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

For me, the character can't be too cynical. I know cynicism is a way for a wounded character to respond to the world, but when it continues for too long, I find I lose compassion for the character and don't care much for them later when they start to grow.

Jessica Nelson said...

I have to agree that even though there's that checklist out there, it's not quite enough. I think something about that character or their situation has to really hook us for us to get invested in them.
btw, thanks for the news that Zusaks book is good. I loved Book Thief so much I was afraid to try anything else of his lest I be disappointed. LOL

Corey Schwartz said...

Very interesting post. Hard to articulate exactly what makes you connect with a character, but my husband and I just watched all six seasons of Lost and I have never been so in love with a cast of characters in my life!

Joanne Fritz said...

Aw, that was really sweet of your son to care so deeply about his sister.

I love all these other commenters' ideas. I'd have to agree with Jade. If the character doesn't care deeply about something (or someone), then I find it hard to care about them.

Perhaps the character needs above all to be multi-dimensional. To seem real. They should have flaws, but flaws that are more like endearing quirks. And they should definitely grow and change throughout the book. The hard part for me is achieving that in my writing!

Natalie, I was amazed by I AM THE MESSENGER right up until the last page and then it felt like I'd been manipulated the entire time. (Although that last sentence still haunts me.)

Adam Heine said...

I actually did make a checklist, though it was a long time ago. It's from Orson Scott Card's Characters & Viewpoints: 10 Things We Like in Characters. Hope you find it useful.

L. T. Host said...

Your guess is as good as mine! Also; how long have you been on Twitter and why am I not following you?


There, that's better.

Yeah, I have no idea. I just hope it works every time I create one. :)

Jean Ann Williams said...

I agree that the characters have to be real people, flaws and all. I, too, can't stand whiny characters. I'll stop reading a book if the MC goes on too long in their whiny world.

Karen Amanda Hooper said...


I fail at this task a lot. I think one of my characters is one of the people you're referring to, and I don't know why I can get you to empathize with him. :(

I hope it's an ability I can strengthen the longer I write.

And poor poor Japan. I just can't imagine what all those people must be feeling. :(

erica m. chapman said...

Ooo good post! And aw, about your son.

Empathy. I try to really think about what it would be like to be them... it's not a full-proof plan, but the more I write, the more I feel it.

I think, the author has to feel it first, it will show if you don't. Empathy is SO important! Give them stakes that really matter to people, and you'll get them most of the time.

I know, Japan. My heart goes out to everyone over there and everyone affected, which is essentially everyone. So sad.

Anonymous said...

I make my characters suffer so that people (hopefully) root for them. I also try to make them likable. If they're unlikable, I redeem them in some way so that people still (hopefully) care about them.

I've read books where there was no connection. I don't enjoy those books too much.

Jill Kemerer said...

Your son sounds so sweet. How touching was that? Precious.

I hope I write characters readers can relate to. They have problems, but they also have the strength to overcome them.

L.T. Elliot said...

I'm not sure but I know I'd like to learn the answer. =]