Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Writer's Wednesday: Making your character empathetic

PHS editor and Harlequin Historical author Michelle Styles shares some ideas on how to make your reader connect more with your characters

It is great to create characters you care about but how to make the reader care. Authors are by definition entwined emotionally with their characters. Basically, if you don’t care what happens to them, why should anyone else? However, I operate on the assumption that 90% of readers will only get 10% of the emotion I feel. This can be for many reasons including what is happening in a reader’s own life.
SO how do you make the reader care about the characters you sweat blood to create?
1.       First impressions count.  Don’t underestimate them. In fact I think one of the few places where a prologue can be really useful is when your hero or heroine in the first  few scenes needs to be unsympathetic or somehow likely to be unlikeable (for example a redemption story). In order for a character to be redeemed, it is useful to first show that he is worthy of being redeemed. I first discovered this way back when I co-wrote a story The Lady Soldier. It was rejected with detailed notes by an editor that I was working with. Chiefly they were about how unattractive the hero was. Instantly I saw what the problem was and added the prologue showing the heroine’s life prior to the story actually beginning. I knew it had worked when the next feedback we received was how wonderful the hero was. I then used this fact when my editor asked for revisions with Breaking the Governess’s Rules.  A prologue with the hero solved the problem and set up the story very nicely.
2.       We tend to love characters who display altruistic behaviour and dislike characters who are selfish and self-centred.
a.       Victims can arouse sympathy but can also look weak. A woman always being rescued by a man (and waiting around to be rescued as well!) can be branded too stupid to live, particularly if she got herself into an avoidable situation.  To remedy this: you need to show the character had no choice but to put herself in that situation. And that she is trying to fight back.
b.      Everyone loves a saviour, except when the person being saved didn’t ask for help. Then it can look overbearing. When I was writing His Unsuitable Viscountess, I had a chapter where I wanted the heroine to be rescued when things went wrong with molten steel. It was a set up for later to help explain some of the hero’s actions. However, the hero kept coming across as overbearing. Finally I realised that the strong willed heroine had to ask for help. The asking for help enabled her to be rescued without making the hero seem overbearing.
c.       Martyrs can be irritating if there is a credible alternative.
3.       Promises — readers in general to like characters who keep their word, particularly  when it is not in their best interests to do so. Or it would be easier to stop, but she gave her word that something would get done.  If a promise does need to get broken, then if it is the hero or heroine make sure they do it for a good reason and show suitable remorse. Casually breaking their word for no good reason except expediency or sheer laziness leaves a sour taste.
4.       Volunteering — the general rule of thumb, is if the task is impossible and bound to lead to certain death, your leads can go ahead and volunteer for the job. If it is a piece of cake and bound to lead to riches, fame and glory, they should be somewhat reluctant.  Readers have greater admiration for people who have greatness thrust upon them.
5.       Dreams — know what your characters dream of achieving in life at the start of the story.  Have them know what her plans and dreams are and why at the start. It is far easier to sympathise with a character who has a plan or a hunger for something other than her current life.  The hopes and dreams of a character are important. The reader also wants to know why the  character possesses those specific dreams. What was it about her growing up that made her desire  fame so much that she was willing to do just about anything to get it? Why did the billionaire work so hard to save his family’s company? The full reason doesn’t necessarily have to be on page 1 but you have to provide a hint or snippet. Is the dream for herself or to benefit others? In Paying the Viking’s Price,  the heroine Edith wants to protect her people because she fills a deep sense of duty towards them and the land her family has controlled for a long time.  Brand, the hero wants the land because he has dreamed of putting his roots down.
6.       Who bears the blame when something goes wrong? If the hero or heroine takes the blame, particularly if they were only minimally at fault or seeking to shield another character, readers can often sympathise.
When you need to increase the emotional stakes think about:
1.       Suffering – how are you going to make it worse for the lead character – either making what they want to obtain more valuable or increase the risk of what they have to lose.
2.       Why is this going to be emotionally difficult for the character to do? Consider foreshadowing to show a similar situation but where the character fails or doesn’t quite manage to do it.
3.       Take the mentors/crutches away so that the character has to face her final battle on her own.
Turn offs for a character – a lot of this is simply the reverse of making the reader care. It can be useful when you are creating a villain or if you are looking at why perhaps the editor is not as sympatico with your characters as you are.
1.       Madness, particularly uncontrollable or strange inexplicable behaviour does not endear a character to most readers. Charming eccentricity yes, but full blown madness is very hard to pull off.
2.       Controlling or abusive behaviour with no explanation. If the reader can’t understand why, then you can lose them. The temptation can be to hold the full explanation until the end, but it is perhaps better to give hints as to the reason behind or at least show they are capable of compassion early on (this is particularly true if you have a controlling hero). Sadistic bullies are never very attractive.
3.       Totally downtrodden with nowhere to go but up and no expectation or desire to go there. Aspirational characters tend to garner more sympathy.
4.       Unnecessary cruelty to animals or children or defenceless characters.
5.       Attitude towards himself. If a character is overly pompous and self-important, humourless or otherwise devoid of humanity, the character will have to work harder to resonate with readers.
6.       Self-serving and self-appointed characters are often hard for a reader to find sympathy for. In fact if a character tries to muscle in somewhere where they are clearly not invited, sympathy can vanish.  However if the character can prove that he in fact deserves that place or deserves to be there, sympathy can return very quickly.
7.       An oath breaker – if readers respect someone who keeps a promise, they really dislike someone who can’t be trusted to keep his word.
8.       With criminals – if the crime has been committed for selfish reasons then it can be a turn off. If it is committed for perhaps misguided but altruistic reasons,  the audience can forgive or sometimes applaud, particularly if the victim of the crime *deserves* it.  A heroine who steal bread to feed her starving siblings is more sympathetic than one who shoplifts for the thrill of it.
As a general rule of thumb, readers are fine with behaviour that is explained and has an unselfish motive at its core.


Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and inmate historical romance in a wide range of time periods. Her next book Saved by the Viking Warrior will be published on 19 August 2014. To learn more visit her website


  1. Thanks so much for this, Michelle! I have a heroine that needs some work and I think looking through this will help me with her quite a bit. As it stands, my critique buddy thinks she's whiny, and the response to my first page by betas was that her reaction to the opening situation made it sound old-fashioned or historical (it's a contemporary). I've been pulling my hair out how to make her sympathetic but still true to who she is. I love this character, of course, so it's been harder to pinpoint how to tweak. I'll definitely apply some of the suggestions you've outlined and see if I can't "save" my heroine (but only if she asks!).