Seven Ways to Create Empathy for your Protagonist

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By Pam Mingle

From time to time, we all need to be reminded of what it is that keeps readers reading. For me, and probably for many others, it’s empathy for one or more of the characters. Dictionary definition of empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It’s an emotional connection. If I can’t empathize with the protagonist, it doesn’t matter how compelling the story is or how well-defined the goals and motivations are. It just doesn’t work for me.

Here are seven ways your protagonist can be empathetic, along with some examples:

  1. Care deeply about others. Katniss and Prim in The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins); Briony and Rose in Chime (Franny Billingsley).
  2. Commit to a cause. Maddie and Julie in Code Name Verity (Elizabeth Wein); Ismae and Gavriel in Grave Mercy (Robin LaFevers)
  3. Be emotionally wounded by something. Theo Decker in The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt)
  4. Show courage and take risks. Jonas in The Giver (Lois Lowry); Katsa in Graceling (Kristin Cashore)
  5. Deeply love someone. Karou and Akiva in Daughter of Smoke and Bone (Laini Taylor); Louisa and Will in Me Before You (Jojo Moyes).
  6. Have a self-deprecating sense of humor. Hazel in The Fault in Our Stars (John Green); Junior in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian (Sherman Alexie)
  7. Do the unexpected. Aleksander in Transformation (Carol Berg)

Most of these characters exhibit more than one of these qualities. Committing to a cause often goes hand in hand with courage and risk taking. A self-deprecating sense of humor may spring from an intense hurt a character suffered in the past. Caring about someone might prompt an unexpected, even heroic, act.

Not only are one or more of these behaviors empathy inducing, they also are entwined with the key elements of a story. Any of these could serve as the catalyst (as in Katniss’s sacrifice for Prim at the start of The Hunger Games). They are inextricably linked to goals and motivation; to emotion, tension, and action.

Can you think of other ways to create empathy for your protagonist? Share your ideas in the comments!

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  1. Top Picks Thursday 09-11-2014 | The Author Chronicles - […] unforgettable? Denise Drespling has 7 tips for making well-rounded characters, Pam Mingle shares 7 ways to create empathy for…
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