And off we go on this one. Once again, I think I should define the term in the title of the rant as I’m using it: reader empathy, here, is the ability to tie the readers to your characters and make them feel for those characters. That isn’t the same as sympathy, which involves an element of wanting the characters to succeed. That’s because reader empathy can be for villains as well as for protagonists, minor characters as well as major. They may dislike the villains, hate them, or be fascinated by them. It doesn’t matter. Indifference and apathy are the enemies, not emotion. If you can make the readers engage emotionally with the characters, you’ve won.
1) Show characters as serving more than just plot purposes.
Even if they are in there only to serve plot purposes—you need a manipulative bastard of a villain or the plot won’t move ahead, so you create one—don’t show them that way. I’ve said over and over that I find it hard to care about stock figures. That doesn’t mean certain character traits. I’m as capable of disliking someone with a weak chin, pimples, and foppish clothing as any other reader. But if I think this person with the weak chin, pimples, and foppish clothing is only there to blurt out court secrets to the heroes, and the author seized on those traits solely because they were the first ones that popped to mind, then I feel nothing for that character at all. He could do the most evil things in the world, and I would yawn. Those evil things are the result of the author making him a marionette, not the character himself.
Instead, create a character who seems to serve his or her own purposes. One of the villains I absolutely loved to hate was Sashka, a woman in Louise Cooper’s Time Master trilogy. (Mild spoilers follow). She’s at first the love interest of the “hero,” Tarod—Tarod is, um, not really a hero most of the time—and then turns against him when she sees a chance to rise higher in the confidences of Tarod’s rival, Keridil, the leader of the mage circle that Tarod’s part of. She’s not the one who does the most horrible things to Tarod in the books, though she’s arguably the cause of an awful lot of them. But what really got to me were the sections that Cooper gives Sashka where she thinks about her ambitions—sometimes in her own interior monologue, sometimes in conversations with Keridil. She sees nothing wrong with what she’s doing. It’s just politics, to get herself a nice husband. Tarod wasn’t it, so now it’s going to be Keridil. And she’s the kind of villain who coaxes and whispers and persuades someone more powerful into doing nasty things. She’s only a harmless, helpless maiden, of course! How could she be doing anything evil?
By the end of the trilogy, I hated her so much that I flinched whenever she came on the page, because I knew she was about to make things worse. I wouldn’t have hated her half so much if Cooper had just showed her spitting random accusations at Tarod, or told—instead of showed—me that, “My, Sashka is a nasty evil bitch.” And it helps that, although Keridil does things to Tarod because of Sashka, Tarod is really, really, really not a hero. So he’s not blameless in what happens, either. It just becomes nastier than it would have been otherwise through Sashka’s “help.”
Give characters their own souls and purposes, or, even better, their own reasons for fulfilling their plot purposes instead of just because you want them to, and it’s dead simple to start the reader empathizing with them.
2) Show the character doing things that interest him or her.
I don’t really accept any more that some plots are inherently boring and some inherently exciting. I’ve read too many boring battle scenes, and seen authors create interesting plots about banking, mosaic-making, opening a postal office, and the scholarly study of magic. The main separation between the characters I cared about and the characters I didn’t came when the characters themselves were intensely involved in what they were doing—or not.
Here I go with proactive characters again, and no, I will not shut up about it. Fantasy’s idolized the reluctant hero to the point where they’re more common than the supposedly common people who want to be rulers or leaders. Fine, fine, the character doesn’t want to leave her cozy village, we get it! What does she want to do, then? Write a story about that instead.
Show the character coming alive with interest, excitement, fire, passion. Or show her struggling madly to escape. For all their reluctance, most fantasy protagonists still go along with whatever other people want them to do, complaining more than they do anything else. Where’s the spark, the carefully-laid plans to escape, the sense that the character really didn’t desire this? Instead we just get, “WAAAH!” in scene after scene, in between the character trudging along with head bowed and saving the day exactly as if she did want it.
All right, maybe it’s impossible for the character to escape. Then show her charging ahead and making the best of the situation. Moist von Lipwig does that in Terry Pratchett’s newest Discworld novel, Going Postal. Once he finally realizes that he can’t escape from his new job as the head of the post office, he dives into moving the mail along. And because he’s a living character, I cared about him, and I wanted to see what happened next.
I keep hearing that fantasy characters are fiery. Show them burning. Burning sheds a lot of heat and light, and both will attract readers like moths.
3) Show a character changing.
This will be a key point (explored in much more depth) in the rant on transformative fantasy. But I might as well mention it here, since it seems as if in many fantasies, only the protagonist changes—and then not dramatically. I’m reminded of an Ursula K. LeGuin quote: “A closed soul can have the most immense adventures, go through a civil war or a trip to the moon, and have nothing to show for all that “experience;” whereas the open soul can do wonders with nothing.” This is especially appropriate for fantasy characters. Authors can move them all over the board like chess pieces, give them the ability to save the world and loving companions who would die for them, and still, at the end, they’re chess pieces. They’re the same people they were when the story began.
How many of you think that you could go through what your typical fantasy character does and still be the same at the end of it?
Yeah. I didn’t think so.
It’s possible to create characters readers will empathize with by portraying them growing, certainly. But it’s also possible to create characters like that who get altered sideways, shrunken, broken, half-healed, curled inward around a wound and only slowly letting go, and all the other normal (adjusted for the fantasy world’s definition of “normal”) reactions a human being would have. The craving for only one kind of change can be just as deadly as the craving to show the characters to be the same people they ever were. In fact, given genre conventions, it can be deadlier. From book to book, scenes of character “growth,” including love scenes and the moments when the hero learns he isn’t to blame for whatever ridiculous angst he’s carrying around with him, are very much the same. If your character grows only in the same way that everyone else in every other fantasy book does, he can build indifference in the minds of veteran fantasy readers.
Try something new. Try having the characters change the way they would.
4) Show the character acting in diverse relationships with other people.
This is harder to do with rugged individualists than others, but hey, part of the usual fantasy canon is to focus on that group of unlikely heroes, so he probably has to work with someone at some point. He may be leader, but even if he is, his relationship to all his subordinates is—or should be—subtly different. If he’s not in the top position, he’ll relate to people in different ways based on status, personality, how much they respect him, what they may have done to him in the past, and on and on and on.
A large part of anyone’s personality is based off other people. I often don’t know what to think about a character until I see the way he interacts with someone else. He may tell me, in long interior monologues, that he’s great and wonderful, but that could be a mistake or a sign of a conceited narrator. The omniscient narrator, functioning as the author, may tell me he’s great and wonderful, but I discard or resist that; show me these wonderful qualities, don’t tell me about them. (See point 5). When his first friend, acquaintance, enemy, son, spouse, rival, parent, teacher, student, subordinate, commander, peer, lord, subject, customer, mentor, love interest, comes on the stage, how does he react?
One-note relationships make for one-note characters, and, once again, the author telling the reader how to react. That can breed dislike for the character, sure, but it also brings up our old enemy apathy again. I was bored, bored, bored by Goodkind’s Darken Rahl, whom the author tells me is a malignant villain, but whom he shows spouting rather clichéd dialogue and doing the old standby torture of children. That’s the only way he ever relates to anyone—not acting intimidating, but doing the same thing that the author tells me is intimidating. Booooring.
Show the characters as connected in a web of relationships, instead, and altering or relaxing or tensing to fit as they move from web to web. Once again, this is something that can be seen in the authors’ own lives, so I don’t know why they ignore it so often. Do you use the exact same language and body language in front of your parents, in church, in front of your friends, and in front of a small group of children you’re babysitting? I would guess not. Do you teach the same way you chat on the Internet? I would also guess not. Do you tell the same details of your life to your doctor that you do to your friend who recently gave birth? Again, I would guess not.
Some authors have the mistaken idea that in order to create a strong personality, they have to create someone who relates the same way to everyone around her. That’s not a strong personality, that’s an answering machine. And there’s only so many times you can listen to a cute recorded message before it gets old.
5) Balance showing and telling of emotion.
On the one hand, there are times it’s much simpler, and necessary to the story, just to say “Anger filled her.” On the other hand, a character’s emotions can’t always be just words on a page, or they’ll remain that way and not grow in the audience’s minds.
Use both telling and showing to get the reader involved in the story and empathizing with who you want him to empathize with. I keep hearing people advocate showing as if it were the answer to all problems, or telling alone, mostly in backlash to the showing people. How absolutely silly. Showing has its share of problems, including purple prose, repeated descriptions that become cliché in themselves (like “fire in her eyes” or “his heart jumped into his throat”), and taking forever to get to the point. Telling is also weak, mainly because it’s usually simple—if an author uses “he said angrily” every time he wants me to know that a character is angry, all the characters start resembling each other—and switches characters’ emotions on and off like lights, so that the heroine can be angry at one point and then happy in the next sentence, all because The Author Says So. So combine them.
When do you have to show emotions, and when tell them? Well, here are some considerations:
- Which better fits your story’s style? I will put up with much more telling when the fantasy is a retold fairy tale. On the other hand, I tend to avoid retold fairy tales for that precise reason; I find them very boring.
- Which better fits your story’s pace? If you want to keep the focus on the action of the moment, simple words, including the kind of simple words telling uses, may be just what you need.
- What are your options for showing? Can you bring in other means of showing than metaphors or facial expressions? Remember that your characters have bodies as well as faces; they can make other gestures than smiling, blushing, and blinking. Build one up well enough, and soon you evoke the emotion in the reader’s mind with just the mention of it.
- Where is it in the story? If the writer’s been building up to a confrontation rich in emotion, I find it rather a cheat for her to say, at the end of it all, “He was devastated.” Yes, we know that. What else is he? What does he look like? What other physical sensations is he feeling? Put a simple telling sentence after a showing build-up, however, and you can work your own magic. This is the reason that one of Guy Gavriel Kay’s sentences, “My mother will want to die,” simple in itself, makes me burst out crying in the book it’s in; it relies on what came before.
- What’s the character like? Simple, blunt characters may get across best in telling, complicated, murky characters in showing.
- What emotion are you trying to convey? I can accept it if the author tells me someone is angry. If she’s trying to convey that he’s the most tortured and betrayed person on earth, especially through omniscient narration, I promptly start ignoring the narration and paying attention to the dialogue and action instead.
There are other considerations, of course. But I really think they should be mixed, not separated out rigidly the way that people want to because of a childish conviction that telling is bad, or the equally childish reaction that telling must always be good because other people say it’s always bad.
6) Include the petty and ordinary.
Fantasy’s most often painted on grand canvases, even if it’s focused on a purely personal story. The protagonists still feel more than the average person in the fantasy world, have deeper internal lives, have grander convictions, etc. That’s all right. Do the clichés well, and there’s still a lot of value in them. (Deliberate trickery, denial of the clichés up to a point and then reverting to them, is another matter. That’s why I won’t forgive Tad Williams for the very end of To Green Angel Tower).
But not even heroes are heroic every moment of their lives. And no, I don’t count the moment when the callow young rookie breaks in on his officer crying as an “unheroic” moment. The officer will still be crying tears of Grand Devastation. It’s probably the anniversary of the day that half the men under his command died, or something. Not ordinary. Certainly not petty.
But to fall in love and empathize most, we need to know those ordinary little details. What are your character’s petty jealousies, passive-aggressive moments, resentments for things that he knows he could put right but just doesn’t wanna? Where is he lazy, hypocritical, forgetful, unapologetic, thoughtless? Those faults are rarer, the tiny ones, the small ones, the insectile corners of the human soul. I think it’s because authors have a much harder time showing them as anything but faults. A quick temper, too much compassion, and pride are all grand flaws, flaws that get a hero in trouble and get him out of it as the author desires. But who else is to blame if the hero promises to do something for a person he doesn’t like, slacks off, and doesn’t do it? His conscience sits there and irritates him. It’s not a gaping wound, it’s an itch.
Present those ordinary things. Itchy heroes are very easy to empathize with in the sense of shared experience. I’ll never face a dragon one-on-one with only a spear, already wounded and half-naked. But I have said things I felt bad about later, yet still sullen enough about not to apologize.
I think the rant on writing purely stand-alone stories is next, unless the poll makes a liar of me.