Creating character empathy

10 Ways To Create Immediate Character Empathy

23 Aug 2016 Fiction

Need fast, practical help getting readers to care about your main character? Enjoy this blog by my friend and colleague, an award-winning, bestselling novelist. JJ

Guest post by Brandilyn Collins

Regardless of genre, novelists must create empathy for protagonists at their first appearance. Mere action isn’t enough! The most interesting plot won’t matter to readers if they don’t care about your main character. Here’s how to make that happen. Most of these work best when combined with at least one other.

Your character must be:

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1. Displaying a valued trait such as loyalty, love, or courage.

Especially important if the protagonist soon makes a bad choice. It’s far easier to create empathy for a character right away than to erase negativity. So before he makes any negative choice, show your protagonist help a child, tend a sick person, stand up for a friend…

2. Particularly good at something.

People enjoy watching real talent. This approach involves details. Don’t merely tell us a hunter is efficient with a gun. Show him treating the weapon lovingly, oiling it, practicing with it. Besides a keen eye, maybe he smells prey before seeing it.

3. Treated unjustly.

This approach can work on its own, although other techniques can enhance it. It’s human nature to feel bad for someone who meets injustice.

4. Wishing for something universally understood.

This includes love, acceptance, purpose. Such desires help soften characters—even those who first come across as selfish or uncaring. So this is a great approach to characters harder to like.

5. Thrust into danger.

Anything from facing a storm to a bad guy with a gun. But because we’ve read so many danger-filled scenes, use at least one other technique to make us care about the character.

6. Thrust into grief.

The challenge here is that readers don’t yet know the character well enough to feel her pain. But resist the temptation to load in a bunch of backstory to enhance the grief. It’ll slow your story. Find ways to incorporate other empathy approaches within the action.

7. Caring for others, especially at a cost to oneself.

Known as a pet-the-dog scene, the Bad Guy shows his tender side: kill the human, kiss the hound. Two points to remember when using this technique: (A) Overdone, the scene can become syrupy. (B) The caring needs to be unassuming. A true caregiver doesn’t stop to think how kind he’s being.

8. Unique, attention-getting.

Your character may do off-the-wall things, may look different or think in unique ways, may have an unusual first-person voice. The possibilities are many. This approach needs to be mixed with at least one other. A character can act in all sorts of unusual ways to make you look twice. That doesn’t mean you’ll like him enough to keep reading.

9. Attempting to overcome a fear or make a change.

Readers identify with this. We don’t like facing our fears or change. But two challenges: (A) Present the problem clearly enough that readers understand what’s must be overcome and why it’s so hard for the character—without loading in backstory. (B) Sometimes this is more of an internal battle. The character may be deciding whether to walk out on a relationship, or he may have conflicting desires. To make an inner struggle compelling in the opening scene, put it in the context of action.

10. Facing an inner struggle.

Differs from #9 in that the character isn’t trying to make a change. She doesn’t know how to handle a burden—guilt, depression, bitterness, jealousy, hate…

Sometimes the character doesn’t even know she’s burdened. She may be in bondage due to intense bitterness but not realize it. In this case, give the reader just enough information to understand more about the character than the character understands about herself. Just remember that you want the reader to like your character, not think she’s an idiot. Again, it helps to mix in other approaches.


Read the opening scenes to at least five novels you’ve enjoyed. Which techniques were used, and how were they combined? Then read your novel’s first scene. Will readers empathize with your protagonist by the end of it? See how others—who’ll be honest with you—react.Desk2webcrop

Brandilyn Collins ( is a best-selling author of 30 books. She is known for her Seatbelt Suspense®—fast-paced, character-driven novels with myriad twists and a thread of faith. Brandilyn teaches fiction-writing techniques in her book Getting Into Character. She has won numerous writing awards and is a frequent speaker at writers conferences. Brandilyn and her husband have three grown children and live in the Pacific Northwest.

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41 thoughts on “10 Ways To Create Immediate Character Empathy

  1. Great thoughts … perfect timing for me … I was just pondering this the last couple days … many thanks!

  2. I like the altruistic one– caring for others at a cost to oneself. This one is rare. You see it in our servicemen, and especially grandparents who raise their grandchildren totally unappreciated, no matter the reason. It gives a perspective, an inner window, that makes me curious. I am always interested in motivation. Why does a character do something? Without motivation, a story has a vacuum in it, and I don’t mean the one you use to clean the floor with.

  3. This post is timed perfectly as I am revising a novel that I’ve had sitting in the cyber-drawer for some time. One of my tasks is to more clearly define some of my characters in terms of GMC and likeability. The thing I found most interesting is your item #1 displaying a valued trait, ESPECIALLY if they are about to make a bad choice. I have a protag who is about to make a few big missteps (lovingly motivated, but not necessarily the best choices) so making sure I build his character in other ways is a great help.

  4. This post is a big help to me as I am attempting to characterize and plot my first novel. It did help to solidify a scene that I’ve been pondering. Thank you.

  5. I love it! This is excellent advice that immediately inspired me and gave me ideas. It feels like I knew the steps the whole time, but just had the concepts explained. Fantastic.

  6. This was SO helpful! I’m going to write every point out so I have it to refer to as I continue deepening my characters. Just what I needed at this point in the writing journey. Thank you!

  7. Got it! I do this, at least focus on this because I’m the first to put a book down with ridiculous characters . ..the “Give me a break..” thought. Don’t want someone doing that with my book!

  8. Thanks for posting this. My main character learns of a death in the opening lines, and I really have to be sure that readers are empathetic toward her.

  9. These ten items are good to put in my box of writing tools. For my novel I think #3 is what my character is going through, but just doesn’t know the extent yet, but I hope I’ve conveyed enough in the first scene to set it up. I will be referring to the list with short stories I’m working on too. Thank you for this post.

  10. Great information. Thank you. I like #8 best. I love when an author carries a quirk or trait throughout the entire book. My son and I are working on this with a few of the characters in our book.

  11. I like number ten best. I think it will help me most to remember to engage this struggle more in my secondary characters.

  12. I must say, all ten points are apt. They seem to bind every ‘awesome’ novel together. Things to note when reliving the first draft. Thank you, Jerry, for the post. Thanks to Ms. Brandilyn too.

  13. The last two on the list, attempting to overcome a fear or a mistake and facing an inner struggle, help me with my current protagonist the most. My protagonist is struggling with guilt after having an abortion and her feelings for the baby’s father. She feels a mixture of love and hatred for him that’s really got her in a bind. She’s struggling to move on and feels she’s just started to make some progress, but then he suddenly shows back up in her life. The character traits in this list are good to remember. I can see myself using all of these in my writing at some point.

  14. Wonderful post! Although I’m working on a non-fiction book right now, I think these tips can help in that genre as well. Tip #6 for me. Thank you, Brandilyn and Mr. Jenkins. :)

  15. I am just a few chapters into a new YA novel, so this is a good reminder of what to do and not do with my character. I think I am a little heavy on back story because the character was just adopted out of foster care and it’s very relevant to the story, but I may need to weave it in more slowly.

  16. Great timing, as I spent the afternoon with my protagonist, Claire. To break up the introductory narrative, her cat (Scoot) became her sounding board for a few thoughts — as well as the recipient of a loving scratch behind the ears.

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