Tag Archives: empathy

Sep 22

“Reader Empathy” An Article by Mary Deal

Reader Empathy

A rejection that I received for a short story caused me to take a look at the beginnings of all my stories, short or book length.

Your reader needs to make a connection with your main character. Your heroine or hero needs to have at least one strong quality with which a reader can empathize. When your readers make such a connection, they experience the story through that character’s senses.

Reader empathy must happen at the top of the story. When your reader cannot find anything about your story or characters to like, interest quickly wanes. Then they may not read deep into the story; if they get so far as to finish, the lack of connection will leave them asking “So what?”

I received a rejection from a magazine editor for my fantasy story about a woman’s experience with a UFO and aliens. While I thought it was one of my best fantasy stories, he said,

“I don’t know what to make of the protagonist’s experience. On one level, I don’t need to know whether they’re real or imaginary, but I didn’t learn enough about her to feel much empathy. Although I can’t use this story, please feel free to submit another.”

This editor didn’t say that I should tell more about my protagonist at the top of the story. Placing additional information at the top is my idea for the re-write. After all, how far into the story will a person read when they cannot find rapport with the main character? This editor, most likely, read or scanned the story all the way through because that’s an editor’s job. A reader is not obligated to do the same.

Another possibility of building rapport exists with the reader learning about the main character as the story unfolds. But again, how far into the story will the reader pay attention in order to build empathy? In the case of my story, I see that I can add two sentences at the very beginning of the story that should solve the problem.

Building reader empathy can happen by revealing anything about the main character that will draw the reader to them. The characteristic may be something that elicits any type of emotion, be it love, pity, admiration, or anything else that helps the reader feel connected to that character.

When your main character is the villain, you must still build a trait into her or his makeup to keep the reader’s eyes glued to the page. In a case like this, it might be someone we love to hate and will keep reading just to see that the villain gets a comeuppance. Yet, how many people write stories from the villain’s point of view?

Usually, stories are written from other than the villain’s POV. Not too many readers want to identify with a villain.

Test this advice next time you read a story or, specifically, when you are looking for a new novel to read. Usually readers test the story by reading the beginning paragraphs or pages. How soon do you make a connection to the main character, or even a secondary character? What was the connection made? Was it strong enough to keep you reading, even purchasing the book?

Clues, such as I received in the rejection, help so very much. If I must receive one, it’s the type of rejection I welcome. I’ve already fixed my story and sent it elsewhere. You can bet I will be sending other stories to this very generous editor. And I’ve already rewritten the beginnings of two of my future novels. Read More

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Jul 21

Mary Deal Writes about “Starting Your Story”

When starting to write your story, don’t begin at the beginning, please! One of the main reasons writers fail to get their stories written is that they don’t know where to begin.

Once we have a story in mind, we’ve most likely created our fictional characters, to a degree. We know what makes them the people they are. We may even know how they will play out their parts in the plot, and therein lays the pitfall.

Many writers want to include a character’s life history. They feel if they do not include all of that information, the reader will not build empathy. This thought is a fallacy. How many times have you met a person you’d never met before? When he’s introduced, he wise-cracks, but in a manner that leads to like him right away. You don’t know his history, but you know that you and he will get along.

Thinking along the lines of presenting a character’s history, a writer may try to include much personal history, known as back story. If this has happened to you, have you asked yourself why you’re writing all this information and you haven’t yet begun the story? My advice here is that if you try to include at the beginning – don’t.

Here’s an example:

You’re writing a romance and your protagonist, a lady, is much sought after and can have her pick of suitors. But she hesitates to allow anyone to know her because she’s been jilted more than once.

So you, the writer, feel you must clue your reader about what makes her timid and hesitant before you can continue with the story you wish to tell. You think a Prologue would do the trick. Don’t even try it. Unless you’re an experienced writer with an established following who don’t care what or how you write, a prologue comes across as a new writer’s inability to incorporate back story into the plot.

Any back story included should pertain to the action of the real story you wish to write. The rule is that if whatever you include in the telling of the tale does not move the plot along, it should be cut. Since all that history stalls the plot and keeps it in the past, it has no purpose for being included.

Getting back to the example above, in this case the reader should be told what makes this much sought after beauty so fickle. The way to include relevant information is….

Let’s say she is interested in a man but fights an inner battle with fear of rejection again. The way to show your reader her fear is to have her come in contact with one of the men who jilted her in the past. This keeps the story flowing in the now.

Can you imagine the duress of her wishing to fall in love, and then at the moment of truth she must interact with the person who was the cause of her previous hurt? Are you able to see the back story coming into play when readers begin to understand her anxiety? And it didn’t take a prologue to set it up. It happens naturally in the course of the story.

Back story is easily incorporated through other characters, thoughts and brief memories, or occurrences that remind of past events. You want your story to move continually forward, not stall while you explain the past of it all. When you embed your character’s thoughts in the scenes and dialog, it keeps the reader inside that character’s head and within the resent story.

When I say don’t start at the beginning–you know your story–choose an action scene that you plan early in the first chapter. Jump into the now, the present time of that scene. Introduce your characters through their activities within the scene and let the story move on from there. You will have many chances to include memories, motivation and purpose as each new scene unfolds.
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May 02

Mary Deal Writes about “Naming Characters” in her Latest Article on the Child Finder Trilogy

When naming your characters, the moniker you give them should agree with the role they play in the story.

Think about some of the Classics you adore, or even recent releases. You probably not only love the stories, but the character names as well.

When it comes to naming your characters, try not to make up names that are too far-fetched. In other words… Read More

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