Monday, August 30, 2010

Empathy


Okay. What I'm about to write is not to toot my own horn. It is meant to illustrate the title of this blog post. So bear with me.

Sitting outside on my mother's porch one afternoon, she told me some of the comments she has gotten from her friends that are reading 'Surrender the Wind'. She said, "Inga said she is in love with Seth, and so worried about him and Juleah, that she can't put the book down. Annette said the same thing. She loves Seth too, and is worried about Juleah." She then let out a little giggle. "I know what they mean. I fell in love with him too, and I worried so much about what was going to happen to him in Juleah that I couldn't stop reading."

I replied, "Thanks, mom. That's what I needed to hear."

Why? you ask. Because it should be the goal of every writer to cause the reader to be worried, concerned, and attached to your characters, especially to your hero and heroine. They want to feel these emotions. I know I do when I start a novel. And if I do not, I usually do not finish the book. I must be captured by emotion. I must be drawn in so closely to the problems, the fears, the danger that the characters are in to keep me glued to the pages. I must be worried about the heroine and hero. I must be concerned about what is going to happen next to them.

To sum it up:

Strive to bring the reader to the place where they feel the emotions of your characters. Do this by action. The sweat on your hero's brow, trickling down his neck. The tension your heroine feels as she watches danger approach.

Keep in mind that for most people emotions, such as empathy, are deeply felt and deeply hidden. Do not be afraid as a writer to keep it this way --- in check and in control. If your hero keeps his passion in control, let's say his desire to strike out due to mounting emotions, wait for the right time and the right place to let loose, then you will avoid melodrama.

The greatest way to tap into your readers' empathy is by exposing your characters deep-seated emotions. While writing about the suffering your heroine is going through, perhaps she suffers privately, when she is alone, without others noticing. Something might trigger her hidden pain, either through scene or dialogue, and suddenly she opens up. Or the whole dam breaks.

In the novel I am currently writing, Before the Scarlet Dawn, my heroine, Eliza, longs to be loved for who and what she is on the inside, not for her outward beauty. I take her on a whirlwind of experiences that lead up to a day when she is broken and gives in, surrenders to that longing. At the end of the chapter, when 'he drew her inside and shut the door' the reader is left with the question 'what happened behind that closed door?'. This ending builds worry in the reader. Moving forward it unravels, and when Eliza is faced with the deepest of rejections, her life takes a drastic turn leading to . . . well, you'll have to read the book when it is released in early 2012.

In what way are you building empathy in your work in progress, or in a novel you have written?

6 comments:

Bonnie Toews said...

Excellent advice, Rita. When people become so attached to characters in a book, the first thing they feel when they come to end of the story is that they don't want to say good-bye. When that happens, you know you have succeeded in bringing your heroine/hero/villain to life. You are a master at creating such characters.

Rita Gerlach said...

Ah, thanks, Bonnie, my friend. I don't know if I could call myself a master at characterization. I have a lot to learn.

Debra E. Marvin said...

I worry about this myself, Rita. My heroine is brusque. She has good reason but to find her likable, readers have to see beyond her first impression and that's difficult to do without any backstory.

I'm picking up Surrender the Wind at the library tonight. FINALLY! so this is a timely post, as I'll be watching to see how you did it so well!

Barbara Scott said...

Rita, loved your post today. Readers need to bond with the protagonist on the first page and root for her or worry about him until the last page is written. You do this so well.

Susan J. Reinhardt said...

Hi Rita -

Thanks for some important how-to's.

Getting to know my characters makes them real to me. Only then can I share their lives with readers.

Blessings,
Susan :)

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