Monday, May 15, 2006

Character Empathy--Part 1

Happy Monday. Hope all the moms out there had a good Mother’s Day. My daughter gave me a great present from Things Remembered. A tree with many branches, each dangling a small oval photo frame. She filled both sides of the frames with pictures of our family, with an engraved piece at the top for Mother’s Day 2006. A perfect gift for the day.

Sometime this week I'll run the interview with Chris Well--whenever he's done answering all the intriguing questions that you asked him--and a few more. In the meantime we'll begin our discussion on how to quickly invoke empathy for your protagonist or a supporting character—without dumping in a bunch of backstory. (Our discussion on backstory is a good foundation for this topic. Check the topic archives at right for a re-read.)

In talking about this subject, we’re not dismissing the importance of the inciting incident (first major conflict that kicks off the story). In fact the inciting incident has much to do with invoking empathy for a protagonist. But that in itself isn’t enough. You can thrust a protagonist in the middle of facing death, but if the reader doesn’t connect with that character, the reader won't care.

Now, writers and readers know that character empathy doesn’t happen all at once. It should grow with each chapter. That’s human nature—we connect with people as we get to know them better and appreciate how they handle struggles in life. But readers need enough connection with the character in that first chapter of his/her appearance so they’ll want to read on.

As far as beginning the novel in general, I think the surest formula (regardless of genre) goes something like this:

1. Grabber first sentence

2. Provocative first paragraph. This can range all the way from high action to quiet narrative, but it should (A) impart pieces of compelling knowledge while (B) giving rise to multiple intriguing questions.

3. First pages of continued high interest in present story (not jumping to a backstory scene), leading to

4. Inciting incident at end of chapter, with final

5. Hook

By the way, don’t be worried by the use of that word “formula.” It hardly means “formulaic” writing, as there are infinite ways to follow the above steps. Second, these 5 pointers aren’t etched in stone. There are exceptions to everything, and the more we learn our craft, the more we’re able to turn the normal on its head. But ya gotta know the normal real well first. For example, the gotcha first sentence and paragraph and pages might be in a prologue, with the inciting incident and hook coming in chapter one. In that case, we may not even meet the protagonist in the first few pages. Which is fine and dandy when it’s done well. (It can easily be done not so well.) At any rate, when we do meet this charming creature--what's to make us like him or her?

I thought of 10 approaches for character empathy that immediately came to mind. No doubt it’s not a complete list. Neither are these 10 approaches islands unto themselves. If you can mix two of them, or three or four—all the better. And we're not talking about paragraphs of copy. Sometimes a couple lines here and there, scattered among action, will do the trick.

Tomorrow we’ll look at a few of these techniques.

Read Part 2-5

Read Part 6-11


Southern-fried Fiction said...

This works for not only suspense, but for any fiction. Thansk, Brandilyn, for the reminder!

Sabrina L. Fox said...

I too am excited, Brandilyn. I've been trying to figure out how to make my character less "wooden". I'm not sure readers will care what happens to her at this point.

Can't wait to see how you use these techniques tomorrow.

Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

This topic couldn't come at a better time. this is what I'm working on now. I can't wait for your tutelage, Brandilyn!

Unknown said...

First, I wanted to say a huge thank you for doing this. You're an awesome teacher and I appreciate you.

Second, I just finished Violet Dawn! Such word-smithing! Flawless story. You managed to blend the deeper issues of women's fiction with a heart pounding thriller. I didn't think you could ever top Dead of Night, but I do believe you did. Sorry to gush but really really amazing work. I love how you don't waste a single word and each one seems so carefully chosen.

Now, that's how it's done.

B.K. Jackson said...

Thank goodness Pam pointed me to this blog series because it's just what I need for my current revisions. Gives me much to think about. Thanks!