Three and a half years ago, I spent my summer studying recent Christian fiction releases to see if the genre still had significant problems. (Spoiler alert: it did.)
To be fair, I also stumbled across several great books—though the poor ones outnumbered them. Yet, as I noted the techniques that succeeded and failed, preachiness was less prevalent than I’d expected. Most of the themes weren’t the evangelistic propaganda that readers complain about. Instead, the main issue was that I didn’t care about or relate to the characters.
One of our goals at Story Embers is to launch annual series that unpack different resolutions from our manifesto and help writers pursue our vision for Christian fiction. Last year, this took the form of our Tricky Subjects for Christian Storytellers series, which addressed how to “portray the full human experience in all its beauty and depravity, not to glorify or endorse sin but to accurately reveal the brokenness of the world.”
This year, as we discussed which resolution to focus on, empathetic characters rose to the top of our list. Readers need to bond with characters, or they won’t enjoy and be impacted by a story. Accomplishing this as writers involves understanding “readers’ thought processes, emotions, and worldviews so we can connect meaningfully with them in our storytelling, knowing that human nature is repelled by simplistic representations.”
We hope you’ll emerge from this series with new clarity and strategies for giving your characters humanlike qualities.
The Wrong Way to Build Empathy Between Readers and Characters
A common approach to relatability is to make the protagonist resemble any and every reader. Think of Bella in Twilight or Emmet in The Lego Movie. Is either character particularly distinct or interesting? No, and that’s intentional, because they’re meant to be everyman characters who readers can easily meld with.
These stories begin by hitting powerful emotional beats and relying as much as possible on a couple elements all humans share. The protagonist remains generic, allowing readers with any personality or background to see themselves in her. As a result, the author sells a bunch of books.
This tactic can be profitable, and at first glance it makes sense. Won’t too many specific details that distinguish the reader from the protagonist hurt relatability? Wouldn’t a few universal longings, fears, or weaknesses be more potent?
Sometimes that’s true. But the effect won’t last. Twilight has a truckload of fans—and haters. In The Lego Movie, Emmet’s role as an everyman works because it’s essential to the film’s themes, though he does become more unique by the ending.
Characters who are only defined by a couple traits won’t feel real. Hemingway draws on this line of thought in Death in the Afternoon: “When writing a novel, a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.” Readers don’t connect with caricatures. This is one of the reasons the Christian fiction I read three years ago flopped: the characters seemed inauthentic.
Generic protagonists can have advantages when done well, but they’re also shallow. We don’t like people who flatter and ingratiate themselves to us in real life, and we respond similarly to characters who are intended to appeal to anyone who opens the book.
The Right Way to Build Empathy Between Readers and Characters
If creating simplistic characters is a mistake, how can you ensure that readers will identify with them?
By learning about people so you can imbue your characters with complexity!
Authors need to be part psychologists. In the sixteenth century, literary critic Sir Philip Sydney described storytelling as “an art of imitation, for so Aristotle termeth it in the word mimesis.” Storytellers aim to imitate reality, and if you don’t understand human beings, your characters will be little more than stick figures who walk and talk. Complexity generates relatability.
For example, Loki from the Marvel universe inspires a rabid fanbase. While that may partially be due to a less-than-healthy obsession with actor Tom Hiddleston, Loki is also unpredictable and wrestles realistic emotions. That strikes a chord with audiences.
Alternatively, consider Starr Carter from bestselling YA novel The Hate U Give. She self-admittedly leads a double life, taking on one persona in the inner city and another at the elite private school where she conceals she’s from the “hood.” She constantly struggles with her conflicting desires to seek justice for her friend’s death and stay safe. This dichotomy makes her relatable, even to readers who may not have faced the same circumstances.
We yearn for characters who are as complex as we are. We’re often paradoxical, hypocritical, and torn between multiple options. We can detect a simplistic character from a distance because we’re not like that.
However, crafting characters who are both complex and relatable is incredibly difficult. Observing and replicating people’s behavior isn’t enough. You have to know the thoughts and emotions behind their actions to portray them compellingly.
Building Reader Empathy Through Character Thoughts
A character’s internal dialogue shouldn’t feel foreign or clichéd. Yet it frequently does—especially in Christian fiction. I’ve read countless stories where the protagonist’s struggle with his faith didn’t sound like how I or fellow believers deal with doubts and moral dilemmas.
Conversely, some characters don’t think at all before making decisions. I’ve been coaching writers for the past five years, and this is one of the most common blunders I comment on in students’ manuscripts. Readers need to witness a character’s thought process and the stimulus for his choices.
Depicting complex thoughts presents a challenge, however: we have to climb inside the head of someone who’s different from us. That’s why we’re going to explore this concept in further detail in the next two posts. On Thursday, Daeus will provide an overview on “How to Create Characters with Relatable Thoughts.” Then, on Saturday, Hope will examine “How Personality Types Should Affect Characters’ Thought Processes.”
Building Reader Empathy Through Character Emotions
As I wrote several months ago, fiction is about delivering a vicarious experience to readers—and emotions can either draw readers in or repel them.
We’ve all read stories bogged down by teenage angst and a protagonist who is too sappy about which hot dude she should date. But we’ve also likely read novels where a protagonist’s close friend dies and he hardly reacts (I have, at any rate). Readers won’t recognize emotional clichés as accurate to their own lives, and they’ll leave the story unmoved.
We’ll help you avoid this weakness with the last two posts of our series. Next Monday, Brandon will explain “How to Create Characters with Relatable Emotions.” Then, on Thursday, Maddie will dive into “How Gender and Age Should Affect Characters’ Emotions.”
Forming Bonds Between Readers and Characters
Crafting characters who evoke reader empathy isn’t optional. And the best way to do so is by becoming an expert on how people think, feel, and act. It’s a daunting task, but also a high calling.
My favorite book so far this year has been A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, which earned the award of being the fourth book that brought me to tears. The painful rawness and beauty of the characters caused the story’s thematic thrust to break me at the ending.
That’s the power that relatable, complex characters have: they awaken readers to truths about themselves and the world around them.
God doesn’t create simple characters or tell simple stories. As storytellers, we have the unique opportunity to mimic His greatest work. When we write masterfully, we’ll touch readers deeply.
How will you seek understanding and apply it to your characters today?
Josiah DeGraaf is the summit & marketing director at Story Embers and the program director of The Young Writer. He writes because he’s fascinated by human motivations and loves to take normal people, put them in crazy situations (did he mention he writes fantasy?), and then force them to make difficult choices. Someday he hopes to write fantasy novels with worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, and themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s. In the meantime, you can find him teaching young writers at the Young Writer’s Workshop or writing short stories at his website as he works toward achieving these goals.