Readers want to go on a journey with someone they care about. That person doesn’t have to be a ray of sunshine, although that’s fine too. They can be a criminal, or unreliable, or make horrible choices. Any of this works, so long as the reader is on their side. The way to make this happen is by creating an empathetic main character. This is important even if your character is “likable.” They won’t be as interesting if they come across as perfect. A person the reader feels a little sorry for, or at least sees them overcoming hard times, will make them more relatable. The key is to make them intriguing enough to follow on a 400-page adventure.
An easy way to create empathy—even with a character who will ultimately do terrible things—is to give them values that most people admire. Open your novel with the character displaying these admirable qualities before you show how terrible or unreliable they’re going to be.
Many great examples comes from popular television. I’ll use my go-to, Walter White, from the hit AMC show Breaking Bad. The series opens with Walt seeming like a really great guy. He’s in love with his wife, he’s tender with his baby girl, and he’s an encouraging and patient father to his disabled son. He’s a family man, and he puts that first, at least…initially. It’s hard to not feel for a guy like that.
The writers were wise to put us on Walt’s side. As he “breaks bad” over the seasons, starting with cooking meth to becoming a vicious drug kingpin, we’re still sorta rooting for him. The reason is because our first impression of him was a good guy. We felt for him, and we wanted to see him get a win. This was only possible because of the empathy created by seeing him interact with his family in the opening scenes.
Another way to get the reader on your character’s side is if they’re treated unfairly. It’s normal to want to stand up for the underdog, which translates to the reader having empathy for this person. They’ll want to see how the character overcomes their injustices.
I recently started to watch a Netflix show called Ozark (slight spoiler alert coming). During the pilot, I noticed the writers using many of these empathy tactics. The story opens with Marty, a middle-aged, small-time financial advisor who seems lost. He’s dialing it in at work and seems distracted, big-time. At first we’re not sure what his problem is, but soon we discover he’s gotten some upsetting news. His loving wife of twenty-two years seems to be loving…someone else.
Marty is clearly devastated by this information, as he clearly loves his wife and two teenaged kids. He seems stuck, and the audience feels sorry for him. Why is he being treated so unfairly by his wife? Can’t the guy get a break? Feeling this way about Marty is critical because soon we discover that he doesn’t need small-time clients to help his business; he’s already got more than he can handle—with the cartel. In order for the audience to care what happens to this criminal guy, we need to first feel empathy for him.
Other Ways to Create Empathetic Characters
Often deploying more than one tactic will firmly put the audience in your character’s corner. Maybe they have a special talent, are longing for a universal desire like love or acceptance, are in danger, are willing to put their life on the line for their loved ones, or are overcoming a personal struggle. The more you create a character that the reader feels empathy for right from the beginning, the greater license you’ll have to push the story into unexpected places.