Thoughts on Gaining Reader Empathy

A month or two ago, I picked up The Hero’s 2 Journeys by Michael Hague and Christopher Vogler.  It was on sale at Audible for $4.95.  And looking right now, it’s still only $5.95.  I say it’s WORTH EVERY PENNY.  This is essentially a 3 hour writer’s workshop where both these gentlemen take us through the inner and outer journeys taken by the hero of every book and movie ever (at least all the ones that actually sell).  I started to listen to it in my car, but quickly found that I wanted to take notes on EVERYTHING, so I’m still working my through it.

The first half hour is largely Michael Hague talking about how you gain reader empathy and his view of story structure.  We all know I’m a big fan of story structure, most notably the version espoused by Larry Brooks in Story Engineering, but it’s definitely worth seeing how other people frame it up.  You never know when some new presentation is going to jar something loose in your brain and cause a major light bulb moment.

It’s the reader empathy thing that’s been kicking around my brain the last week, as I’ve been working on the start of the next book, revising the opening of Riven, and reading a lot of things that either are or are not working for me.  And I’ve been holding each one of them up to this sort of rubric.  So far, it’s held pretty dang true.

According to Hague, you gain reader (or watcher, as he deals primarily with screenwriting) empathy by employing at least 2 of these 5 things:

  1. Creating a character who is the victim of some undeserved misfortune.  
  2. Put the character in jeopardy (because we identify with people we worry about).
  3. Make your character nice and likeable.
  4. Make the character funny (because everybody appreciates a funny guy who has the courage to say funny things that we might not have the courage to say).
  5. Make the character powerful or otherwise very good at what they do.

This is beginning stuff.  Opening scene stuff.  You want to hook the reader early, make them care.  Make them want to keep turning pages, take that ride with your shero or hero, all the way to the end.

Looking back at the last half dozen books that got put down before the end of the first chapter–excluding those that were in present tense, had poorly written prose or spent too long wallowing in worldbuilding without any actual action–this is exactly where things went wrong.  The author didn’t manage to engage me as a reader, didn’t make me care about whoever their protagonist was.  I would expect that we all have our preferred combination of those factors, as well as combinations that are less likely to work for us.  Undeserved misfortune and funny usually works for me as a reader.  I like people who use humor as a defense mechanism.  I also identify with people who are good at what they do (regardless of whether they have misfortune or are otherwise imperiled).  Just having someone who’s nice and likable and also an expert is less likely to snare me, but it just depends on how its presented.  But generally, Hague’s outline seems to work.

As a writer, I definitely gravitate toward undeserved misfortune and otherwise imperiling my hero or shero.  I do like action.  As to the rest…it just depends on what the story calls for.

What about you?  Do you think this set of character traits works for engendering empathy in you as a reader?  Do you have others YOU’D add to the list?  I’m curious.

5 thoughts on “Thoughts on Gaining Reader Empathy

  1. Hiya Kait! Good post. Thanks. I recently picked up Story Engineering because I liked what you said about it. (I think he’s a bit long winded but it’s just that he’s passionate about what he’s talking about. So I’ll probably get his newest book to go with it too.)

    I like what you’re talking about here. Juicy stuff. Is there a book version? I don’t see one listed but thought maybe a book might have another title. I’d like to know more about this.

    Character driven books are the ones I like best…uh…as long as they’re not written in first person present…so I love the list. I love the flawed S/hero. Wendig mentioned in an interview that his MC in Blue Blazes (Mookie) goes through a character arc in reverse; he moves from distinctly unlikable to likable. He said that was a thing he likes doing with his characters. Interesting, huh?

  2. I’m much more likely to continue reading a book if it engages my intelligence. Without that, empathy isn’t sufficient. I’d even go so far as to say that I probably wouldn’t be interested in most of the characters described in Hague and Vogler’s book. As a writer, I’m concerned mostly with character development. If a character is difficult for the average person to relate to, I just consider that a challenge.

  3. Absolutely, I agree with the list. If I like the character and they’re in trouble I’m going to be turning the pages. I’m a big fan of save the cat and currently I’m reading Writing Love. Story Engineering is already on my list. I need to check it out. Great post, Kait. Thanks.

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