It’s one thing to understand a character. It’s another thing to become them.
Readers crave the latter.
In my early twenties, at Columbia University’s Summer Writing Program, I was fortunate to have novelist and short story author Ethan Canin critique my first completed short story. The story centered around a love triangle of sorts: two friends, both Julliard piano students, and their mentor Joshua who becomes smitten by one of the girl’s musical powers.
Ethan’s major criticism was that my story was plot-driven rather than character-driven.
Now, I knew I had written the story purely driven by character. At the time, I barely had a concept of what plot even was. I had gone with the energy of my narrator, a girl consumed by jealousy and a fear of being displaced by her revered music mentor. A girl who, by the story’s end, left her friend alone in a room to die of meningitis.
Admittedly, a terrible story.
But after many years of contemplating Ethan’s comment, I came to realize he was right.
My story was plot driven, despite my character’s emotions, which fueled the story’s events. The reason it was plot driven had nothing to do with my process. In fact, my intentions for the story were irrelevant.
It had everything to do with how my story was received. It was plot-driven because I had failed to enter, much less reveal, the humanity of my characters.
My story suffered from a case of good character/bad character. My narrator – the bad one – lacked the depth necessary for readers to simultaneously abhor what she did and empathize with her. And her friend was equally shallow – achingly beautiful, superbly talented; her only flaw was that she smoked Virginia Slims.
I may have understood the emotions driving the narrative. I may have sympathized with my narrator’s jealousy. But I was still gliding the surface.
The Trouble With Sympathy
One of the most common writing mantras bandied about is this idea that our characters – troublesome characters in particular – must be sympathetic.
Sympathy, in writer-speak, allows readers to feel compassion, however fleeting, for a character.
But for my money, sympathy is not enough. I want to feel more deeply connected to my characters, both the ones I create on the page and the ones I encounter in the stories I read. Because to connect with anyone in the deepest human way possible, you need to empathize, which is a totally different muscle.
Empathy is feeling into. It’s projecting our own consciousness on our characters.
Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly, believes empathy drives connection, while sympathy drives disconnection.
Sympathy is a second-hand emotion. You feel sympathy when you haven’t been there. You feel empathy when you have.
Empathy forges a a vulnerable connection. It’s a shared intimacy between reader and writer. It allows you and your readers to feel with rather than feel for.
So how do you empathize with your character so your readers can do the same? How do you get under their skin?
You feel your way into them. You imagine your way into their sensations. You enter their perspective. This applies not only to your most noble characters. But your most troublesome as well. The characters who wreak havoc, who steal, lie, cheat, and kill– these characters need empathy in spades.
Human nature is vast territory. We want to stay with our characters long enough to encounter all their qualities. Not just the sunny stuff, but the dark, shameful, ugly stuff.
This is hard work. But it’s a deeply rewarding practice. Because ideally, your characters are a lot like you. If a story is a journey towards truth, you as the author are learning right alongside your character. Your character’s search for truth is your search.
Writing About the Unwriteable
Charles Baxter once said that writers tend to go into an alias, meaning they become other people to write about the unwriteable. The unwriteable is your secret life. You know, the stuff you’ve never told a soul.
So the characters you create on the page act as surrogates for the deepest, most shameful, most submerged aspects of yourself. Some of your characters speak on behalf of your courageous self, some stand up for your terrified self, your sad self, your jealous, mean and violent self.
You might identify more strongly with your protagonist, but you also identify with your other characters, whether you’re conscious of it or not. Even the characters who do the most unconscionable things.
Diane Lefer, one of my greatest mentors once said this:
We all have a killer inside, and we all have a savior inside. We have the cop and the robber inside. We have everything big and everything small.
We might not express it in our daily lives, but we all have overwhelming impulses rooted in infancy which become inhibited in a healthy way. We don’t necessarily act those impulses out, but we can tap into them. We can access them and channel them into our characters.
Great actors do this all the time. They draw on the shadow aspects of themselves in order to play a character who does things beyond their ken. We’ve all experienced feelings of revenge. Even murderous rage. We just haven’t indulged in those urges. But if we’re going to be honest with ourselves, we do feel them.
So to get under the skin of your character, get in touch with those extremes of feeling that every human being experiences without necessarily putting into action.
Over to you.
I love hearing your insights and discoveries. How do you get under the skin of your characters? Comment below, or email me your questions and thoughts.