She puts up that tough front, but I know she’s hurting underneath. I’d give anything to take the pain away.
I hate the way he looks at me with those green eyes, like he’s trying to figure me out. I hate the way I swoon anyway.
These statements not only describe the way two of my characters feel about each other, but also the way I feel about them. Writing vivid, lifelike characters that readers will identify with is a challenge that all writers face. We hope that readers will be invested in our characters enough to want to form Team Edward or Team Jacob. But how do we go about creating those characters?
For me, there is no easy recipe. It would nice if I could say just take a healthy dose of perseverance, add a handful of trials and tribulations, a cup of past baggage, a dash of defiance, and a sprinkle of doubt to taste, and there you have a winning protagonist. Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. There are myriad possibilities when it comes to the types of characters and personalities, as well as the reactions you’ll want to elicit from readers. In my own writing, one thing has been key in helping me create complex, believable characters.
I would say it’s simply love, but it’s not always that. Do I fall in love, just a little bit, with my male leads? You betcha. But I can’t be constrained by the range of features I might be able to love when it comes to writing my characters, which is why I think empathy is most important.
We’ve all heard that tired old advice to “write what you know.” But do you know what it feels like to watch your father kill your mother as a teen, and then to deal with the emotional issues that stem from that later in your life? I hope none of you do. I certainly don’t. But Charlotte, one of my main characters, experienced that very thing. I can’t know what that feels like, but I can try to imagine. You might know about a different type of betrayal or pain that can help shape your characters. I can put myself in Charlotte’s shoes and live vicariously through her, figure out how the tragedy of her past might inform her present actions. Steven, the male lead in that same story also doesn’t know what it’s like to go through what Charlotte has been through, so my empathy in a way becomes his empathy as well.
In the first statement at the beginning of this post, that could be Steven reacting to Charlotte, or it could be me reacting to Charlotte. I have to feel close enough to her to want to heal those wounds, and to root for the relationship between Charlotte and Steven to work. Steven’s character then appeals to the part of readers that I hope will also want to see Charlotte overcome her demons.
The second statement at the top of this post is Charlotte’s reaction to Steven, and also a little bit of how I might react to him if I were in Charlotte’s place. Charlotte does have traits that I share, like that nervousness about eye contact (it’s the introvert in me). But I had to draw on empathy to really get into her head and draw out some of the nuances that I think bring her character to life. She hears her worst fears in what other people say, even if that isn’t what they’ve said. She pushes people away because she’s afraid of getting hurt, which pretty much everyone around her can see (much to her dismay). What other characters around her might not realize is that she also pushes people away because deep down she doesn’t think she’s good enough for anyone. That aspect of her character is something that came about as a result of my attempts to empathize with her situation and explore the complexities of her relationships and emotional state of mind.
Empathy requires vulnerability.
I write character-driven stories, so creating realistic characters is monumentally important. If I can’t find a way to love, hate, cry for/with, or otherwise connect emotionally with my characters, there’s no hope that my readers will be able to either. To have empathy is to let yourself live vicariously through your characters, experiencing what they experience. I love putting myself in the middle of an emotionally charged romantic relationship, complete with sizzling sexual tension and happy endings (pun…intended?) because it’s a lot of fun. But it’s not always that easy, and it’s not always fun.
You have to give yourself permission to be vulnerable. To hurt the way your characters hurt, love the way they love, feel what they feel. You have to open yourself up to emotions and feelings that are foreign to you, and maybe even some that are repulsive to you. I don’t know about you, but when an author knows their characters that intimately, I can tell. The character’s actions, reactions, and motivations feel authentic.
Sometimes it can be emotionally exhausting to be so deeply entrenched in my characters and then write their stories. I’ve cried while writing sad scenes (I think plenty of us have done so) and cried with joy while writing happy scenes, squirmed with discomfort and anxiety and even had to take a break while writing scenes of anger or other charged scenes. I can only hope that by drawing on empathy and putting myself in each character’s shoes, the reader will have the same emotional response I had while writing.
J. Lea (rhymes with sea) has been writing since the angsty teenage years. Lucky for you, she and her writing have both matured a little since then. She writes character-driven women’s fiction and erotica, and two of her short stories are included in the anthology Spring Fevers, available now. Other short stories have appeared online in Divine Dirt Quarterly and Oysters&Chocolate. She is a self-proclaimed band and choir geek as well as a lover of jello, British television, and horrifically cheesy movies on SyFy. To hear about the similarities between life, writing and jello, visit her blog, Jello World. For random silliness (and some writing stuff too) follow her on Twitter @JLeaLopez.