Emotion is evoked through empathy (feeling the emotions along with the character) and sympathy (feeling emotions for a character). We vicariously feel emotions when we identify with the deep questions that the character is asking of themselves or the world. You need to find a connection point between your character and readers’ lives.


My friend Robert Dugoni says characters should be empathetic or sympathetic, but not pathetic. So, strive to give your character a deep struggle but not one that’s melodramatic or overplayed.


We might find it hard to identify with losing a limb, but all of us know what it’s like to feel helpless, to understand what it means to have to overcome hardship.


I suggest giving your character an emotional wound we all share, a question we all ask, or a struggle we all find ourselves engaged in. For example, the loss of a loved one, or the question about whether their choices (and lives) ultimately matter, and the struggle to find meaning or forgiveness.


Well-rounded characters also have:

– A variety of status relationships (high and low) with other characters.

– A quirk, foible, special skill or emblem that makes them unique.

– Deep desires that give them intention in each scene—an intention that readers will care about.


We want readers to worry about the character, so ask what the stakes are. For example, what’s at stake for the guy to overcome the loss of his arm? Or what’s at stake for the mom to deal with the loss of a child.


Trust your gut. If it’s telling you that your character is too cliché, then work at making him more distinctive and give him a universal quest—to love and be loved, to find freedom or happiness or acceptance or adventure. Readers can relate to those goals and make them more emotionally involved.


  1. Awesome advice; thanks Steve!
    Given that it’s generally acknowledged that empathy and sympathy are different, is there any utility for writers in this distinction? What are the pragmatic differences? Can we create sympathy rather than empathy? Can we create empathy rather than sympathy? Can we do either with any degree of reliability? Why might we favour one over the other?
    Like you I recognise differences between empathy and sympathy (at the very least from an etymological position); but I have never attempted to isolate or employ any potential effects of one over the other. The reader is shepherded across a meticulously choreographed emotional topography through, in no small part, the regulation of ’empathetic/sympathetic’ bonds with any given character(s) at any given time. And this technique has done its job well over the years. But I have an itch: I just can’t help wondering if there are any benefits, or pitfalls, of specifically choosing empathetic or sympathetic bonds, or if this is even pragmatically viable!
    This was a rather large can to open and I’m still sweeping up the worms. Do we ‘automatically’ tend towards empathy? (The discovery of ‘mirror neurons’ seems to suggest that individuals would need to have extremely good control over their impulsivity in order to self-govern an expression of empathy.) Are we ‘biased’ towards people whom we recognise as being like us (e.g. race, religion, gender, age)? Or do we recognise a more general aspect of humanity – something Robert McKee refers to as the ‘centre of good’? Sympathy seems to require a ‘moral judgement’ and, as such, sustains a ‘distance’ between object and subject. Does empathy, then, not command such a judgement? Does a ‘vicarious’ reception involve a sense of safety? Does a ‘distance’ promote safety? With empathy – feeling ‘with’ – are emotions experienced more ‘intensely’ given that the distance has been conflated? How does an individual’s ‘interpretation’ of another’s experience affect a response? In a perceived work of fiction, how are empathetic and sympathetic responses received or experienced differently to those in ‘real life’? We can, after all, feel a stronger response to the suffering of a character than to that of a stranger.
    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts Steve; very much appreciated. I have no idea whether there is any pragmatic benefit to pursuing these ideas. If you have any further insights I’d be eternally grateful.

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