This is a short note about empathy. Character empathy. I see a lot of texts where a character (primary and secondary as well) blithely starts his or her story with no thought of the reader. How selfish! As one who reads lots of texts (this goes for everything from a picture book* to all fiction and even non-fiction), I can tell you this disregard for the reader is off-putting and I, for one, have no problem closing a book or rejecting a manuscript where I don’t feel empathy for the character.
As readers we need well-rounded character and we need to experience the good, and the bad of the characters, we are following in a story. In the case of the main character, we need to identify with her/him (I’d guess 99.9% of the time that’s with the good stuff). But if a story starts out and we don’t see or experience any redeeming qualities in a character, we aren’t quite as interested in sticking around.
If she’s grumpy or he’s mean-spirited, albeit with reason, or they are all so dark that even your phone’s flashlight won’t help to see more clearly, we need to understand without a doubt why it’s worth our time (and our money) to keep reading. We need to empathize with the character. Identify with the character. And to do this, we need something that is so basic, it’s almost crazy it’s missed so often.
No matter the hi-tech, smoke-and-mirrors on the page, what is so frequently forgotten/left out is that we need to see, what author/screenwriter Blake Snyder refers to as the SAVE THE CAT scene. It’s the small moment when we meet the main character and s/he does something redeeming, like pull the baby out of the fire, the spider out of the drain, give the homeless kid a bagel. It’s that pivotal scene that defines our character and makes the reader like him or her. And it can be a small moment, but it must be a redeeming moment.
After that, if she’s grumpy or he’s a bastard to his friend or she can’t get out of bed because she’s so depressed, we know this is temporary because WE’VE SEEN THE TRUE PERSON just a few lines above. She rescued the puppy from the oncoming train! He carried the bag of groceries up the three flights of stairs for his neighbor on crutches. She taught the kindergarten bully to read. And we care about that character. We empathize.
So this is a plea to writers — and illustrators* — everywhere to give readers that small offering, so that we want to see what happens to this character we care about. So that we finish the manuscript. Finish the book. Make us care and stick around.
[If you’ve already read or haven’t yet read SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder, I encourage you to take a look at it. It was published in 2005 by Michael Wiese Productions, www.mwp.com.]
About Erzsi Deak
Erzsi Deak is the founder of Hen&ink Literary Studio, a writer, and an editor. With nearly 30 years of experience on the international stage, she is most happy connecting individuals around the globe who can make things happen – no matter where you find yourself or what hat you are wearing. She is an editorial agent, pushing her authors and illustrators to go the extra kilometer to achieve sometimes surprising insights and results. A two-time SCBWI Member of the Year awardee, she speaks on craft, “the market,” and current industry topics. She is pleased to announce that the new MAB Media will publish PERIOD PIECES: STORIES FOR GIRLS as one of its launch books in 2015. Her first picture book, PUMPKIN TIME! (Sourcebooks, 2014, illustrated by Doug Cushman) has just been picked up by the Scholastic Book Clubs. Thanks to technology, she can work from France and be in New York and London at the same time.