Paula thinks about how readers empathise with characters.
Empathy is defined as ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’, and this is exactly how we want our readers to react to the characters in our stories. We want them to engage with the characters, experience their emotions, and as a result, care about what happens to them.
How do we achieve this? Unless we empathise with our characters, we can’t expect the reader to do so. We need to know them, put ourselves in their shoes, and live the story with them. If we let ourselves feel everything that a character feels, then our readers will feel it too. It goes without saying that those feelings must be shown, and not simply ‘told’ to the reader. If a character is angry, don’t simply say ‘she was furious’. Think about a time when you were angry. How did you feel? What did you do? Now show what your character does and feels, while keeping them ‘in character’, of course.
What about the times your character is experiencing something you’ve never encountered? Imagination is always good. In Irish Inheritance, my hero and heroine are in a large Victorian house at night during a power cut. They hear a loud crash from downstairs and make their way down the stairs with only a small flashlight. Now that’s never happened to me, but in my imagination I lived the whole scene with them. It was late at night when I was writing it, and my heart was thumping like mad. I even found myself glancing nervously over my shoulder a couple of times.
There are, of course, many ‘universal emotions’ which we’ve all felt at some time in our lives – fear, sadness, anger, even jealousy or loneliness, and hopefully happiness, excitement, anticipation etc. Therefore, even if you have never experienced a specific event, you probably have another experience you can relate it to. If, for example, the heroine is nervously waiting to audition for a TV drama, think about a time when you were nervously waiting for something e.g. an interview for a job. Harness the memory of your own emotions, and project them to your character and their situation.
Showing the characters’ reactions in a realistic way helps readers to empathise with them and relate the emotions to their own experiences.