Have you ever wondered what creates a reader, a committed reader of fiction? What qualities would a book have to offer to attract this reader? As an author we need to have some sort of insight because a reader is what it’s all about as soon as we dare put pen to paper. I ponder on this topic endlessly and I always come back to the same thing. For me, it is all about making a connection. I don’t know if it is the whole answer but certainly for me it is a big part of what keeps me reading.
Novelist Jeff Gerke, author of Hack Your Reader’s Brain agrees with the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s definition of a friend – a soul dwelling in two bodies. Jeff believes that when “it comes to fiction, we’re shooting for that sort of relationship between the reader and the hero” and he thinks the long-term solution to connecting your reader to your protagonist, is the glue of empathy. I am a great believer in empathy. When we can put ourselves in someone else’s head space we begin to understand what might hold the attention so necessary, to ensure our words are read. A good teacher never forgets what it feels like to be a student regardless of the field of study. It gives them the edge to understand student needs. It doesn’t always mean an expert job but at least the heart and soul are involved, and students feel that. It is like extending a hand in friendship.
Our writing is stronger if we can somehow manage to create that glue. It brings together two very separate entities, one real and one not. A connection is made. Joanna Penn in a recent post says if “you want readers to want to spend their precious time on your book, then you have to write a character that keeps them engaged. This doesn’t mean that you need a goody-goody-two shoes perfect person, but you do want to write a compelling, authentic protagonist that hooks the reader, so they are desperate to know what happens next in the character’s world.” I’d like to take it a step further. The engagement can come about from any of the characters, including the peripheral ones.
Empathy happens if something in the experience you are viewing or reading relates in a personal and emotional manner. It doesn’t have to be an exact similar experience. In the film, The Doctor with William Hurt, the main character discovers all his pact answers suddenly seem superficial and cold when he mixes with other patients as a patient and not as a doctor. As the one on the receiving end he finds the professionally delivered conversations are far from empathic. In fact it is similar to telling a story and not showing it – a beautiful flow of meaningless words mimicking understanding that leaves the recipient unsatisfied. Writing about a situation however sad, or violent, or loving won’t connect the reader to the character or the scene. The feelings evoked will. This is what the reader sees, hears and feels, blends and then processes. The internalisation turns the scene into something tangible to them, into something meaningful.
As an author we can’t tell our reader how to feel. Feelings can’t be forced. Somehow we have to create that atmosphere with our word choices. A great idea will not suffice if a reader can’t make a connection, can’t find that glue. As a reader myself, one with a severe addiction to my kindle, I will forgive flaws when I review if the character, or characters reach out and tug emotion from me. There is a sense that the writer is sharing (sometimes subconsciously) something important and responding positively to their craft is not a hardship.
Monica M. Clark gives some excellent examples of things she has heard readers say when that sharing takes place:
“I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters, even when I wasn’t reading the book.”
“I had to find out if she ever reconciled with her father.”
“I kept forgetting she wasn’t real. I even caught myself praying for her once.”
Links are made when a reader feels strongly about the work of fiction that they have chosen to read. If you can’t stop thinking about the character then the words on the page have triggered something personal in you. It may not be the exact same experience but like referred pain, it still is pain. Empathy is the ability to relate. Relating allows connections.
Readers read to escape, to lose themselves in a form of companionship, to understand things that may otherwise not cross their path. They read to spend time in a pleasant manner, and to gain a different perspective. If they connect with our characters the experience is heightened. Empathy is the glue that engages and gives readers a reality that dismisses the unreality of the fiction.
I live in hope of translating what my brain understand to the fingers that do the typing,
(I hope this comment gets through the WordPress identification hurdles!)
Good post, Barbara. It fits well I think with what I was waffling on about, (on All About Leeth), on the subject of where ideas comes from: because we make ‘mental models’ of other people – to the extent that “Aristotle’s definition of a friend – a soul dwelling in two bodies.” (thanks: I didn’t know that!). The thing that struck me hard was that apart from the small group of people we’re physically intimate with (hugs, sharing food, and so on), a mental model of a fictional character can become as detailed in our heads, as real, as a real person we know. Probably more real than a lot of real people we only see on TV.
And it’s my belief that empathy is ‘simply’ our ability to make a mental model of another person and feel their pain and joy – and it’s at the heart of all positive human relationships and social connections, and makes them possible. So, yes: I completely agree with you!
I think your answer is better than my post.