Effective Techniques for Getting the Reader's Sympathy

by Kris

Question: What are the most effective techniques to naturally make the reader feel the emotion that the author intentionally planned for them? For example, if I wrote a story and I got to a scene that was suppose to be heartbreaking and the reader doesn't feel it, how would I change that scene? In addition to that, I realize that if the reader's suppose to be heartbroken over a character, they need a special bond with that character. What can I do to tighten the bond between character and reader?

Answer: If you want your reader to empathize with your character, the first step is to write from that character's point of view. That means, you describe what the main character perceives with his/her senses and also what the character thinks and feels. This can be done either through first person or third person narration. In this way, the reader understands what events mean to the main character, He can effectively stand in the main character's shoes, and that makes the events more personal.

It may also help if the main character is someone the reader can easily relate to or sympathize with, for instance if the character has problems or ambitions in common with the reader. Many good main characters are underdogs, because most of us feel like underdogs some of the time. Learning about a character's insecurities helps, because everyone is insecure about something. Similarly, everyone has ambitions, everyone loves and wants to be loved, everyone feels pain, anger, fear, etc. Everyone worries about risking too much. Everyone protects their pride. The better you describe the main character's perceptions and emotions, the easier it is for a reader to
sympathize and to share in those emotions.

Even if your character is coping with problems that are extraordinary, his thoughts and feelings about them should be believable and consistent with his personality. It's much easier for a reader to relate to a character who feels real.

If the main character suffers for the sake of a noble purpose or puts others ahead of himself, that can also garner some sympathy. Most of us try to do the right thing, and admire those brave enough to succeed at it. However, it's not necessary to make the main character a good person. It's more important that the reader can get inside the character's perspective.

Dramatica theory also suggests that it is easier for female readers to emphasize with characters who are running out of options, and easier for male readers to emphasize with characters who are running out of time (see the article "Ticking Clock or Option Exhaustion."

Curiously, the theory also suggests that it is easier for male readers to relate to male characters (and to a lesser extent easier for female readers to relate to female characters). So it can help to know what audience you are writing for. If you are writing children's, or women's, or Christian fiction, for example, you can create a character who is like your typical reader. Keep in mind, however, that these are generalizations that are not universally true.

Finally, if you want a scene to be heartbreaking, make sure you prepare the ground by establishing just how much is at stake for the character and how much he deserves to win. Make the reader want the character to succeed, so that his failure means more.

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