“I don’t like your main character. He’s kind of obnoxious.” my beta reader laughingly told me, after reading the first chapter of my novel.
On the surface, I looked like this:
Inside, I looked like this:
Aloud, I said “Oh, well, he’s kind of hard to understand. He changes by the end.”
Inside, I screamed “How could you not like him?! Do you have a heart?! Is there a void where your soul should be?! Are you actually a Dementor that’s really good at makeup? Well, I guess this is what the Dementors are doing after getting kicked out of Azkaban!”
Outside: “But I really enjoyed it!” *Hugs between broken writer and Dementor in disguise* “Thank you for reading!"
But you know what? That person that might be a soul-sucking cloaked demon creature? They were right. The character was unlikable, or more accurately, there was no reason to cheer him on. There was nothing to make the reader connect with him, relate to him, transfer themselves into his story, feel affection towards him.
And if the reader doesn’t connect with the character through empathy? Nothing else in the story can work. Everything relies on this one fictional person. The basic definition of story is "A flawed hero with a goal overcoming obstacles to reach that goal, and how that journey changes them.” So without character, you don’t have story. Without empathy from the reader, you don’t even have character.
So what is empathy when it comes to characters?
It’s the process of a reader transferring their own lives onto the character. When this happens, the character’s goal and inner desires, values and weaknesses, everything about them, become proxies for our own. We learn of a shared piece of human nature between us, something we have in common on a significant inner level, and suddenly we want to see this character succeed. Because now, they are us – and we want to see ourselves succeed in real life. We feel what they feel, we experience what they experience.
The best way to sum up character empathy in my opinion, is this quote from C.S.Lewis: “Friendship is born at the moment when one person says to another ‘Really? You too? I thought I was the only one!’”
Which doesn’t mean the character has to be an angelic little cherub …
There are characters that operate in a moral gray area, there are characters that are downright awful, there are characters that shouldn’t be lovable …but we love them. So this is NOT saying that a main character has to be a perfect angel that rescues baby squirrels when they’re not busy volunteering at the local soup kitchen, it just means there’s something WORTHWHILE in the character that persuades the reader to stick around. We need a reason to relate with that at-first-glance unlikable character. Just as we have flawed people in our own lives who we can forgive and love.
A good quote for this one would be this, by G.K.Chesterton: “That’s the great lesson of Beauty and the Beast; that a thing must be loved before it is lovable.”
So how does a writer accomplish a good empathetic connection?
Luckily for us, establishing this only takes a little planning in the beginning of the story. Certain elements foster empathy, elements which you can give to your character and display in the story. Making sure to incorporate a few of these will ensure that first connection between reader and character. A connection which you, the author, will then be able to grow. It’s this tiny first note of shared humanity which deepens into those important links we hold with characters. We’re living people, they’re imagined and comprised of words on a page; yet these people can be friends to us, family, mentors, role models, and become some of the most influential people in our lives.
And how does that begin? Evoking empathy.
And how do you evoke empathy? Well here are the characteristics that human beings instinctively identify with and admire …
– Courage (This is the one EVERY main character should possess. Gumption to pursue what they want separates main from background characters.)
It’s a good plan to give your main character at least FIVE of these empathetic little “virtues.”
If this sounds like a resume, that’s kind of what it is. “Dear Potential Reader, I’m applying for the job of Main Character of this book series. I aspire to consume your every waking thought and drastically change your life, for better and worse.” It’s a diagram of the worthwhile traits of the hero, the characteristics that win us over, which promise the reader “If you follow my story, knowing me – and experiencing the story through me – will be well worth your time.”
These traits will be displayed in the set-up of the story, the first ten pages or so. But the story CANNOT stop to let the character exhibit these winning behaviors; the story must KEEP PROGRESSING, every empathetic element must be shown with a story reason for existing within a scene. Like exposition, empathy needs to be added in subtly, as the story motors onward, slipping into the reader’s knowledge without them noticing. If it’s a scene created for the express purpose of convincing the reader “This character is lovable! Love them! I said love them!” then it will be glaringly obvious and the reader will feel the exact opposite. (They’ll also feel that way about the author, incidentally.)
Now! How does this work?
Harry is the poster child for being treated unfairly. Yet in the face of the abusive treatment of his childhood, Harry is courageous. He does not succumb to the Dursley’s relentless campaign to stamp the magic out of him, and become a proper Dursley; though this would’ve won their approval, put him in their good graces, and made his life exponentially easier – but he didn’t do it. He knew they were wrong, knew what was right, and refused to become like them. So heck yes Sorting Hat, there is “plenty of courage, I see”. He was loved by his parents, by the three that dropped him off at his Aunt and Uncle’s, and by the majority of the Wizarding World. He’s also snarky, loving, and in constant danger.
Every reason why we care about Judy is established in the first few scenes. She’s courageous. She’s funny. She’s loved by her parents. She’s motivated by noble values. Definitely goal oriented, hard working, and smart. She’s also in imminent danger, and being treated unfairly.
If we took out the pieces of the story meant to evoke our empathy, what would happen?
Nobody would care. Judy Hopps would have been an annoying, smug, and consumed by ruthless ambition. Harry Potter would have ceased to exist because everything about him is empathetic.
Establishing these early allows us to begin the process of temporarily transferring our lives into a story. Or in the case of some life-changing stories, not temporarily transferring, but letting them become part of our souls forever.
Yup, having your story connect with a reader forever starts with just a little empathy. Pretty useful.
Oh, and speaking of souls, give me mine back, Dementor reader. I learned how to make people like my characters. Now you’re out of the Azkaban job and the beta reading job.
Some time ago you talked about things that get you excited in games (like the dialogues in Uncharted 4). There are any upcoming game this year that are you looking for?
Persona 5 in two weeks, hands down, end of story. There are very few games I actively look forward to - the majority of games are usually more of a “Oh, that’s coming. I’ll probably get it” type acknowledgement than anything else. I know how much work goes into AAA game dev, and I enjoy my time with them, but they don’t really excite me much. I like playing them, and they’re interesting, but I don’t feel like I’m missing out if I wait a bit and pick it up later (or sometimes not at all, like how I never purchased a WiiU). My exception to this is the Persona series. I’ve been a huge fan since playing through Persona 3 on the PS2, and I love it from so many different angles. It is the one series I actually get excited about.
For those who are unfamiliar with this series, it’s an utterly bizarre combination of Pokemon-style battle and collection gameplay, Visual Novel Scheduled Dating Sim character and relationship building, and randomly-generated dungeon crawler all wrapped up in an urban fantasy JRPG setting, and it is wonderful. I didn’t think that such disparate core gameplay systems could work so well together, but they synergize like peanut butter and chocolate in a way that got me hooked from the get go.
The metaplot moves forward through day-to-day scheduled gameplay, where the player’s protagonist character meets and befriends characters in a Japanese high school setting over the course of a school year. Each character relationship is represented by a specific tarot arcana, and the strength of your friendship with that character also affects the strength of the pokemon you can collect and summon of that tarot arcana. The pokemon are necessary to battle the enemies in the randomly generated dungeons, which you must complete in order to advance the plot, which opens up access to more of the individual character storylines, which let your pokemon get stronger, which makes the dungeons easier, which lets you advance the plot… and so on. The relationships you build with your teammates translate into improvements in battle. The pokemon you collect also help build closer relationships with your friends. The money and items you collect in the random dungeons are used to buy better equipment, but also gifts for friends and toys and books for stat increases. It’s a fantastic multi-level synergistic feedback cycle that kept me playing for hours because of how many connection points there are between the different core gameplay systems.
From a developer’s perspective, Persona 5 specifically has got me very interested in their presentation and user interface design. The game is highly visually stylized, and that extends to the UI as well. But it isn’t something particularly basic either - the fonts,
the color scheme, the lettering are all highly stylized as well. Just thinking about how they managed to get the fonts to work with that kind of stylization must have been a huge design challenge… especially because they knew they had to localize it to a whole different writing system, while still maintaining the style of the game. I’ve done localization before - fitting stuff from other languages into limited text space is already a challenge, but doing so while adhering to this gorgeous visual style guide is a super daunting task. Are they only rotating or highlighting specific letters? Is there some kind of special preprocessing pass for the the text? Is everything drawn separately and simply treated as a texture? My mind is abuzz with possibilities.
As a player, I love great character development, story development, and deep RPG combat systems. As a developer, I really like seeing how different and deep gameplay systems interact and intersect with each other. The Persona series has managed to keep me fascinated as both a player and a developer for quite some time. Combine this with the
genre-bending fusion score by Shoji Meguro and I’ve got a game that I’ll easily sink 80+ hours into without blinking and still go back for more. Persona is the only game series I actively avoid spoilers and marketing for, because I know for certain that I will be buying it and I want to remain as unspoiled as possible.
The elemental dragon tarot spread is a tarot spread that is going to help the individual look at themselves to see how they are doing in all elements of their life. This would be a good spread to use whenever you need to look at yourself, and how you are operating.
Elemental Witch: Witches
who work around the 5 elements: Water, Earth, Air, Fire, and Spirit.
Earth Witch: Witches who
specifically work with their magic around the element of Earth, through grounding exercises, rock/soil collecting, crystal magic, and Green Witchery.
Types of Earth Witches:
Green Witch: use
plants/herbs/flowers in herbal and natural magic, such as using them in spells
and creating remedies with them.
Garden Witch: A version of
a Green Witch, they enjoy working with the earth through gardening and using
their herbs and plants to help and care for their families and loved ones.
Flora Witch: Similar to the above witches, they work with flowers in their practice. Their Book of Shadows would likely be full of Green Witchery, such as than herbs and herbal recipes, and flower classifications and associations.
Crystal Witch: Witches who
work with stones and crystals, such as through crystal healing. Their Book of
Shadows will most likely have information about the stones, chakra balance, and
Forest Witch: A witch who
enjoys the company of trees and live amongst them. The seclusion is perfect for
cottage magic and tree magic. They also enjoy the company of fey and woodland
animals, and use local plants. Swamp Witch: Witches who live within the swamps, use swamp plants, and enjoy the company of swamp animals.
Desert Witch: A witch who
lives in the desert, enjoys the natural desert scenery, uses desert plants,
bones, sand in their practice, and collects desert rocks. They normally worship
desert deities and study desert lore in their area.
Water Witch: Witches who
work with the element of Water. Water magic includes water scrying, collecting
water, swimming and other water-related actives.
Types of Water Witches:
Sea Witch: They work with
magic and deities around the ocean and oceanic world. The practice sea magic
using seashells and bones, sea weed, beach sand, driftwood, ocean water, etc.
They also may worship sea deities and enjoy the imagery of sea creature, like
Ice/Arctic Witch: A witch
who lives amongst snow covered land for most of the year or have a deep appreciation for the cold and snow. They worship ice
deities, use snow water, and enjoy the cold.
Air/Wind Witch: Witches
who center around the element of Air. They work with wind, using tools and
symbols associated with air.
Fire Witch: Witches who
focus on the element of Fire and fire magic, such as candle magic.
Other Natural Witch types:
Seasonal Witch: Witches
who draw magic during a specific time of the year. They are known as Winter,
Fall, Spring and Summer witches who have a deep connection to the season they
Storm/Weather Witch: Witches who combine one’s energy with the energy of the weather and storms. They collect rain water, utilize the energy of a lightning storm, and so on.
Sun Witch: A witch who
enjoys sunshine, works with spell work involving the sun during the daytime, and sun deities.
Nocturnal Witch: A witch
who works with nocturnal deities and magical work at night. They find solace in
darkness, the darker side of life, and normally wear dark colors. There is a
great book by Konstantinos called Nocturnal Witchcraft.
Lunar/Moon Witch: A witch
who draws magic from the moon. They are nocturnal witches and do magic at
night. They also tend to worship moon deities.
Witches who focus on the planets and stars. Their Book of Shadows will have
information about each planet, the zodiac and astrology, and enjoy nocturnal
Animal Witch: Witches who
have a deep appreciation for all animals and use animal materials, draw on
their energy, and most of the time worship animal deities.
Special Witch types:
Divination Witch: Witches
who work with practices of divination, such as tarot readings, palmistry, tea
leaf reading, and so on.
Hedge Witch: Also known as
shamans. They use a type of magic that is oriented around the spiritual world.
Astral travel/projection, lucid dreaming, spirit-work, healing, and out-of-body
experiences are some of the magic they do.
Witches who communicate and work with the fey, such as calling on them and
leaving them offerings regularly to thank them for their assistance.
Draconian Witch: Witches
who call upon dragons, use dragon imagery in their practice, and worship dragon
Modern and Domestic Witch types:
Kitchen Witch: Witches who
enjoy working in the kitchen and put their magic into herbal mixtures, brewing,
baking, and cooking.
Cottage Witch: A lot like
a kitchen witch, they enjoy being in their home and doing things for their
Urban Witch: Witches who
live in a urban environment and use more modern practices of magic.
Country Witch: Witches who
enjoy living in the country. Some may have a large ranch with livestock, while
others enjoy the seclusion for their practice. Most likely they will enjoy the
company of horses.
Witches who work with technology. They practice modern witchcraft through phone
apps and most likely have a digital Book of Shadows.
Music Witch: Witches who
enjoy music. They use magic in their singing, chanting, and playing
instruments. Music is in their lives everyday is played whenever they do spell
Artist/Craft Witch: Witches who
put their magic into art, such as drawing, sculpting, painting, and creating.
Literary Witch: Witches
who enjoy books and literature. They enjoy reading and studying witchcraft,
lore, and magical practices of every culture.
Athletic Witch: Witches
who enjoy pushing themselves physically. This could be through yoga, running,
or a sport. Their practice includes keeping themselves healthy and using their
healthy energy to help others through physical challenges.
Eclectic Witch: Most
modern witches follow many practices and traditions, and go by many
Religious Witch: Witches
who are Wiccan, Druid, Satanic, Christian, and so on. They practice their
religious beliefs in cohesion with their craft.