Posted by: Kathy Temean | October 4, 2010

Empathize With Your Main Character

Author Holly Lisle has an article on her site titled How to Create a Character.  She give six tips.  This is just one of them. 

Here’s Holly:

Do empathize with your character.

This is sometimes easy. When you’re writing your protagonist, and he’s in deep soup, and you’re pouring your soul into his struggles and his angst and spending plenty of words and sweat making making people see that he’s a great guy in a tough spot, the empathy will be there. You’ll know who he is and you’ll care because you’ll see yourself as him in the same spot. In the dreams you’ve had since you were a little kid, you’ve been the hero. You know how the routine is supposed to go.

Sometimes empathy comes a lot harder, though, and I think it’s most important when it’s hard. Recently I had to write the toughest scene in my life, a scene where a woman that I’ve gone to a great deal of trouble to make sympathetic over the course of a book and a half does something so utterly reprehensible, so unforgivable, that if I’ve done it right the readers will be praying for her death from that moment on. Given the choice between doing something right and doing something evil, she chooses the path of evil, and in the moment of her choosing lies the fate of her world and the rest of the story.

But her choice couldn’t come out of the blue. I had to build toward it. I had to make what she did understandable, and in order to do that, I had to be able to understand it myself. It was a truly terrible act, one of the most horrible things I am capable of imagining, and when I wrote the scene, tears ran down my face and I got queasy and I got cold and when I was through I went to bed and cried. I had to put myself in the place where that character was, and she was in hell, and she did a hellish thing — but she did it with my hands, and my mind, and my eyes.

When you write, you can only write those things you know (or the things you know will be the only things you write well, anyway.) So when you write the villain, you have to be the villain. You have to understand why the villain acts as he does, you have to know that if you were him in that situation, you would do as he does — because if you can’t do this, no one who reads what you have written will believe in the characters you have created. Empathy in those moments is an agony. You have to look into the darkest part of your soul and find the part of yourself that could be a monster, and you have to put that on the page for people to see. There’s no easy way past this, because your hero can only be as great as the evil he overcomes. If you can’t face the evil in yourself, you hero will only overcome straw villains, and your work will lie flat and lifeless on the page.

Click this link to read the rest:

Don’t start your character off with a name or a physical description

Do start developing your character by giving him a problem, a dramatic need, a compulsion

Don’t rely on crutches

Don’t sympathize with your characters

Write from your own life

Click this link to see Holly’s books.  Her new book The Silver Dog is published by Scholastic.


  1. Great link, Kathy 🙂 Thank you!


    • Donna,

      Thanks for always leaving a comment. I appreciate it and are looking forward to seeing you i n November.



      • Kathy,

        I can’t help but leave comments. You put up such great stuff, I’m compelled to respond! lol

        And I’m really looking to November too. It’ll be great to have a day with kindred spirits! 😀



  2. Powerful post. Every main character is a journey for the writer as much as the reader or it’s not genuine.


    • Roz,

      It is a journey. Hope you are well on your way to your destination.

      Nice to hear from you again.



  3. how are you!This was a really fabulous post!
    I come from milan, I was luck to look for your website in baidu
    Also I learn much in your subject really thank your very much i will come every day


  4. Hi Kathy,
    I am an Educational Assistant and Behavioural Therapist for kids with Autism. Do you know of any links to info. that teaches KIDS about empathizing with characters in novels? Kids with Autism have a real difficulty with this skill. Anything you have to say is very much appreciated! Thanks so much for your time, Kirsty, SD 68 Nanaimo-Ladysmith, BC, Canada


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