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What do you need to empathize with a character?

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Marconimist View Drop Down
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    Posted: 22 Jun 2022 at 1:48pm
I’ve both received and seen in other round 2 microfiction entries a higher-than-expected amount of feedback to the effect that readers would prefer more than what was given in order to care about the POV characters, and it got me thinking it might be a good thought exercise for the community:

Just how much setup do you as a reader need to empathize with what’s happening to a character on page?

In formats where you have more room in the word count (Flash and upward), I think it’s reasonable to expect a little more attention to detail to flesh-out a character. And if you’re writing an anti-hero or someone who is not otherwise a paragon of virtue, a “save the cat” moment is certainly warranted to give them some redeeming quality.

In microfiction your story arc is only going to be so long, so often you’re leaving out many details in favor of those you want to highlight for narrative purposes. Physical description tends to be less important than what characters are feeling unless the plot hinges on appearance.

Regardless of format, often the character is intended to be a stand-in for the reader, eliciting the reader to put themselves in the character’s position and consider what it would feel like to undergo that experience.

So what expectations do you have as a reader before you feel sufficiently vested in a character’s fate in any particular format? Are there universal experiences that let you put yourself in their shoes more readily than otherwise? If the story hinges on the exploration or exploration of a specific emotion/experience, do you need to know much else about the character in order to relate to that expression? Are your expectations genre dependent? Are there other schools of thought regarding appropriate character development in a given format?

Again, I’m not complaining about feedback, I’m genuinely curious about what people are looking for when they read, and I think the responses might be illuminating for the community as a whole. Feel free to respond to any particular part or all parts as you feel inspired.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote nod1v1ng Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 22 Jun 2022 at 2:16pm

For me, I think the best way to feel connected to a MC -- even a villain or antihero - is to understand their motive. Any hint of why they want what they want makes them easier to understand. Even if they are not likeable, they are still understandable


Edited to add: great topic of conversation. :)


Edited by nod1v1ng - 22 Jun 2022 at 2:17pm
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote Nimhathuna Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 22 Jun 2022 at 2:33pm

For me, I don't think there are universal experiences that link reader and character in any format. As readers, we bring our own lived experiences to the narrative. As such, it colours our perception and reader response. A nuance, even a single descriptor, is enough for me to imagine what the MC is experiencing or their perspective. In the MF100, the briefest intimation and reading between the lines are everything. It's a form of expression where the reader does much more of the work. Above all, once a human response, irrespective of whether it is negative or positive, is perceived, only then is it possible to attain a modicum of empathy with a fictional MC. On a related note, I never put myself in their shoes. I might wear try them on for the duration of the fictive exercise, but for the most part, I read as if viewing from above. Truth be told, I dissociate when constructing a narrative as well. Distance is as powerful as immersion.




Edited by Nimhathuna - 22 Jun 2022 at 2:34pm
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote taaaylor Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 22 Jun 2022 at 2:42pm
I absolutely expect character at all levels of word count -- otherwise I'd read (prose-)poetry or nonfiction ;) But even character itself is a slippery concept, because all character reduces to is a perspective through which one takes in the world. When I can grasp a character's perspective through the author's choice of detail in what the character observes, internalizes, and chooses (or chooses not) to respond to -- that creates a sense of something unnameably real. Especially when there's that magic moment that their past behavior allows me to anticipate what they'll do next, which creates tension and conflict and delicious drama.

That can happen in a micro. However, plot design also plays into building character in microfiction. One of my favorite examples is last year's winner (actually from a forum user here, the_luckless), "A Friend Like Coyote". The choice of detail in that story, imo, is masterful. Like this paragraph:

Quote The $500 he won playing dice. Me. The bullet that went clean through his shirt, missing him. Me. The night he danced drunk with the mayor’s daughter. That was all me.

31 words to build two characters (the cowboy and Coyote), the atmosphere, the setting, the historical context, years of story-stuff in a cinematic snapshot, tension, the answer to the question that fuels all stories: why these people in this particular place at this particular time?

Imo, with micro, the real trick isn't cramming character into 100 words. It's devising a plot and narrative frame that makes every detail do triple-duty to sculpt a specific sense of person and place in the limited words allowed, especially if the dramatic frame itself does character work (e.g. "baby shoes: for sale, never worn" has no narrative at all, but it builds a sense of a person, a place, a loss).


Edited by taaaylor - 22 Jun 2022 at 2:44pm
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote Janetinputney Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 22 Jun 2022 at 3:24pm
I read once in screenwriting, there are 5 ways to make the audience empathise with the character quickly... 
1) have them suffer an injustice (everyone can relate to that)
2) show them kind (pat the dog moment) 
3) make them excellent at something (like a top brain surgeon... he can be a jerk, but he's amazing) 
I can't remember the other two, but a quick google came out with 
- being the underdog
- mourning the loss of a loved one
- protector of innocence
- dealing with inner or external struggles
- showing loyalty... 
etc etc... 
- I like what someone said above about understanding their motive...  


and I know screenwriting is different for fiction... but just some things to think about... but in summary... I think you really need to empathise with the character otherwise, as taaaylor says, it's just poetry or non-fiction! 

just my 2 cents! 





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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote CHartman Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 22 Jun 2022 at 3:30pm
I need to understand the character's motivation to feel connected to them.  Sometimes this is obvious as implied by the plot of the story, sometimes more context is needed.  without knowing motivation a micro can seem like a scene from a longer story rather than a contained narrative of its own.  
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote jennifer.quail Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 22 Jun 2022 at 4:28pm
For me to actually feel EMPATHY for them? First, they have to not be a moron. I cannot stand stories where use of basic common sense or adult reasoning would solve any problems in under five minutes, but they can't seem to figure it out. Otherwise the best you're getting is pity, at worst annoyance if they're rewarded instead of punished for being dumb. (Especially at the expense of a smart antagonist, whom I'm likely to end up rooting for instead.) Doesn't matter what they're supposed to be suffering from.

But if just to at least be invested in the outcome, I need SOME idea who this person is and why they deserve my interest. Just being a generic nice guy/bumbling guy/victim of something or other isn't enough for me to care. 
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