Monday, December 12, 2011

Key Attribute for Strong Novel Writing

The longer I write the more convinced I become one specific quality has the greatest potential to improve my novel writing. But before I get to that, let me throw out a few brief scenarios.


A shivering man on a bus shoves his way past a red-eyed woman as she clutches the hands of two shoeless children, both wiping away smears of mud from their cheeks.
A life support machine falls silent. An intimate crowd of what you guess to be loved ones release tiny tearful noises, but one. One woman (the only one with her eyes open) stands in the corner of the room by the stained curtain, twisting her watch on her wrist and you swear you spy the slightest hint of her upturned lip.
“I do,” she whispers as though we can’t all hear—we’re not all watching for this exact moment.

Out of character with his clean-shaven chin, the groom, the man I beat one hundred and seventy-six times at gin rummy, the childhood friend who extracted leeches from my calves until my skin bled, the only one I’ve told about that one locked memory, echoes the unrealistic promise.

I shudder as my oldest friend slides the gold band on her pencil-thin finger. I let out a sigh, making sure it’s louder than a whisper. I intend to be heard.

Have I left you in suspense long enough about that one imperative quality?


At heart, I believe every writer is a psychologist. People intrigue us. We wouldn’t write characters if that weren’t the case. With this, I’ve noticed the more empathy I feel toward others, the stronger my writing becomes. Characters take on more layered emotions, more depth, and more authenticity.

Ultimately, empathy impacts every single crucial aspect of novel writing, including two biggies, characterization and motivation.

It’s worthwhile to call upon empathetic feelings for main characters—our likable characters, but also for our antagonists.

Let’s briefly revisit the three above scenarios.

I want to know more about these people and I have questions based on what I’ve read (even though I created these w/in a few minutes time, playing w/ POV, etc.). This is good. Inspiring readers to ask questions is a sure sign you’ve conquered the first step in getting them engaged.

Questions about bus scene:
Why is the man shoving past a woman with kids?
What’s up with the woman’s red eyes?
Why are the kids shoeless and muddy and why are they suddenly wiping the mud off their faces?

Questions about hospital scene:
Who died?
Why does everyone in the room have their eyes closed?
Why is the one woman fidgety and potentially smiling?

Questions about wedding scene:
What’s up with the immediate sarcasm?
Why is the groom out of character on his wedding?
What has the narrator so riled up? Is it jealousy or what’s the story? And why is she so sure it’s an unrealistic promise?

Some of those characters above might turn out to be “the bad guys” but already I care about them. And that is the number one goal for an author—to incite readers to care.

Empathy. Unexpected, huh? But I swear by it. In life. In my choice profession. In fact, I have no doubt I’m drawn to writing novels because of the abundance of opportunities to demonstrate empathy.

As a reader or writer, have you noticed the powerful influence of empathy in a work? Can you tell when it’s absent? What say you about empathy being one of the best resources for novel writers?

*photo by flickr
**All “I”s are on somebody. Come see who in about an hour here!


  1. Yes, I do think we have to have empathy for every character, at least the major ones. Readers love to worry, and we typically feel empathy toward the characters we worry about.

  2. My question? When will you answer the questions to the scenarios? Excellent! I agree 100% with you!

  3. Wow, I never thought of it quite like that, Wendy, but I think you're absolutely right! Great post!

  4. In life, I watch people. I often know when they are sad. Something is just off, and I can sense it, even if they're trying to hide it. I think empathy is often borne out of our own experience with suffering; because we've suffered, we more easily recognize suffering in others, and it makes us (me, at least) want to fix it if we can, or at least encourage.

    In reading, I'm always asking questions about characters and their inner struggles.

    In writing, I'm constantly thinking about why my characters act the way they do and the best way to show that and leave the reader asking questions like you've demonstrated.

  5. You're speaking my language, Wendy. I long to feel for the characters when I read a story. I want to get inside their heads, share in their joys and sorrows, and experience emotion--plenty of it. It's my desire to create characters in my own stories with whom readers can feel empathy.

  6. mmmm.... so where can I get all those books with those scenarios! :) YeS! Empathy! You are SO right. With no empathy there's no desire to keep reading. I want to weep with the characters, laugh with them, cheer for them ... yes!

  7. I just read in Pat Conroy's book, My Reading Life, that after about 5pages, he can tell if an author is writing, 'safe'. 'Safe' is not a compliment. If empathy or truth in character is missing, I close the book. You are right Wendy, writers are psychologists. Another friend of mine says, we are voyeurs. I can't stand contrived scenarios or characters. Give me some substance, some good and evil. Then you have me turning the pages. Thanks, Susan

  8. If you don't have empathy...why keep reading? I love to feel for's how we connect with them

  9. I think if we do our best to make our characters and their traits recognizable, and real, that connection happens with the readers. They care about what happens, and why.

  10. Great post, Wendy! I want to feel as much as I can for a character and I know other readers do, too.

  11. This is great stuff. Plus, I enjoyed reading your writing. :)

    I think the huge key you've unlocked here (besides empathy) is the importance of eliciting questions. Of sustaining the mystery.

  12. Great post - and I loved the excerpts! Your writing is beautiful!

  13. Yes, I have noticed when it is missing. I think it is important, for a story can seem flat without it. Good post, Wendy. Thank you!
    Karen :)

  14. I loved this line, Wendy: In fact, I have no doubt I’m drawn to writing novels because of the abundance of opportunities to demonstrate empathy.

    I think you nailed one of the chief reasons for writing. I love trying to understand people, so it makes sense that I enjoy creating and analyzing characters.

    Great insight as usual.

  15. This is so true! One of my crit buddies and I were just discussing this. Without empathy the reader can not connect like we want them to. Great post!

  16. This is so true. If you don't care about the characters, you won't care what happens to them.

  17. Great post! And Empathy. That's really it, isn't it? :)

  18. Yes, I think that's one of the reasons I love to read--"to feel" like or for the character.

  19. You know, Wendy, in all the details writers must attend to, I think we sometimes leave out the biggies: tell a great story with good characters. Love your story and your characters, and feel for them. Empathize with them.

    So much of writing can be fixed. But a story without a discernible pulse--that I'm not sure CAN be fixed. Empathy, I think, gives our stories life, a pulse.

    Good post!

  20. Wow, I never thought of this, but you're so right. I love your inspiration and the way you bend my mind in new directions, Wendy. :)

  21. Heather, I've also found I think of them in the little things. I care about the smallest aspects. I'll mess with the way the say things or what they like for breakfast and it bugs me if something feels off about it.

    Jessica, I know. I'd like to know the answer to those questions myself. Perhaps I'll explore them in one of my novels.

    Heidi, It hit me for the first time about a year or so ago when I answered a question on the Books and Such blog.

    Lindsay, These things were obvious to me. Got that impression. Wonderful insight.

    Keli, I started crying while reading a book last night. Drove this point home.

    Jaime, I want to do those things with you...that's how likable you are!

    Susan, You are inspiring a post out of me. Excellent point! Excellent. I can't stand contrived. And I love Conroy. Some of my fav. first novels.

    Loree, Believe it or not I have kept reading based on descriptions, writing skill, etc. but it's those characters that have had a good deal of empathy already poured in them that grab my attention from start to finish and thereafter.

    Joanne, Yep, I want readers to care. I think that can't happen unless I, as the author, care first.

    Cindy, Isn't this a cool understanding and repeated theme here today?! Validating.

    Katie, Thanks for RT. It was a three for one deal. ;) You seriously are a champion.

    Karen, Means a lot coming from you. I'm dying to read your work. Trusting that day is coming soon.

    Karen, Flat...great description. Void. A novel either brings it or doesn't.

    Mel, This doesn't surprise me one bit about you. You are a beautiful soul!

    Susan, It's great to be involved in discussions like that, isn't it?

    Patti, Invested. It's essential. Always why it's so key we make our characters human, flawed and likable.

    Janet, Yes! Yes, it is. ;)

    Jennifer, Truth. I identify with that reason for reading big time!

    Gwen, I love that word...pulse. Yes, that's what pouring life into characters gives them pulse and life to care about.

    Sarah, I love to bend. I truly believe it's part of what I was put on earth to do--bend minds. ;)

    I love what you all bring to the table here. It makes it lively. It adds to my entire writing experience. Thanks for doing that--for being so wonderfully you and showing up here.

    It matters to me.
    ~ Wendy

  22. Empathy?
    Yes, yes, yes.
    I have to care about people.
    In both real life and in novels, I have to care.
    Even in the blogs I read -- I get attached to the people who write the posts. The reason I come back to this blog? Because I like you. You make me think. You make me care more, want to be more.
    Empathy. It's so, so necessary in every facet of our lives. It's inbred in us by our Creator.

  23. Yes! Our ultimate goal is to create empathy and sometimes, probably always, it's in our heads, but it's learning to get it down on paper. How to show that empathy without telling. Great post!

  24. This is a lovely post. We spend so much time thinking about creating reader empathy, that sometimes it's easy to overlook the fact that we have to empathize with them first, and really see the world through their eyes. Truly lovely writing in those examples. Thank you!


  25. A life support machine falls silent. An intimate crowd of what you guess to be loved ones release tiny tearful noises, but one. One woman (the only one with her eyes open) stands in the corner of the room by the stained curtain, twisting her watch on her wrist and you swear you spy the slightest hint of her upturned lip.
    “I do,” she whispers as though we can’t all hear—we’re not all watching for this exact moment.

    I read this together ~*~ until death do us part.

    Not realizing it belonged to the one beneath it.

    All of them could be in the same book. Write, write, write!!

    Merry Christmas!
    Blessings to you and your family.

  26. Wow, Wendy. Your examples are absolutely breathtaking! And I agree, empathy is a strong skill to have when writing.

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