In this tutorial, we’ll be looking at:
- How to create empathy between your characters and readers
- Why dialogue is important and how it can bring your characters to life
- The pros and cons of first- and third-person point of view (PoV)
The importance of empathy
When you create your characters and follow them on their adventures, your readers must be able to empathise with them. Empathy is our ability to imagine ourselves in someone else’s position – to feel what they feel. It is a crucial skill not only for writers, but for psychologists, counsellors, and carers. Empathy is tied inextricably to our ability and willingness to care about others, and your fictional characters are no different than flesh-and-blood people in this regard. Your writing needs to show how your characters are feeling and thinking in order for your readers to empathise with them, and consequently for them to care about what happens to those characters during your story. If we don’t care about a character (or at least, develop an interest in them) then their goal in the story, and thus the story itself, becomes meaningless.
The primary way to create empathy with fictional characters is through strong sensory and emotional impressions that show, rather than tell. Show how your characters are feeling by the way their hands tremble as they pick up a phone (e.g. are they nervous? Afraid? Angry?), the way they break out in a sweat (e.g. are they terrified by a mysterious shadow deep in a tomb?), and their dialogue (e.g. “What was that?” she hissed). Showing, not telling, harkens back to our most fundamental psychology as social beings; we need to directly observe people and their reactions in order to communicate with and understand each other. This is the origin of the idiom, ‘a picture tells a thousand words’, and the reason why live news showing us footage of a major event is much more provocative than a news reader simply telling us what has happened. Your writing is an even more powerful medium than film or television because you are not restricted to audio or visual stimulation – every sense is yours to engage with, and thus you can build an even richer empathic relationship between your characters and your reader.
A person’s mode of speech is just as individual and distinctive as their physical appearance (if not more so). It can reveal their level of education, their ethnic or cultural background, their age and gender, and many other subtle clues that all add up to a unique person. A lot can also be revealed by what your characters choose not to say! In the last tutorial, we discussed using an ‘interview’ method to find out more about our characters. When you do, be sure that you also imagine – in addition to how they look and behave – what they sound like.
Let’s take a look at some famous Tomb Raider characters and see how their dialogue can reflect their personalities:
- “’Myth’ she calls it! A limited word, for a limited perspective. You were always such the scientist. You’re probably right at home with all these Tesla contraptions, aren’t you?”
Amanda, Tomb Raider: Legend. Arrogant, condescending, disdainful, contemptuous.
- “Well, this is my point. I feel you may be better qualified to examine its secrets. Unless you, perish the thought, expired in the fall… Perhaps if you lighten your load a little, it may lessen the impact. The stone you carry..?”
Pierre, Tomb Raider: Chronicles. Long-winded, shrewd, deceitful, smug.
- “To the study, gentlemen, where we may pontificate over the day’s disheartening events.”
Winston, Tomb Raider: Chronicles. Gracious, weary, cultured, old-fashioned.
To be engaging and believable, dialogue must be consistent and appropriate for each character and their circumstances. For example, Lara Croft’s default mode of speaking is with a cultured British accent, and she makes the effort to be polite to everyone she encounters. This is entirely appropriate given her British upper-class background and high level of education. Her speech style helps to set her apart from all of the other characters. This is important because, generally speaking, we tend to introduce our characters’ physical appearance first and then rely on dialogue thereafter to tell who is who. It is imperative to try to keep a character’s dialogue consistent so that your reader can easily identify and differentiate between your characters.
Despite the importance of consistency, your characters are not going to speak or act the same way all the time. It is important to tailor dialogue so that it is appropriate to the circumstances and characters in question. Lara is hardly going to ask Zip for a cup of coffee in the same tone of voice as she uses towards Natla during a climactic battle! Bear in mind how your characters are feeling both in themselves and towards their audience at all times. Anger, fear, preoccupation, and irritation tend to make characters use shorter, sharper sentences (or, if it’s a really bad day, half-hearted grunts). However, a character who is feeling relaxed and contented will be more inclined to use longer sentences and more elaborate wording. Of course, the style of your characters’ dialogue also heavily depends on their underlying personality and the circumstances at the time!
Let’s sum up the factors that are important to crafting a character’s dialogue:
- Accent – does your character have a particular accent? If so, how can you represent that with your spelling, punctuation, word choice, and grammar? Make sure that you don’t get carried away with creating over-the-top alternative spellings or overuse apostrophes – your readers still need to clearly understand what your characters are saying!
- Language – does your character speak more than one language? If so, are there any particular circumstances where they use that other language – e.g. to swear or mutter to themselves? Your character’s grasp of languages might also affect their use of syntax (the rules and patterns of words) and grammar.
- Slang/vocabulary – how does your character use their language, e.g. do they speak perfect BBC English, or do they talk as though they were chatting online or through texting? Do they use specific terminology or slang words? How does their field(s) of expertise affect their choice of words?
- Gender – men and women sound different due to the shape and sizes of their voice boxes. Women tend to have higher-pitched voices than men, but not always – some men have high, warbling voices, and some women possess low, deep voices.
- Age – younger people tend to have higher-pitched voices than older people, who tend to have deeper and more mellow voices. However, advanced old age also gives voices a whispering softness that is difficult for younger people to emulate convincingly. Don’t forget that puberty also causes a gradual (female) or sudden (male) change in how our voices sound.
- Health – does your character smoke, or have a respiratory infection? Both tend to make the voice sound huskier, raspy, and sometimes difficult to understand. Have they suffered an injury that is making them grit their teeth in pain, making them hiss or gasp their words? Are they fatigued, or under the influence of drink or drugs? All of these will affect how they speak.
- Background – think about where your characters are from, where they grew up, what they do for work and fun, and who they associate with.
- Circumstances – how, and under what circumstances, does your character alter their dialogue? Are they refined and bombastic in one setting, and quieter or cruder in another?
A final point about dialogue. When you write an exchange, remember the mantra stimulus and response. For everything your characters say, there needs to be a reason for them to say it. It sounds obvious – and it is. You need to include every single step in a conversation or exchange – including what your characters are physically doing – in order for their words to make sense and flow smoothly. This might result in a whole page of short sentences with hardly any description, but this is exactly what you should aim to achieve in a dialogue situation!
Choosing a point of view (PoV)
Finally, before we end this tutorial, let’s look at how you can fully integrate your characters and stories through point of view (PoV).
PoV is one of the first choices you will make when you embark on a new story. In most fiction, the two most common PoVs are first- and third-person. Each has its own advantages and drawbacks; some authors even choose to switch between first- and third-person between chapters.
In first-person, you are a character – usually the main character (the protagonist). Everything that happens must be experienced through their senses. For example:
“I swallowed, forcing down annoyance. My fingers drummed on the table. “Is this going to take much longer, Zip?”
He gave a resigned sigh, without pausing the click-click-click of furious typing. “It’ll take as long as it takes, Lara.””
First-person can appear limiting at first, but it has two fantastic advantages for the writer.
- It gives you unlimited access to your character’s thoughts and feelings.
- Your character can still relay a lot of non-first-person information through their own observations, giving your world and story a sense of intimacy – as though the character is talking directly to the reader and confiding in them.
This excerpt from my novel Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness highlights the second point:
“Glad you came back to save me, stranger,” I said, not bothering to hide my sarcasm.
“Name’s Kurtis.” Amazingly, he offered his hand.
“Lara,” I returned his smile and, accepting the handshake, slammed him against the far wall. “And this is business.”
He grunted but wisely held still – no doubt aware of the gun still levelled at his head – and stayed that way while I rummaged through his pockets.
“I owe you one,” he said, sounding sheepish.
“You owe me a Painting,” I snapped, trying to ignore the undeniable intimacy. The bronze disk dangling from his hip-strap was hurriedly tossed out of reach.
This is written completely in first-person (Lara’s PoV), but we still get a sense of what Kurtis is thinking and feeling because our PoV character is showing us.
The downside to first-person is that you are essentially stuck with one character from beginning to end. It is possible to have more than one character’s first-person PoV in your story, but if you want to do it that way then you need 1) a damn good reason to switch characters, and 2) a clear separation so your readers don’t get confused about who they are following.
For example, in my novel Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness, most of the story was from Lara’s first-person PoV because almost all of the plot unfolded from her perspective. However, I switched to Kurtis’ first-person PoV for those portions of the plot where he is separated from Lara (i.e. in the Sanatorium and the fight with Boaz). I also wanted to include some foreshadowing and semi-important backstory – e.g. Eckhardt’s escape from the Pit, and the Cabal’s meeting in Paris – that, sadly, neither Lara nor Kurtis actually witnessed first-hand. For those scenes, and those scenes alone, I chose to use third-person, which we’ll look at next.
Third-person PoV is one of the most common PoVs in modern literature. This PoV allows you follow one or – less commonly – several characters but from a distance. For example:
“Lara sneered, stepping easily over the trip wire. Once over the threshold, she could instantly sense she’d taken the correct hallway. Goosebumps raced across her skin and frost began to lime her clothing as the temperature plummeted with each step. She felt an icy knot form in her belly, but the fear was quickly pushed aside by familiar excitement. The Trident Stone had to be close by…”
We can still tell what your protagonist is feeling and thinking, but without the need to relay it as though they were speaking to us, e.g. “I said” or “I felt”.
Third-person is an extremely straightforward and user-friendly PoV, and one that most writers fall into without a second’s hesitation. But be careful: this PoV can make you forget that you, the author, have omnipotent powers of observation and knowledge. This god-like approach can destroy the carefully-arranged narrative by giving away things that your characters could not possibly know, when they could not possibly know them. You might know everything, but your writing still has to follow the unfolding narrative if your characters and your readers are going to enjoy finding out for themselves. It’s never a good sign when your reader can work out the plot ten steps ahead of the characters!
Just like for first-person PoV, if you choose to use third-person then it’s best to only follow events from only one character’s PoVs (i.e. your protagonist). However, you should feel free to switch between two or more characters if that is how to best unfold your story’s narrative.
Key points for Crafting Characters part 2:
- Aim to build empathy between your characters and the reader.
- Dialogue must be consistent and appropriate.
- Your choice of PoV – and the character(s) you choose to follow – is critical to the unfolding of your narrative.
Next time – Part 8: Survival Skills for Writers (and Raiders!)
Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 7: Crafting Characters (part 2) by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.