Empathy: Hooking the Reader to Characters

hook the reader

You are the dealer, the character is the drug


Getting the reader to care about your characters requires evoking the right emotion, empathy. This should not be confused with sympathy.

Sympathy: the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief, misfortune, etc

Empathy: The ability to identify with or understand another’s situation or feelings

Every story needs a compelling lead character. This character does not need to be sympathetic, but he does need to be interesting and understandable. So how do you get your reader to care about your lead?

The quick list:

  • Match your reader in age and gender (target audience)
  • Match the reader’s internal landscape (similar way of thinking)
  • Show common virtues (desire for love etc)
  • Avoid forming associations between the protagonist and anything vile
  • Give him weaknesses that he can eventually overcome
  • Make the character care deeply about something
  • Give him an interesting way of looking at the world

Long list:

Step 1: Making the Character

Create an interesting and understandable character.

Step 2: Shape the showcase

Create two column in a notebook. On the left, write down the important and relevant character traits. On the right, write ways that display these traits.

Example: Frugal --> wash & re-use plastic forks
Example: Animal lover --> protects a stray dog with his life

Step 3: Create relevant events

Create events that showcase his storyline in a way that allows the audience to experience his feelings through his actions and dialogue. Important: Show, don’t tell.

Step 4: Putting the character onto the page

Master the way you reveal the character and his transformation.

His name and basic description.

What’s in a name? A lot! We expect an extraordinary person behind a bizarre name… don’t disappoint us. We expect a plain person if she has a plain Jane, but you might surprise us! Perhaps the name already hints at the personality. Is John Carpenter the kind of person who is constructive or destructive? Consider the name part of his wardrobe and find him something that fits.

Describe your character in ways that the reader can imagine. Don’t say ‘attractive’, use descriptions that reveal what kind of person he is. Use things that hint at his inner world.

He was sixteen but his blue eyes looked older.
His fair face carefully crafted into a poker face that revealed nothing.


Contrast with himself: Contrast among traits, flaws, desires, needs, feelings and so on.
Contrast with other people: Distinguish personalities by contrasting them with opposing personalities.
This can be split into two paths:
How others speak about him (gossip)
How others affect him (relationships)

Contrast with the setting: A radical difference between personality and environment, such as Eeyore at a party.


Dialogue shows his voice, his thoughts, his feelings, his decisions. Bonus: it’s all show, no tell! Check out this article on characterization through dialogue.

Action, Reaction and Decision

Emotions are mechanisms that set the brain’s highest-level goals. Without emotions, people are unable to make decisions. Show what he does, or refuses to do. When he is challenged to a fight, does he step up or run away? It shows a lot about his character. Different people respond differently to different situations. Dilemma‘s are especially full of potential, as there is no right or wrong option on the table. Each option has major drawbacks and/or gain. Another element of potential is having a secret. Can he keep a secret? How does he handle it?

Everything gets its emotional weight and meaning based on how it affects the protagonist. In every scene, the protagonist must react in a way the reader can see and understand in the moment. This react must be specific and personal. It must affect whether the protagonist achieves his goal.

Mannerisms, symbols and props

Imagine Dumbledore without his glasses. Better yet, imagine Hermoine wearing Harry Potter’s round spectacles and Harry with Dumbledore’s full beard. Is Buffy the Vampire slayer still as interesting if she didn’t start off as a superficial blonde girl? How about being a vampire slayer without carrying a wooden stake? What if Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber was purple?

Step 5: Hook the reader to the character

Recognition: Understanding & Empathy

The emotion to aim for is empathy, allowing the reader to feel what the character is feeling, share and understand the struggles he is facing. Even if your character does something bad, we can understand his decision to do it if we understand the character. Even if the character isn’t likeable, he can evoke empathy through recognition and understanding.

Deep connections happen with people we can identify with, whose emotions we can recognize. We are familiar with their emotional struggles, we recognize their traits, hopes, actions and motivations. We recognize their experiences and support their cause when we know their motivations.

Fascination: Interest

We are made to notice things that are unique, that stand out (distinctive). We focus on the values (priorities) people have and whether they are compatible with our own. We judge them by the attitude with which they show their opinions (point of view). We admire someone who has a passion (fire) strong enough to endure despite obstacles.

It’s the details that set us apart from anyone like us. We experience paradoxes forced upon us by conflicting traits due to our layered personalities. We have desires, hopes and dreams (ambition). But we are flawed (humanize) and restricted (credibility). Lastly, we’re all afraid of something (fear), whether it’s the fear of getting caught or a fear of ducks. Fear is the most compelling emotion you can experience. Balance the flaws with positive humanistic attracting aspects.

Characters have been in existence long before we met him, unless we witnessed his birth…awkward. Let’s get on. People have a backstory, a past full of experiences that shaped and formed him and taught him everything he knows today. Some people are haunted by ghosts from their past, traumatic experiences that still influence their behaviour in the present.

Mystery: Curiosity, Anticipation & Tension

Mysterious past: abilities and secrets: The character’s mysterious past, abilities and secrets. Where did he get his skills? Slowly unravel his past to show where he got his skills. What sort of dark secrets do you hide and what’s going to happen when someone finds out?

Mysterious present: curious about behaviour: Why is he the way he is? Why does he react that way?

Mysterious future: surprises and dilemmas: This is where the surprises live, the land of anticipation and uncertainty. Dilemma’s are particularly good at creating tension and wonder.

Cheat Sheet: tricks for instant appeal and empathy

Undeserved mistreatment / injustice / contempt

  • Teased / bullied
  • Humiliated / laughed at / embarrassed
  • Snubbed / passed over
  • Judged with unfair prejudice
  • False accused
  • Brutally treated / assaulted/ raped or otherwise victimized physically
  • Exploited / left defenseless


  • Losing a loved one
  • Losing something important
  • Get into an accident


  • Deformed
  • Mentally challenged
  • Trapped physically or mentally
  • Ruled by phobia
  • Ruled by addiction or disease
  • Limited by poverty and/or debt

Showing humanistic virtues

  • Helping others (specially the less fortunate)
  • Relating to kids and being liked by kids
  • Liking animals and being liked by animals
  • Being forgiving
  • Self sacrifice for the sake of others
  • Fighting for a just cause
  • Having solid morals and being dependable
  • Being loving
  • Being important to others
  • Showing humanity when nobody is watching

Having awesome qualities

  • Having power/ charisma / leadership skills (The Godfather)
  • Having a wicked awesome job (The Martian)
  • Being courageous (Schindler’s List)
  • Being passionate (Braveheart)
  • Having epic skills / expertise (James Bond)
  • Being wise (Lord of the Rings)
  • Being funny / playful (Beverly Hills Cop)
  • Being clever (The Social Network)
  • Being handsome / beautiful (Twilight)
  • Being innocent and sweet (Forrest Gump)
  • Having an epic body (The Warrior)
  • Being persistent (Finding Nemo)
  • Being the Misfit / Rebel (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest)


  • Haunted by the past
  • Seen in a moment of weakness and vulnerability
  • Deceived / betrayed
  • Not believed when telling the truth
  • Abandoned / neglected
  • Rejected and excluded
  • Lonely
  • Having made mistakes and suffering regret
  • Being injured
  • Being in danger

Cron, L. (2012) Wired for story: the writer’s guide to using brain science to hook readers from the very first sentence.
Farland, D. (2013) Million Dollar Outlines.
Iglesias, K (2005) Writing for Emotional Impact