Sparking Empathy: How to create character connection

Several years ago I dragged my nine-year-old son to a therapist. Two years after losing the grandparents we’d lived with for most of his life, he wasn’t coping. Or rather, as I learned through his sessions, the coping he’d learned during their illnesses and deaths had now become unhealthy mechanisms for engaging the world. He was disconnected.
Through family counseling, I discovered my own unhealthy coping mechanisms, defenses tooled in my childhood to deal with the constantly hovering specter of my father’s cancer and imminent death. I remember sitting on the therapist’s slipcovered couch during one of my son’s sessions, picking at a nub in the fabric, unable to say the word “vulnerable.” I literally stumbled over it. It twisted my tongue each time I tried to spit it out as I worked through my own struggles, frustrated to find I wasn’t as heart-whole as I had believed.

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Some part of my brain already understood what empathy expert Dr. Brené Brown’s research has now codified: vulnerability is the state people fight because it forces us to acknowledge our fears. However, according to Brown, vulnerability is essential in forging real human connection. She says, “We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.” When people occupy an emotional space where they can connect to others, it’s because they have come to believe in their own worthiness. Brown refers to these people as “the Wholehearted.”

Characters must be vulnerable for readers to connect to them and ultimately experience a phenomenon I call “Reader Wholeheartedness.” It’s the sense of fullness and resolution when the reader recognizes the protagonist’s achievement of Wholeheartedness, the point where the protagonist engages her community from a place of worthiness. Reader Wholeheartedness is easy to confuse with catharsis, often defined as an emotional purge—especially of sadness—through literature or art. However, here I use the definition of catharsis meaning “a purification or purgation that brings about a spiritual renewal.” Reader Wholeheartedness is a step before catharsis, and a key part of a specific vulnerability sequence which transitions the reader from an initial character connection to a deeper sense of catharsis or spiritual renewal.

While studying my own reaction to character-driven literature, I discovered my catharsis does not hinge on the protagonist’s vulnerability—it hinges on the vulnerability of the character the protagonist feels most disconnected from, a character we’ll call the Emotional Antagonist. This can be different from the story antagonist. For example, in a classic hero’s journey, the story antagonist may be the dragon standing between the hero and the treasure, but the Emotional Antagonist may be the hero’s disapproving father who is eventually won over.

Resolution happens when the protagonist achieves Wholeheartedness through a sequence of increasingly vulnerable moments and increased connection, but catharsis occurs when the narrative takes the extra step of restoring the last broken connection with the Emotional Antagonist. When this happens, the protagonist has already recognized her own worthiness; however, the reader sees it acknowledged by the Emotional Antagonist when the Emotional Antagonist makes himself vulnerable as a bid for the protagonist’s recognition of his worthiness, which is granted. This releases the final story tension and grants a “spiritual” renewal.

This isn’t necessary for every story. A reader can experience Wholeheartedness without catharsis, which is common in young adult novels. However, that extra moment of catharsis is particularly well-suited for middle-grade novels because it eliminates ambiguity, a story quality better suited for slightly older readers. Catharsis through character vulnerability follows this sequence:

  1. The protagonist must have a sense of unworthiness and a shield to hide it. The shield must reflect the character’s personality and relate specifically to her vulnerability.
  2. The protagonist exposes moments of vulnerability that call forth new connections and build a sense of community with everyone but her Emotional Antagonist.
  3. The protagonist attempts to establish an emotional connection to the Emotional Antagonist who then rejects her.
  4. The protagonist reaches Wholeheartedness despite rejection.
  5. The Emotional Antagonist is drawn to the protagonist’s newfound Wholeheartedness and shows his vulnerability as he seeks connection to the protagonist, which reinforces the protagonist’s sense of worthiness.

Madeleine L’Engle said, “When we were children, we used to think that when were grown up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable.” Children live in a state of vulnerability. Dr. Brown notes, “Kids are clumsy in their efforts to hide fear and self-doubt,” which is why the characters we encounter in children’s literature often become enduring companions as we grow into adulthood. We love the characters for their transparency and fall for them further as they take brave journeys toward Wholeheartedness.

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Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and shoe addict. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Her seventh novel, Southern Charmed, released in October. Melanie is pursuing a Masters degree in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin..

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