Empathy. It’s something writers aspire to when they create a character. Sure, we have shortcuts like making a protagonist witty, having them be kind to animals, or even putting them in a bad situation.
That last one, the bad situation, is a tricky one since it involves a decision.
There’s an old adage that you should only give your characters a bad choice and a worse choice when it comes down to the wire.
But what makes readers empathize with a character isn’t necessarily that they have a choice to make but the decision-making process itself. We all make decisions on a daily basis and identify with that uncertain feeling.
Do I save my pennies or buy that $6 Starbucks latte?
Do I wear the red shoes or the blue shoes?
Should I quit my horrible job and marry the billionaire?
Okay, that last one might be for fictional characters only. But you get the idea. Decisions work in the writer’s favor for several reasons:
Decision-making is linked to emotions and feeling. In fact, recent studies on brain-damaged patients have proven that if emotions are removed such as through brain surgery for tumors, decision-making falters. One patient I read about deliberated on simple, small decisions for hours unable to make up his mind while he pondered this variable and that. If emotions were present, the subject would have been able to use memories, feelings, and even biases to make that decision quicker.
Emotion has an impact on our decisions even before we make them.
Drs. Antonio and Hanna Damasio setup an experiment with two good decks of cards and two bad decks of cards. All the players could turn over cards in one of the four decks in whatever order they wanted. Some cards were worth money and others took money away. The good decks gave lower rewards immediately but were worth more in total. The bad decks had large earnings but also large losses. What the scientists realized however, was before the participants even realized which was a good deck and which was a bad deck, their bodies started giving them clues. If a subject reached for a card in a bad deck which was riskier, their palms began to sweat. Therefore, their bodies knew they were making a bad decision even before their brains reasoned out which were the bad and good decks.
Your state of mind affects your decision-making. Further studies on decision-making have found that if you are sad, you make decisions with a more analytical bent, second-guessing yourself and backing up your decisions with evidence. This is why when you’re unhappy you go over every possible risk in minute detail, weighing the pros and cons of each tiny change. On the other hand, if you’re happy, you’re more willing to go with your gut instinct, your nebulous hunch. That positive attitude allows a person to go with the flow of life no matter what happens, trusting their own mind with more confidence.
Decision-making is fun to watch. Of course, readers love to watch as a character makes a decision. If gives them a chance to posit how they’d make the same decision. Would they choose the same? Would they do a better job than the protagonist? If they make the same decision, they instinctively root for the hero or heroine to succeed. Afterall, they’d be in exactly the same spot given the same circumstances. If the character chooses an alternate path, a reader will follow along waiting until the moment when they can mentally say “I told you so!” and bask in the knowledge that they out-thought the protagonist.
So give your character a decision to make. It can be life-changing, it can be deceptively simple, and it can be a choice between a rock and a hard place. It will help your book engage a reader emotionally through both empathy and role-playing. And engagement in a story…I have a hunch that will always lead to happy readers.