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Radical Empathy: Creating a Compelling Flawed Character

They say reading is like magic. When you open a book, what you're really doing is opening a portal to another world. You're also magically entering the mind of another person - the protagonist's mind.

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With the overwhelming rise of first-person narratives in YA, this opportunity becomes even more pronounced. Suddenly, as a YA reader, you are constantly gaining access to the up-to-the-minute intimate details of someone else's thoughts, decisions, opinions and perceptions - an experience that would be really hard to replicate in real life.

The thing about getting to know someone this intimately is that it can foster a kind of radical empathy. When someone's behaviors are explained to you in an in-depth, nuanced way, it becomes easy to understand that person and empathize with them - even if you don't personally like them or agree with them.

For YA writers, to write a deeply flawed (read: real) character in an effective way is to challenge and help your reader to employ radical empathy. This is important because radical empathy isn't something we get to feel that often in real life. (If we do employ it often, based on the limited information we have about strangers, then we're probably the Nicest Human Being ever, and have reached a level of coolness that many of us can only strive for.)

But at its core, radical empathy represents a key part of what makes us us, of what makes interacting with others and life in general a worthwhile venture. It's what leads people to risk their lives to save others in a natural disaster. It's what forms the connection between best friends who would do anything for each other. It's possibly what redeems the human race, even when we seem to be doing everything wrong (hello, racism, sexism, etc). Reading is always an exercise in imagination, but reading a well-executed flawed character, who you come to understand and empathize with, is like an exercise in a higher level of human awesomeness.

If you're a YA writer, and especially if you're writing in the first person, you are the gatekeeper to this pretty amazing, not-normal experience. So knowing the value of radical empathy, how can you promote it in your book?

Perfect vs. Likeable vs. Empathizable Characters

We've all heard before that a perfect character is a boring one; every character must have some flaws in order to be interesting. But what does that really mean? It's easy enough to say your character is clumsy, sarcastic, and sometimes a little hotheaded, for instance, and then be done with it.

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Promoting radical empathy with your writing doesn't just mean giving your character a few personality flaws that may be pretty ordinary or entertaining/endearing. Nor does it mean giving your character a Bad Past that makes them mysterious and dark. It means allowing your character to actively be just as deeply flawed, contradictory, mistake-prone, frustrating, beautiful, layered, and multitude-containing as a real human being - like you or me.

One way to do this is to allow your character to make mistakes - big ones, with consequences, that they had full agency in making. It's easy when writing a book to just throw a lot of outside obstacles at your protagonist and then have the protagonist deal with those obstacles. But sometimes, we are all the creators of our own suffering. Perhaps the key to writing a great empathizable Protagonist Mistake is to fully illustrate, pre-event, why the protagonist thinks he or she is acting correctly. Allow them to fully reason through their decision using their own established knowledge and wisdom. Nobody thinks they're making a mistake at the exact moment they make one, so get the reader on board and rooting for the character's decision. Then comes the fallout (aahh!).

Another way is to incorporate contradictions into your character, especially when it comes to their values. Ask: what does your character value? How could these ideals come in conflict with their actions, or their other values? To illustrate this, perhaps in one scene your character, who values kindness, sees someone being bullied but doesn't do anything. What has led to their moment of inaction? Is it that they want to be socially accepted more than they want to be kind? That might sound terrible on paper, but most of us have been in a similar position before. Fear, anger, confusion, and more can get in the way of our somewhat simple higher ideals and make us into hella complicated, flawed creatures. AKA real people.

One thing to keep in mind is, not every character is going to likable when you allow your writing to really delve into their personhood like this. But we're not going for likable here; we're going for real. Likable can mean that your character is nice, or funny, or passionate, but likability doesn't require realness. And realness is what's going to give your reader the opportunity to employ - with fantastic results for themselves as well as humanity - radical empathy.

This has been a long post, but that's all for now, folks! What are some other ways to make a character realistically, beautifully flawed that you can think of? What are your thoughts on radical empathy? What deeply flawed character have you really empathized with in the past?
Emilia Plater

Emilia is a YA author who avoids studying, food that isn't covered in cheese, and waking up before 10:30AM whenever possible. A bundle of confusions.

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  1. One that also works is characters in pain. Especially if the character refuses to share the source of their pain for a while, making me curious. Then once I know why they're hurting, I want to see them heal or be redeemed in some way. Books that don't do this I find extremely frustrating. It's like they don't resolve a major plot point.

  2. Great post!
    I always find a villain, who's plans are reasoned out, an intriguing character for this reason. They always make a mistake. And while they are in the wrong, to them it might be logical, a good idea even. I think a novel from the point of view of a villian would be interesting. Of course, that being said, it is more appealing when a protagonist is the "logical" mistake maker and still facing more problems.
    The Bad Past thing can be very effective or very contrived. If their past isn't mysterious, but more of blatantly pitied or frowned upon, it can work well. In a story I was working once, I had character who had recovered from an eating disorder. On top of her past that was constantly looming over her, she made decisions on impulse a lot of the time. She acted like a teenager, like a real person. Her mistakes lead her back to darker places. The whole plot hinged on the mistakes.
    The question I'm left with is, how do you subplot the mistakes, instead of allowing them to become the ultimate struggle?

  3. That's a great point, Kessie! Love the idea of deep pain as a compelling flaw.

    That sounds like a really effective character, Anna. Good question about subplotting mistakes. Hmm...

  4. Really great post. I love the part about showing that to the character her/himself, the flawed decision-making process is logical, rational, "correct." We all justify our behavior (both before AND after the stuff hits the fan), and so I agree this is a crucial aspect of adding depth and helping readers identify with our characters.

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  6. Wow, fantastic! I really like when someone acknowledges that characters need to be partners in their own downfall, not just bravely suffering in the wake of external circumstances. I'm certain that every character I've written has been primarily to blame for any dark turns and fallings-out, and I write a lot of unlikable people who still seem sympathetic to the reader because of exactly what you've mentioned here--the window into their thoughts. The justification for their actions becomes obvious when you've lived through it with them!

    And actually, in one fantasy story of mine, this empathy thing sort of doubles up on itself because the not-necessarily-likable character directly experiences other people's emotions. So you, the reader, are peeking into her mind PLUS she's reinterpreting other people's feelings through her own lens and reacting to them. (Sometimes it's kind of a mess.) I've still got to make sure that who she is affects how she interprets others.

    I've sometimes said that writing realistic characters who aren't ourselves is not achieved by putting yourself in their shoes; it's achieved by imagining what it's like to have different feet. (If you're just putting on their shoes, how is that the whole experience?)

    I don't mind long posts. :) Hope you don't mind long comments.

  7. My MC's a manipulative girl but there's a reason why she does that. I made her as one of those found in tropes BUT I tweaked it little so that it won't look like too much of a cliché. I think tropes are sort of realistic (hey, basketball jocks, cheerleaders, etc.) and most people could relate to that. Aside from that, they're sort of expected. Just don't overdo it.

  8. Great post. A flipside to this that I'd love to see addresses, here or elsewhere, is how do you ride that balance? Because I think it's possible to go too far, to have your protagonist make so many bad decisions (or such a bad single decision) that you lose readers. I certainly have been lost as a reader by a protagonist's terrible choices. But I do want to see protagonists grow, and to grow they have to make mistakes so they're not starting from perfect.

    In my WIP I have my protagonist make a lot of bad decisions through the first two-thirds of the book. So far my critters haven't indicated that they've lost empathy for her yet, but they are very conscious of her immaturity. I stress a bit that for some readers I will have overdone it, and that all they'll see is this obsessive, manipulative kid, and not her upsides or what she's going through.

  9. Excellent post. For readers to relate, characters have to be as complex as they are, and flaws need to bleed through into their actions, beliefs thoughts and ideas--we can't shy away from them. :)

    Angela Ackerman

  10. I think to answer Joe's question, the key is not that the decision is bad, per se - we can watch something unfold and see where it's going and how it will turn out (bad) and it doesn't resonate because we don't have the necessary motivation or justification. As such, it just appears to us, the reader, that the character is just making bad choices and we're hovering over them wondering "how could they be so stupid?".

    On the flip side, what's important is for the character to fully believe what they're doing is the right thing and for the right reason, whether they're not privy to an objectionable truth or not. As long as we can see what's motivating the person's behavior, in short, knowing their "story" and understanding how they view the world and why, then you'll understand their decision-making regardless if its bad or not. In that sense, it's not what they do that's important, it's why.

    I can't think of a better example that demonstrates this than the Iranian film "A Separation" that came out within the last two years and won best foreign film. A series of events happen that cause the audience to empathize, though perhaps not necessarily like, all parties that become entangled with stakes that are continually elevated.

  11. I'm not familiar with that film, but I think you've got a good point about understanding their motivation.


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Item Reviewed: Radical Empathy: Creating a Compelling Flawed Character Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Emilia Plater