Plot keeps the story moving, characters keep readers reading. Your hero’s vulnerabilities are the best way to get your reader to care about your character. Empathy is the glue that connects your reader to your character and your story.
You won’t have a viable story without a plot. The plot moves the story forward. But it's the characters, especially your protagonist, that keep readers engaged in your story. A reader is engaged because they care about your character. The reader empathizes with the character’s situation, their strengths and weaknesses, and root for your character to overcome obstacles.
Character empathy is essential for any story across the board, from cozy mystery to hard science fiction. Successful plot-driven action writers like Robert Ludlum know this. A character like Jason Bourne fighting against almost unbeatable odds is popular not because of the unbeatable odds, but because he has frailties.
Create sympathetic weaknesses to engage readers in your story. These weaknesses are elemental to your hero’s character. Vulnerability is the key to reader empathy.
Why Empathy is the Strongest Connection
Scientifically speaking, empathy originates in the right supramarginal gyrus, which is located in the parietal lobe. This part of the brain sorts out sensory information and tries to make sense of information by filling in the gaps. Your reader uses memory, knowledge, and experience from their personal life to fill in the gaps about your character. Those personal cues tie your reader emotionally to your character in a way plot points cannot.
Every person uses themselves as a yardstick to figure out what another person is feeling, including characters in a novel. No matter the situation or genre of your novel, your reader will try to fill in the blanks about your character based upon their own life experiences. As a writer, you can aid this process by adding sensory detail and relatable vulnerabilities.
No amount of fancy plot tactics can compete with your reader’s brain to create empathy for your character. You have the ability to help your reader love your character.
The Three Crucial Character Elements
As you work on your main character's background, focus on the three elements that best cause readers to empathize: disadvantage, context, and vulnerability. When your readers empathize with the character they put themselves in the character’s shoes. Once you’ve done that, readers will follow your character through any obstacle, hardship, or conflict because they are in the story, they are your character.
The elements you need are fundamental and unalterable to your character. Tacked on frailties don’t work. Choose carefully and build the crucial elements in from the start. They have to feel authentic.
Element 1: Disadvantage
Give your character an inescapable social, political, or economic disadvantage. Readers want to see the character overcome the disadvantage. Your character may be high-born and meet social opposition even if he is in financial straits. Her political views keep her from connecting with her opponents. He can’t compete economically because of his financial circumstances. In the case of Jason Bourne, he doesn’t know who he is.
Readers don’t want to see innocent people suffer. They root for the underdog who can’t escape from their disadvantage. A physical weakling must outfight a troop of trained assassins. A wallflower falls in love with the handsomest guy in town who is engaged to the richest woman in town.
The disadvantage is not a habit or addiction the character has acquired and can overcome by willpower and dedication. The overused alcoholic demon torturing the hero is not a disadvantage. The disadvantage is a given. The hero must live with the disadvantage and the reader sympathizes.
Element 2: Context
Remember those compare and contrast school assignments? Context is how you use comparison in your story. Compare your hero’s strengths to those of other characters. If your hero lives by his wits, the antagonist is smarter. If she’s an ace at deducing what happened, the antagonist plants false clues to trip her up. Your brawny ex-Special Forces hero faces a bigger, stronger opponent.
Your reader has been admiring your hero’s skills and strengths. Now that strength is put to the test by someone bigger, smarter, more adept than your hero. And your reader feels the difference. Now everything is tilted to make your hero’s strength a vulnerability. You shed new light on your character, and once again your reader is empathizing with this new comparative situation. What was a strength is now a vulnerability and your reader reacts.
Element 3: Vulnerability
From Save the Cat to Pet the Dog, almost every story structure includes an element of vulnerability. The tough wise guy is a sucker for a lost dog. The veteran sniper leaks tears at a kid’s birthday party. Your sassy heroine cries after leading a child home.
The reason is reader empathy. This technique is so powerful, you only need to do it once. You don’t need to overdo vulnerability, one instance in your story is all it takes. Every reader is human. When they see vulnerability in your hero, it strengthens the connection.
Amplify the vulnerability. Have surrounding characters respond to your hero’s moment of vulnerability.
Kids and animals work, but use your imagination to create other situations. Perhaps the sight of a tomato brings back your heroine’s memories of good days with her partner making giant pots of tomato sauce. The key is to make the connection between the object and your hero’s emotional frailty. Your reader will make the connection.
The Vulnerable Hero and Your Reader
These moments of vulnerability work in any genre. Create the vulnerabilities in your character background, then use them at the appropriate plot points to keep your reader engaged.
The way a reader comes to know your character is similar to the way we come to know people in real life. Now that you know how important hero vulnerabilities are to your reader, create a set of vulnerabilities in your character background. Scale them on emotional intensity to pair them with plot points for greater emotional impact.
Weave your hero’s vulnerabilities into the story. Use your plot to find the high points where frailties will have the most impact. Use vulnerabilities in the middle to keep readers engaged with your hero as you move the story toward the ultimate conclusion.
Once your story is written, use ProWritingAid to smooth your language, find spelling and grammar fixes, and improve readability.