Tag Archives: Empathy

Your hero and you

An article in today’s Guardian reveals crime writers’ relationships with their detectives.

Me and my detective by Lee Child, Attica Locke, Sara Paretsky, Jo Nesbø and more

I’m familiar with most of the series mentioned, some of which influenced the construction of my Cornish Detective series. I’ve completed five novels describing Neil Kettle’s investigations. Hundreds of literary agents have been queried with these books and I’ve self-published them on several sites, currently with KDP Select. I’m nearing the end of narrating and editing the first story as an audiobook.

Although The Cornish Detective has dominated my writing since 2014, I have an ambivalent relationship with my copper hero, for though I like him, he’s not my favourite character. I agree with what Lee Child says about his protagonist Jack Reacher:

The best thing to do is not to get too close to the character. I need to like him less than you’re going to like him. That’s what keeps him alive and honest and authentic. There are many series where the author clearly falls in love with the character and starts to be too protective. I’ve always been very hardhearted. I don’t like Reacher that much; I’m in total control of him. I’m the only person in the world he’s scared of.

Thus, I’ve been cruel to Neil Kettle, turning him into a killer defending himself from a murderer, and I’m about to give him heartache when he falls in love with a tempestuous woman. I intend the series to last twelve stories. He’ll die on the final page; no prequels…unless they offer me a boatload of money! ;)

Lee Child’s advice could be applied to any genre. But, what John Connolly says about mystery fiction is also crucial, I think if you’re writing a series:

There’s a misapprehension about mystery fiction, which is that people read for plot. They don’t – the plots really don’t change much. There’s a murder. There’s an investigation. There’s a solution, however partial. Plot is what characters do and language is the expression of that, and so for a mystery series what keeps people coming back is the pleasure of spending time with those characters.

Readers have to empathise with the MC if they’re going to return to find out what happens to them next. That doesn’t mean to say that they’re always nice people, for irritating or dastardly characters, such as Hercule Poirot and Harry Flashman have charisma.

How close are you to your hero?

Are they a reflection of your personality?

How much internal dialogue do you give them?

Do you like them…or, are they annoying?

How Empathic Are You?

I came across this test in the Curiosity.com newsletter:

Empathy Quotient

Devised by psychologist and autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen (cousin of actor and comedian Sacha), it has the weakness of such multiple-choice questionnaires, in that some questions are ambiguous. I found myself thinking “depends on” while contemplating an answer.

It surely helps a writer to be empathic, otherwise, how do you put yourself in someone else’s shoes? John Steinbeck stated:

You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.

I’ve been called empathic by several friends over the years. It’s true to a certain degree: I scored 63 out of 80 on the test.

Having empathy for my characters can be problematic, such as when I bond with the antagonist in a crime novel, worrying that he’s suffering from gout, but forgetting he’s murdered four people!

If your empathy score is low, you might want to check out an old thread:


How do your Stories make People Feel?

I was recently reminded of this quote:

They may forget what you said—but they will never forget how you made them feel.
Carl W. Buehner

It’s commonly misattributed to Maya Angelou.

Whoever said it first, it’s a pertinent observation when it comes to the stories that we write.

Looking at my own writing—the short stories, novellas and novels—a trait that they share is the protagonist surviving awkward or dangerous situations, and coming through emotionally bruised, with their misconceptions about life changed for the better and optimistic about the future.

They’re not so much feel-good stories, more conforming to what P.D. James said:

What the detective story is about is not murder, but the restoration of order.

Order is restored in most of my tales, not just in my Cornish Detective novels, though there’s still an uneasy sense that things can go wrong and that it’s wise to be watchful and kind to others, as we’re all travelling a rocky road. I try to make my reader empathise with the humanity of my characters, including the antagoniststaking them on a journey that reaches a believable destination, even if it isn’t quite where they thought they were going. On the way, I want them to be intrigued, menaced, thrilled and relieved.

Occasionally, I’ll leave loose ends to make readers wonder about the fate of a character, as not everything should be tied in a neat bow. I’ve also written a few horror stories, aimed at making the reader feel unsettled, at the very least, if not scared to venture outdoors ever again!

How do you try to make your readers feel?


Sexually aroused?


Confused about a moral dilemma?


Sleepy? Hopefully not, unless it’s a bedtime book for youngsters.