Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Secret Ingredient

Name your favorite novel.

Now consider what makes that novel stand out from others.

I’ll wager for many of us the answer will be character. Your particular favorite character may differ from mine. But many will cite Emma. Or David Copperfield. Ahab. Atticus Finch. Holden Caulfield. A dozen others who have achieved immortality in our imagination.

So what is it about our particular favorite character that resonates?

Again I’ll wager the answer is because the author has created a character who is as real to us as any flesh and blood person we’ve ever met. So how the heck did he/she do it and can we mere mortals hope to emulate such talent?

The answer is simple and involves no secret ingredient hidden from the hoi polloi.

Back at the beginning of the 20th century a physiologist named Jakob von Uexkull coined the term umwelt to describe the technique of stepping into another creature’s world. What he described was, in fact, nothing new but a revival of a lost art. Hunters did it from the beginning of time. In order to hunt a creature the successful hunter becomes, in essence, that creature. He enters its world and thinks as it does.

A nifty trick. But can anyone do it today?

Writers also have been doing it for a very long time.

This secret ingredient has another name. Empathy.

Webster describes it as: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this.


Not really. But it’s a talent which can be improved upon with practice. Do you think Dickens was capable of creating David Copperfield the first time he picked up pen to write? Of course not. Emma was not the first (or best) of Jane Austen’s creations.

All it takes is imagination and practice.


  1. My favourite character is the main character of the book I am reading. If they don't appeal to me, I can't go on with the book.
    My favourite novel is The Great Gatsby, I think it is the enigmatic Jay that captured my imagination and, very importantly, sympathy.
    If you feel for the character, then it he/she is a well drawn charactacter.

    David Copperfield is in part based on Dickens himself. I think he is very well drawn.

    Emma never appealed to me, far too bossy. But Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice is very likeable and realistic and does make you feel.

    I loved this blog, John.

  2. John - That's very wise! You're absolutely right that characters - the really memorable ones - stand out because they are unique and well-drawn, and because we empathize with them. So much to think about when one's a writer, too: how to make a character sympathetic; how to "be" that character so that readers understand the character.. I think that if writers don't like their characters, readers won't, either.

  3. Nice post, John. It got me thinking.

    Your empathy and hunter analogies ring true to me. Most time when I'm writing a character (protagonist or bit player) I feel like I've slipped into that skin. Sometimes it's spooky.

    Times when I can't get that feeling, I know the story, etc. isn't working. I either let it rest for a while, or dump it.