3Convincing characters stir our emotions. The characters leap off the page into our imaginations, alive and visceral, arousing our joy, surprise, anger, fear and disgust. We befriend characters. We despise them. We weep, we cheer, we worry for them. We simultaneously feel for and with them. We understand them. We become them.

This is the marrow of good storytelling – it arouses empathy for characters.

This is also the heart of advocacy in the law. We persuade best when those we seek to convince feel our client’s plight, share our client’s emotions, and relate to our client’s cause. Advocacy without empathy fails.

How then can we elicit such empathy in both law and literature?MV5BMTg3Nzg3ODU0NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTQxNDY3Mw@@._V1._SY412_CR160,0,412,412_

Larry Brooks, novelist and founder of, offers seven ingredients to engender empathy:

  1. Surface affectations and personality: what we see about the character, her idiosyncrasies, outward appearance, and presentation to the world.
  2. Backstory: past events that have molded the character.
  3. Character arc: how the character learns and grows, how she changes and overcomes her most confounding problem.
  4. Inner demons and conflicts: what holds her back, shapes her outlook and actions, what she most fears.
  5. Worldview: the manifested outcome of her backstory and inner demons – her belief system and moral compass.
  6. Goals and motivations: what drives her decisions and actions.
  7. Decisions, actions and behaviors: the sum of all of the above – her ultimate decisions and actions – will determine whether and to what extent the character achieves meaning and impact, whether, that is, the audience empathizes with her.9

Hollywood script doctor, John Truby, offers four related techniques to make compelling characters:

  1. Make her mysterious so the audience wants to figure her out, solve her.
  2. Lead the audience to identify with her based on her desire and need to overcome the problem she faces. We want her to satisfy her desire, to reach her goal. We want her to solve the larger moral problem, as well, which generally answers how she must learn to live well with others in some way.
  3. Invite us readers to empathize, not just sympathize, with her. This means we care and understand her. We know why she acts the way she does, even if we don’t agree with her decisions and behavior.
  4. Give her both a moral and psychological need. A psychological need is one specific and internal to her character. A moral need is one applicable to society and requires the character to learn how to act properly toward others. These two related needs increase the character’s emotional hold on us.

See Anatomy of Story at

Putting an even finer touch on character development, while also tying it to story structure, mystery author David Corbett shares the keys to compelling character:

  1. The character needs or wants something.
  2. She is having difficulty getting what she needs or wants.
  3. She comes up with a plan to overcome that difficulty.
  4. She exhibits a seeming contradiction.
  5. Something unexpected happens that makes her vulnerable or hurt.
  6. Her behavior suggests there is more to her predicament than meets the eye – a secret.

These touchstones clarify, intensify our emotional link to characters, says Corbett in The Art of Character: Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film, and TV

Turning now to our protagonist Grace in The Lifeboat, how might Corbett’s character keys help us empathize with her:

  • What does she need or want most?
  • How can we describe the difficulties that impede her needs or wants?
  • What’s her plan to overcome the difficulties and reach her goal?
  • Is she contradictory? How so?
  • What happens to injure her or render her more vulnerable?
  • What secret is she keeping?

As we attempt to answer these questions, we might find that Grace is a very tricky character – in more ways than one.


  1. Satisfaction, an enigmatic satisfaction, takes over as I read Ms. Sword’s tips. I know them well. Still, I enjoy how they ring in my mind. They smolder with wisdom– literary reductionism, really. It took generations of writers to distill those maxims. And now, we, the successor’s of those intellectual labors, can simply pluck them from your page.

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