It’s occurred to me that the singular trait that a writer needs above all is empathy: the ability to put yourself into the heads of your characters AND your readers, and really understand them.
Understanding Your Characters
Here’s what empathy feels like.
Your character is facing a given situation or entering into an environment. You’re writing from his/her POV (point of view).
When writing a scene, don’t think about how you would react or what you would be thinking. Think about how your characters would react, and what they’d be feeling, given their background and perspective.
Focus on their observations and attitudes about what they’re seeing and experiencing, not just the “authorly” description of the environment. In fact, remove your voice and opinions entirely and insert your POV character’s perspective. Also keep in mind how other characters in the scene would react individually. Just beware of head-hopping. Stay inside your POV character’s head the whole time, and only describe what others are doing/feeling through your POV character’s observations.
Think of it this way. Every character is a product of their environment; their upbringing; their genetic makeup; their history; their culture; their natural strengths and weaknesses; their past trials and tribulations; and a hundred other variables. And each of your characters may not only react uniquely, but may conflict with one another. In fact, it’s great if they do. Half the battle is creating a group of offsetting characters that are assembled for built-in conflict (it’s what makes every sitcom so great).
Empathy is the ability to understand all this, and to put yourself in their shoes, with their eyes, and with their history, even if that history isn’t included in the book.
Even villains are deserving of empathy. As the adage goes, every villain is the hero in their own mind. As a writer, it’s key to understand and appreciate that, and offer hints of that to the reader.
Speaking of readers, it’s just as important to understand them as it is to understand your characters.
Understanding Your Readers
As a writer, you’re also a marketer, which means understanding the trends and reader demographics for your genre. And as every marketing professional knows, it helps to know who your target audience is, their general preferences, and how they might react favorably or unfavorably toward a character or situation. In other words, as you’re writing, you should always be thinking of how you want the reader to feel during that scene.
To this end, it’s imperative to understand the principles of surprise, suspense, and conflict, and how people react to each.
Alfred Hitchcock was a master at this, often stating that, above all, he focused on what he wanted the audience to feel at any given time. Plot and pacing were always in support of the journey he wanted to take his audience on. For example, in Vertigo, he went against common practice to reveal a big secret to the audience BEFORE the ending (and, more importantly, before the protagonist knew), so they would be in suspense wondering if the protagonist would catch on or not.
Hitchcock also spoke frequently of surprise and suspense, often using a tableside discussion analogy. It goes something like this:
Two people are sitting at a table, talking. A bomb goes off. That’s surprise.
Two people are sitting at a table, talking. The bomb doesn’t go off (though the audience knows it’s there). That’s suspense.
Hitchcock’s point was that surprise lasts for a few seconds, while suspense can keep an audience glued for quite a bit of time. The two parties at the table could be having the most mundane conversation, and it would still be exciting.
Of course, that’s about the only time it’s okay to have a mundane conversation between characters. Aside from that, characters should rarely be in agreement. A key lesson here is: Turn conversations into arguments or debates. Your readers will thank you.
The bottom line here is that empathy, the ability to understand others and put yourself in their shoes (especially your characters and your readers), will take you far–in writing and in life.