Emotion is evoked through empathy (feeling the emotions along with the character) and sympathy (feeling emotions for a character). We vicariously feel emotions when we identify with the deep questions that the character is asking of themselves or the world. You need to find a connection point between your character and readers’ lives.
My friend author Robert Dugoni says characters should be empathetic or sympathetic, but not pathetic. So, strive to give your character a deep struggle but not one that’s melodramatic or overplayed.
We might find it hard to identify with losing a limb, but all of us know what it’s like to feel helpless, to understand what it means to have to overcome hardship.
I suggest giving your character an emotional wound we all share, a question we all ask, or a struggle we all find ourselves engaged in. For example, the loss of a loved one, or the question about whether their choices (and lives) ultimately matter, and the struggle to find meaning or forgiveness.
Well-rounded characters also have:
- A variety of status relationships (high and low) with other characters.
- A quirk, foible, special skill or emblem that makes them unique.
- Deep desires that give them intention in each scene—an intention that readers will care about.
We want readers to worry about the character, so ask what the stakes are. For example, what’s at stake for the guy to overcome the loss of his arm? Or what’s at stake for the mom to deal with the loss of a child.
Trust your gut. If it’s telling you that your character is too cliché, then work at making him more distinctive and give him a universal quest—to love and be loved, to find freedom or happiness or acceptance or adventure. Readers can relate to those goals and make them more emotionally involved.