How to Write Characters Who Evoke Reader Compassion

Geoff Wyss

How do you write fiction with characters who are mysteriously human, who evoke empathy and compassion from the reader? Is it by making them understandable?

No. Geoff Wyss explains:

The better we understand someone, the more fully we should be able to respond to him. But we don’t understand people in real life, not in the sense of comprehending them and holding their keys, not even our friends, not even our husbands and wives, not even close; real people continue to hoard as you pick through them, do so exactly so you can’t pick through them; so it’s simply a question of whether we’re willing to let our characters be real people. This ought to be the point of literary fiction, the thing that makes it different from epigram or essay or encomium: to ask questions about people, not to answer them.

Read more of Wyss’s essay in the latest Glimmer Train bulletin.

And check out these other columns on fiction writing:

Posted in Creativity + Inspiration.

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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David Beers

I lost this aspect in writing my current novel. Deleted 20,000 words and started over, remembering character trumps all. Good post.


I just got a critique back on my first 50 pages of a manuscript. Now, what to do, what to do? First Judge: we’re introduced to P.K., she threatens Sheridan, yells at a reporter, beats the crap out of his son, and finds out Sheridan’s been murdered. This is five or six chapter’s worth, but it feels jammed into too tight a section. Give me more detail, setting, everything. The second judge said: Immediately hooked with sensory and character details. Action begins immediately. The third judge said: This is an interesting setup, lots going on. It does seem a little… Read more »

Jan Rider Newman
Jan Rider Newman

Wyss has stated my ambition. The best literary fiction I’ve read doesn’t answer all my questions about the characters. Readers do need some answers, but the best stories leave me with questions and mysteries that resonate long after I set them aside. I agree with this part: “I want to be held off as a reader, to be resisted. I want to have my readerly smugness frustrated. I don’t want a story to do what my checkbook does, “make sense.” I don’t want the puzzle to be a rectangle, and I don’t want to be given all the pieces.” But… Read more »


[…] How to Write Characters Who Evoke Reader Compassion | Jane Friedman […]

Iulian Ionescu

Making the reader love the character is the hardest task for me. I find it very hard to raise that emotional bar that gives dimension to the character… Wyss explanation is spot on.


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