Creating empathy with universals and ant mothers

1024 576 Writer and the Wolf Editorial

I recently worked with a YA sci-fi author whose protagonists were non-humans permanently floating in space and trying to survive. It’s unlikely teenage readers from Earth will be able to empathise with this plight, so I recommended my author limit her marketing to the more distant planets like Uranus and Neptune. Okay, not really. I suggested she find something universal in these teen characters that readers could identify with. Parent trouble, crushes, internal conflict. So what if these things aren’t human? They’re still human, am I right?

I was playing with my son, Caeden, in the garden the other day and he started watching an ant crawl across his chalk drawing. I could tell he was about to try and squish the ant out of sheer curiosity and I stopped him just in time (hey, I’m not a monster – or am I? mwah ha ha ha ha I’m not) and explained that the ant was a living creature and it wasn’t okay to hurt it. Caeden didn’t fully comprehend how something so tiny could really be alive and worthy of our respect, so I told him the ant was probably on his way home to see his mummy. Bingo! It clicked for him straight away. This thing has a mum? Like I do? Woah, sorry pal, off you go, give your old lady my regards. Caeden is only two and his world revolves around me, so I knew this would get through to him. Whenever he sees a baby crying, he concludes they must miss their mummy. When we read a book, he constantly asks where the characters’ parents are. So, when he realised this ant had parents too, he identified with it on a weird but powerful level.

Now, I’m not saying that giving your character a mum is enough to create empathy, but universals like this are key to forming that bond between readers and protagonists. Maybe your main character is a child vampire or teen detective or interplanetary assassin and you’re thinking, ‘How do I get nice little kids to identify with this rascal?’. Just think about the mindset and experiences of your readers; what are they going through? What issues are they dealing with? Whether vampire, ant or human, your young characters can have personality traits, obstacles and goals that your readers share on some level, and this is how you get them to come on a journey with your protagonist, even if they have little else in common. Give it a go: give your ant a mummy.

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Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes