The Brain on Storytelling: Creating the Reader-Character Connection

How can you create empathy in the reader and forge an emotional connection that resonates through the pages? Don’t neglect your characters.

Think of the last story that twisted up your emotions, even after you’d put the book down. Got one in mind?

I’m willing to bet that the characters played a big role in that book’s resonance. A story without a cast who steals your readers’ hearts can only leave so much of an emotional impression, and that’s why Professor Paul Zak highlighted their importance in his equation for emotional connection:


Holding your reader’s attention is crucial when creating a connection, which you can do through the magic of tension. But how do you elicit your reader’s empathy? That’s a little trickier, but I know you can do it (you’re awesome like that).

Professor Zak linked empathy to the neurochemical oxytocin, which is produced in much greater quantities in response to character-driven stories. Therefore, stories that give the characters the limelight are that much more likely to establish an emotional connection with the reader.

Lovely. So... how do you do that? Let’s find out.

To create an empathetic connection between your readers and your characters, you need a cast that stands out. If your characters are plain and two dimensional, there’s only so much an attention-grabbing plot and distressing sequence of events can do. Your job as the author is to craft characters who are flawed and complex and memorable—characters that stick in your readers’ minds and remind them of real people.

Okay, so how can you do that? I suggest three ways: memorable characters, steady character development, and engaging and relatable internal conflict.

Memorable Characters

Shallow, cardboard cut-outs don’t capture a reader’s heart. Characters who are quirky, flawed, relatable, varied and complex do. They’re the kind of characters who make their home in readers’ memories and refuse to move out. How can you do that? Through a dash of psychology.

Start from the ground up and build personalities several layers deep. My upcoming e-book, Design a Personality, focuses on creating characters with three fully fleshed-out levels to their psyches, giving you a cast that lives and breathes and steals your readers’ hearts. If you’d like to be notified when the e-book is released, you can sign up for updates here.

Until the Design a Personality e-book is released, I recommend using trait theory to give your characters a solid basis for their personalities, then adding to that by developing their ‘personal concerns’, locus of control, and optimistic and pessimistic traits. You could even consider colouring your characters’ memories and perceptions with their emotions.

She’s Novel, a truly delightful site for writers, has a fantastic article on using deep point-of-view in your story. What better way to aid immersion, show your characters’ voices clearly and make them memorable than seeing directly into their heads?

Of course, personalities and voice are only the start of well-rounded characters. Don’t neglect the dynamics of their relationships. From the long-term effects of their very first relationship to how forgiving they are to their styles of love, relationships make up a considerable bulk of most stories. Give your characters’ relationships the care and attention they deserve and make their interactions life-like, engaging and conflict-laden.

Once you’ve created a cast who sink into your readers’ memories like ink on paper, then it’s time to move on to the next step.

Steady Character Development

The events of the plot not only transport your characters physically but emotionally also. A static character is a boring character, not one your readers really connect with. Compare that to someone who is changed by the events of the story and who changes their world in turn. As readers watch this character grow and transform—in a good way or bad—their attention and their emotions become invested in their story.

How can you chart your characters’ development throughout the story? K. M. Weiland has a whole series of detailed posts on character arc, exploring the change, flat and negative arcs your characters could go through. If you want to plot out a powerful and resonant change in your key cast members, I definitely recommend reading these posts.

Engaging and Relatable Internal Conflict

Tension, a major player in the ‘attention’ side of the emotional connection equation, sucks you into a story, and tension springs from conflict. Conflict comes in two main flavours:


This type of conflict originates outside the character. It could come from other cast members, like your antagonist, from natural forces, like the weather, from society itself, like an opposing ideology, and so on. Whatever its source, external conflict forces your characters into action, propelling the story forwards, and initiates the development covered above in the second point.


This type of conflict stems from your character’s mind—the psychological battleground (if you heard an excited in-take of breath, that was me). Their vulnerabilities, their self-doubt, their inner demons—all are internal struggles that bring your readers closer to the characters (most likely because they’ve experienced similar feelings themselves at some point).

It’s this final type of conflict that makes characters relatable, understandable and ultimately someone readers can empathise with. Genre may affect how much of each conflict you include in your story—thrillers, for example, tend to feature more external conflict, while literary fiction has more of a focus on the internal kind—but all stories should include a mix of both. Use your characters’ internal conflict to show their human side, their fears and vulnerabilities, and you’ll have a far more relatable character for it.

Did you enjoy this post? You’ll also like How to Emotionally Connect With Your Readers.