How does an author lead a reader to experience a character as if s/he is that character? If people read fiction to become lost in a world, without the difficulties of reality, go back to those difficulties. Fear, loss, dread, ecstasy, sadness, desire, love, the need for intimacy, people and place reflect a reader’s life. Evoke his emotions. Let him dread for the character, suffer with her, want for her, despise her, love her, worry for her.
We return to emotions when something brings us around to the past. Smell: the odor of a mother’s perfume or Scotch on her breath carries us to childhood, to feelings we associate with her. Vision: the sight of a deer’s footprint in snow takes us to a time in our lives when winter or a particular winter was dark or lonely. Taste: a spice reminds us of food associated with someone we love, or hate. Touch: a finger resting on skin returns us to a time we might yearn for or regret. Sound: a song or symphony captures all.
If you want to evoke a reader’s emotions, use concrete, sensory language. Above all, don’t tell the reader how he should feel. Let him come to his feelings himself. Which means, of course, let him use his imagination. The more a writer tells and explains, the more the reader is reminded someone’s writing the story. When a reader is able to imagine a character for himself and care about her, the greater likelihood he’ll want to know what’s going to happen to her and continue to read until he finds out. We want the reader to become immersed in the character and forget about you.
An example of showing how a character feels without telling us is in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day when the narrator’s father dies. Stevens, who reveals no emotion, carries on with his butler’s duties, yet it’s obvious to the reader, without telling us, that Stevens is crying. He shows us through gesture and another character’s dialogue. The point being the reader has to come to his own conclusion how Stevens feels.
A good book about the brain science involved in reading is Lisa Cron’s Wired For Story.
Use concrete language and sensory detail.