What Role Does Empathy Play In Writing?

I saw this pic on Twitter, shared by @TheUnNovelist.

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This could be the best part about writing – you get to walk around in someone else’s skin for a while (and I don’t mean that in a creepy Silence of the Lambs kind of way). Want to see life through the eyes of a child? Or a refugee? Or a World War 2 soldier?

How about someone who makes you uncomfortable?

Reading fiction develops empathy, especially if the story goes deep into the character’s psychology. This article discusses the role of empathy in telling a story.

By writing about others, we get to transcend our own thoughts, our own worlds, our own lives, and experience another’s. This is how we connect with the rest of humanity, through story.

Writers, then, are the great connectors. We enable our readers and ourselves to experience the rest of humanity, to feel a part of the whole. That’s a pretty amazing mandate.

It is an amazing mandate, but there is a great benefit to the writer in creating these characters, perhaps even greater than that for the reader. Writing something unfamiliar takes research, and in the case of creating characters, that means talking to others who “fit” with the character – others who are different genders, races, orientations, or have experienced mental or physical ailments, for example. I’ve “accidentally” learned more about people different from me through writing than I have doing anything else.

The challenge for me is writing those “uncomfortable” characters – my mind immediately goes to a certain bloviating politician who shan’t be named here. It would be a struggle for me to understand him as a person, why he does the things he does and says the things he says. To be honest, I balk at the idea. Maybe that means it’s worth exploring. Antagonists are protagonists in their own stories, and if we want to write them in a believable and maybe even relatable way, we have to strive to understand them, even if we don’t agree with them.

What do you think? Would you say writing and/or reading has made you more empathetic? Do you enjoy writing a variety of characters?

27 thoughts on “What Role Does Empathy Play In Writing?

  1. How Fiction Makes Our Brains Better https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYpofvqVxzc
    Many interesting facts here, but at 1:58 there’s a section on empathy (which I think is critical to writers, readers, and all humans).

    As far as the Hunger Games comment he makes, I’ll take it further. If you ask an upper elementary or junior high kid what the book is about, he or she will tell you it’s about kids fighting in an arena in “another world,” not ours. It’s all about the action; they have no idea why or what the greater picture is. Some students have even told me that it’s “boring” when the book describes the characters Katniss will be fighting. I look at them and say, “You’re going into an arena and these people are going to try to kill you. Don’t you think you’d want to know everything about them? Don’t you think you’d want to know their weaknesses to perhaps save your life?” Oh.

    By contrast, if you ask older readers what Hunger Games is about, they’ll tell you it’s about our world, humanity, history, oppression, and the lust for power and control. Thus, the advantage of insight that age, life experience, and knowledge of history brings, enriching a reader’s experiences when reading. This is also why it’s important to read and discuss books with kids. They learn to look for depth when it is modeled.

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  3. Not sure how this relates … my first attempt at writing was to draft a concept of about 700 words, dumped it on to 15 or so folk mostly women young to almost still, most intrigued, but empathy came up a lot, the woman’s view, some related to, one or two thought a woman had had to write it, a man, especially me couldn’t have! I did, with no research, but guess I’ve heard more than a few, but then again, the women my words relate to rarely say anything, yet I got in their heads someway? It’s the same when I stray into dark things, I just write, no research again, go with feel, I guess age comes into it, knowing yourself more than you did, taking in good and bad, filtering through conscience what you do, but no filter when you write?

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    • I’m sure life experience plays a role in how much research (or consulting, I suppose) is needed. I feel pretty confident I can write from the POV of a young boy because I have two sons. As for the filter…I think that goes along with what Dan said in one of these comments. Perhaps we all devalue human life at times; it’s just a matter of control and operating in social norms that keep us from acting on it. Kind of unsettling, if you think about it too long. But that possibility is what allows us to write from that space.

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  4. I know that if you have two or three different characters with unique perspectives, it’s fun to jump in their heads and think about their view of the scene or the conversation.

    But as you note, if you want to write a good villain, you kind of have to become that person for a little bit. If you are writing an amazing romantic scene, you may spend hours or days falling in love. If you are writing a despicable murderer, you may spend the better part of the week plotting how to kill someone.

    So sympathy may be a byproduct of trying to write an accurate and realistic character, do it well, and do it in a compelling way. If you don’t understand a character, they won’t likely be written well. And to understand them, you have to get to know them and what motivates them.

    Possibly becoming sympathetic to a psychopathic Norman Bates type along the way.

    Liked by 1 person

      • See, I figure we’ve all lost our temper or something, so we all have a taste of madness. We’ve all been too tired to give a shit about a passing ambulance – that might be going to save someone’s life. So as fellow humans we have what the psychopaths have. It’s there; they’re genetically human, too, just like us, 99.999999999% the same. Maybe we just control it better. But I believe we can all go there if we need to, in our writing; that we’re smart enough. It’s because we’ve been taught to respect human life that we can eat a bacon cheeseburger while encouraging our kids to finish their chicken nuggets and not feel bad about dining on the flesh of fellow living creatures that once shared the planet with us – but only because they’re so darned tasty. I’m sure from THEIR viewpoint, we are complete psychopaths.

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  5. I think I was always a very empathetic person and that may be a large part of what makes me a good writer.
    I find no matter how I write my characters, they often end up as a version of someone I know or have known. It’s not something I do consciously. Often it’s not until I’m done with a first draft and I go back for that read through that I see oh cruddle I’ve written babs into my novel again.

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