I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy lately. It’s been an obvious subject of conversation in the wake of the Orlando massacre and high profile sexual assaults. Violence is often the result of one person’s inability to connect with and appreciate the value and integrity of another person.
In that regard, author Shannon Hale has been very vocal about schools not engaging female authors for speaking engagements and not promoting books with female protagonists on the premise that the author or the book won’t be interesting to boys (while not having the same concerns about male authors and male protagonists being interesting to girls). Hale recently tweeted (and I’m paraphrasing here): When we constantly tell young boys that they don’t have to consider the female point of view, that the female protagonist’s story has nothing to teach them, and even to ridicule those boys who (gasp!) pick up a book about a girl…is it any wonder why there are so many young men who cannot empathize with their female peers?
Obviously developing empathy is an important piece to cultivating a safer and healthier world, but I’m not here to bemoan current events. Instead, let me focus on the importance of developing empathy for the purpose of improving our writing. This is Writer Unboxed, after all.
Why do we, as writers, need to develop a strong ability to empathize?
Let’s start by defining our terms. There is a difference between empathy and sympathy. As researcher and professor Brené Brown explains, empathy fuels connection between people; sympathy drives separation. “Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable choice” because in order to connect with the other person, you have to connect with something within yourself that knows that (often terrible) feeling that they are feeling. (See Brown on “Empathy”)
As a teenager, I believed all artists had to suffer to create. I worried I could never be a writer because my life was too secure. I had never been discriminated against because of my race; I hadn’t suffered from a mental illness; I had a car, but I’d never had to sleep in it. This strange insecurity that arose from my own socio-economic security convinced me that I could never write about suffering because I hadn’t suffered enough (yet).
Fortunately, my concerns were put to rest by a professor who told me that I didn’t have to be a “method writer,” if you will, and seek out suffering in order to write. Rather, I should cultivate my ability to empathize with others and learn to better connect with those whose experiences were different than my own. For example, while I may not have ever been homeless, I had felt fear and loss. Being able to tap into those feelings and apply them to characters in situations I had never suffered myself, that is the kind of empathy we, as writers, need to develop so that we can create realistic and feeling characters and connect in meaningful ways with our readers.
Most of us are empathetic, though our levels of empathy come in varied degrees. Developing and increasing our ability to empathize is a skill that can be learned. Here are some steps I continue to practice:
- Listen. It is important as writers that we not only tell our own stories, but listen to the stories of others––the stories they are willing tell us and, perhaps even more importantly, the stories they are reluctant to tell. Take the time to listen to (or to read) those stories that don’t immediately appeal to us. That feel out of our personal wheelhouse. Listen to the words they use, the emotions they convey.
- Re-enact. Don’t only listen but watch. When a person tells their story, their body is part of the communication. Later, when their story is done, you can better understand their point of view if you re-enact the body language you witnessed them using: their posture, physical expression, and tone. Does your physical re-enactment of their clenched jaw and tight fists help build certain emotions within yourself? Do those emotions help you better understand and connect?
- Imagine. Imagine a time when you felt similar emotions (though in a different circumstances). Now imagine yourself in the other person’s body, feeling those emotions. Does it help you better imagine what it would be like to walk through life in their shoes?
- Love. Think about someone you love or admire. Think about all the words you would use to describe that person. Now apply those same words to the person you are trying to better understand. Do you feel a deeper connection?
- Practice. With every developing skill, the key is practice. Stretch those muscles. Try to empathize with those whom you even despise. What is the result?
- Use Caution. When you write with empathy about characters who are different than yourself, use caution. There will invariably be nuances you will miss. In some cases, it is simply inappropriate for some writers to tell some stories. But if you are pressing forward, use “sensitivity readers” (i.e. beta readers who have experienced the situation you are writing about) before bringing those stories to the world. They will help you catch any unintended misstep.
In conclusion, practicing empathy makes you feel vulnerable, so it is not always a comfortable skill to practice. It will often force you to question your assumptions and prejudices and while you by no means have to agree with everyone, it is to everyone’s benefit to understand where others are coming from. That empathetic understanding is an important skill––not only for our current world but for the success of our characters, novels, and the chance to connect with readers on an even larger scale.
If you have any additional tips for connecting with characters who are unlike yourself, I’d love to hear about them in the comments. (And if you want to test your own empathy quotient, click here.)