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Storytelling: An Exercise In Empathy

photo by Flickr's Valerie [1]
photo by Flickr’s Valerie

Please welcome today’s guest Liz Lazzara [2]. Liz is an androgyne writer, editor, and activist specializing in mental health, addiction, and trauma. They have written online copy for rehab centers, and essays, narrative nonfiction, and journalism for multiple online and print publications. They are currently working on a manuscript about complex post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction, and they are affiliated with Active Minds, the Mental Health America Advocacy Network, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the National Association of Memoir Writers, the Nonfiction Authors Association, No Stigmas, and the One Love Foundation. Follow them on Twitter  [3]and find their entire body of work at LizLazzara.com [4].

Storytelling: An Exercise In Empathy

Some time ago, in early spring, I went to Brookline Booksmith, an independent bookstore in Boston, to hear Richard Russo read from his most recent book, Everybody’s Fool. I had read Empire Falls, his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, in my undergraduate years, remembered it fondly, and was looking forward to hearing more from an author I admired.

More importantly, though, I’ve always found that while listening to an author read from their book will inspire me to spend money on literature, the Q&A that follows never fails to provide me with at least one snippet of wisdom, the kind that follows me out of the venue and into my writing.

Feeling a tad rebellious, I jotted notes into a Google Document on my phone as Russo answered questions, mainly quotations. I came away with four:

  1. “All the good causes are lost causes” — seven words of encouragement for a writer who sometimes feels like establishing a career in words is beyond reach.
  2. “Many people who wound others have themselves been wounded” — a sentence that brought tears to my own wounded eyes (but that’s another story, one I’ll get to in a moment).
  3. “The writing of novels comes from a generosity of spirit” — something to swell the chest of a twenty-something with a novel-in-progress; “yes, indeed I am generous by gifting you with my words. Oh, please, no thanks are necessary.”
    And the most resonant:
  4. “I think of storytelling as an exercise in empathy.”

The way I see it, all good writers have the ability to share feelings and experiences with others through imagining what it would be like to be somebody else. This manifests in three ways:

  1. By drawing inspiration from real people, whose stories we either imagine or “borrow,”
  2. Through the process of creating both characters and stories,
  3. By looking at yourself objectively, and having empathy for that separate self (seems strange, I know, but we’ll get there).

The first example is pretty simple. Writers — myself in particular — love to people watch. If I pass someone on the sidewalk, stand behind them in line for coffee, or accidentally brush against them on the subway, I’ll begin to examine them. I start to look at their clothes, their make-up, their faces and I’ll begin to imagine a backstory.

I’ll think about what their job might be. I’ll think about where they live, if they’re a local or from out of town. I’ll think about the irritated expression on their face and wonder if it’s because they’re late for something, or they’re in the midst of a passive aggressive text conversation, or maybe they’re grieving, but expressing it through annoyance instead.

I weave them a backstory, and maybe it will become part of my novel. They could become a full-fledged side-character. Their imagined job or house or predicament could be transplanted onto my main character. A flashy piece of costume jewelry, an unplaceable accent, or a peek-a-boo tattoo could be just the detail I need to flesh out a character. These are the things that transform a caricature into a person — but empathy, the act of imagining another person’s reality, is required for the change to occur.

Once you have a cast of characters, either created from whole cloth or stitched together from bits and pieces of real people, then the real work begins. No matter which character you’re writing or whose perspective you’re taking, whether they be hero, villain, best friend, pawn, or anywhere in between, you must always remember to bring the full force of your empathy into your writing.

I struggled with this in my early days of writing fiction. For me, the most important perspective was always that of the protagonist. His or her thoughts and experiences mattered most to the story, so all of my empathy went to them. All other characters, regardless of how major or minor, served the story only insofar as they related to the protagonist. As a result, they were never fully-formed, and my fiction felt weak, amateur.

Then I discovered what has become my most powerful tool when plotting a work of fiction: character questions. As soon as I have the faintest inkling of an idea for a plot and the people who will live within it, I come up with a list of characters and interview them rigorously (This [5] is the list of questions I use, though I have added to it over time).

Asking questions of your characters, developing their backstory, motivations, faults and assets, is an act of empathy, albeit with invented people. When you start imagining things like familial relationships, political beliefs, and love lives, you empathize with them and they get stronger. Your antagonist can be nuanced because you know that perhaps the protagonist reminds them of their abusive father. Your side characters have their own motivations for coming along on this (literal or metaphorical) journey, and so they meet your plot points on their own terms, not as a reaction to your major characters.

You get the point — empathy for your characters creates nuance and depth, which resonates strongly in your pages.

One of the most unexplored phenomena, though, is empathy for the parts of yourself that find their way into your fiction. These are the parts that you separate from your living self and give to your characters, out of passion, perhaps, or a desire for catharsis.

A personal example: I’m working on a novel about a woman with schizophrenia who has just gotten out of a psychiatric ward. Her lover is gone, too overwhelmed by the state of my protagonist’s mental health to want to continue the relationship. Her mother is supportive, though they sometimes quarrel, and her father is long gone, though she looks back at some of his advice to her as a child with fondness. In an attempt to escape a city that holds so many bad memories, she impulsively decides to cross the country in a cab, surviving on her fares, all the while yearning for the Pacific Ocean.

Some of these details are drawn directly from my life: the psych ward, the failed relationship, the complicated parental history. The rest comes purely from my imagination. But the way that these parts of myself manifest in my character are markedly different from what I have experienced. As Vivian Gornick writes in The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, “…it is the other in oneself that the writer must seek and find to create movement, achieve a dynamic.”

The maxim ‘write what you know’ comes to mind here. Many fiction writers will insert parts of themselves into their characters, parts of their past into the plot, parts of their travels into their settings. However, it is only when you can separate these fragments from the whole that your writer self can develop the empathy for your characterized self that is necessary for the trick to work.

Though I had been practicing these techniques for a fair amount of time, it took Richard Russo’s statement to bring the realization that what I was practicing was empathy. I wasn’t stealing characteristics while people-watching, or inventing a persona, or using myself as material — I was empathizing.

Cicero said, “Glory follows virtue as if it were its shadow.” Practice the virtue empathy, then, and reap the benefits of the glorious novel.

How do you create characters? Do you mine details from life, or create characters from whole cloth? How do you make a story come to life? Do you think of writing as cathartic, escapist, or something else? What authorly advice has changed your perspective on writing?