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Florida Man: Finding Your Empathy

Flickr Creative Commons: Marsha Wheatley

Florida Man Arrested for DUI after Ordering Burrito in Bank Drive-Thru

Florida Woman Shoots Husband and Her Mother after Uncovering Their Affair

Florida Man and Florida Woman have become icons of the 24-hour news cycle, the protagonists of a thousand “truth is stranger than fiction” stories. Florida Man and Woman get played for laughs or sensationalist click bait, even when the outcomes of their stories are serious injury, death, or emotional devastation. Because of that, they offer a useful exercise for connecting with your characters, even the ones you hate, even the ones you want your readers to hate.

While the news cycle and social media have turned Florida Man into a monolith of terrible life choices, the important thing to remember is that each Florida Man in each news story is a real person. The fateful decision that gets him on the news is a product of his personal life, his childhood, his hopes, dreams, and desires. This is true for Florida Man and it’s true for the characters you write.

Once, while discussing a writing project in which a couple of white supremacists have a walk-on role, my agent said, “Please don’t make them sympathetic.” She knows me well enough to know that my inclination as a writer is to connect with every character in some way. Even the characters I despise, I want to understand how they came to be who they are. It may not end up in the final draft of a book, but it’s always part of my writing process. The trick is to control how empathy and sympathy interact. Empathizing with your characters isn’t the same as writing them to be sympathetic characters.

In casual conversation, I frequently hear empathy and sympathy used almost interchangeably, but in terms of fiction, sympathy is for readers. Let them feel sorry for your characters. The writer’s job is empathy — submersing yourself in the worldview and emotions of your characters. You have to see the world through Florida Man’s eyes, and you have to share in the emotions that Florida Man feels.

Take for example that second headline about Florida Woman. That’s a real person who has arrived home from work to discover her husband and her mother are having an affair. Now, I’m not the sort of person who thinks a gun is a good solution to most problems, but if I were going to write this story, I would look back at the worst betrayals I’ve experienced in my life. None of them rise to this level, so I have to turn it up all the way, and put myself sincerely into this scenario to see how Florida Woman made the decision to shoot her husband and her mother.

Try it out. Take your worst betrayal and distill it to its essential emotions. Imagine coming home to find your spouse having sex with one of your parents. Don’t laugh at the possibility. Don’t sit back with your popcorn as the horror unfolds. Put yourself in that situation. That’s how empathy works. Figure out how you would feel, and then consider what you would do. Consider what your character would do, based on their background and life experiences.

The two types of characters who most frequently get glossed over are villains and victims of tragedy. You see it most often with villains whose motivations are never quite clear. They’ve made an elaborate plan to destroy the planet, but why? What motivates them? What problem does destroying the world solve for the villain? To figure it out, you don’t need to make your villain sympathetic, but you’ve got to empathize with him. There are bad people who do bad things, and you don’t have to humanize them or redeem them. Not everyone can be redeemed, but if you go through the process of empathizing with them, you’ll have multi-dimensional villains whose diabolical plans are motivated by something deeply personal.

A similar problem occurs with characters who have tragedy visited on them. It’s easy to sympathize with characters to whom bad things happen. We’re taught to be concerned about people who are hurt, but tragedy written without empathy looks a lot like titillation for voyeurs. Pornographic tears and heartbreak. Pity without substance. Rape as character development. If you haven’t experienced the kind of pain your character is going through, you need to imagine it happening to you in deeply personal detail. You must empathize to move past a simplistic view of pain and suffering.

What’s worth remembering about this is that psychopaths are capable of empathizing with other people, usually as a means to manipulation. Many serial killers use the skill of empathy to calculate and control how victims will respond to them. Writers can deploy a similarly analytical approach to empathy, but we can also soften ourselves to humanity. In a time when social media puts the worst of human nature on display, it’s tempting to want to turn off that softness, but it serves us not just as writers but as humans.

Learning what motivates murderers or white supremacists or muggers doesn’t require us to feel sorry for them. We don’t need to like them or wish them success, but understanding how they got to this point in their lives is useful. We can use our knowledge to protect others, to thwart villains, or even to rehabilitate them.

What’s the hardest character you’ve ever written in terms of your ability to empathize? Have you ever used your empathy process as a writer to deal with people in real life?

About Bryn Greenwood [1]

BRYN GREENWOOD (she/her) is a fourth-generation Kansan, one of seven sisters, and the daughter of a mostly reformed drug dealer. She is the NYT bestselling author of The Reckless Oath We Made, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, Last Will, and Lie Lay Lain. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas.