Just now, I’m reading The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler (on the recommendation of Anne from What Should I Read Next?). In the novel, the protagonist Lauren is profoundly empathetic, meaning you can literally feel the pain of others in her own body. It’s an often-debilitating ability, and at this point in the novel (about a third of the way through), she resents it because she feels it weakens here. I don’t know where Butler is going with the book, and I trust her entirely . . . but I’m also hopeful that this ability becomes a gift for Lauren and the people around her.
I hope for this because I think empathy is one of the writer’s strongest tools . . . AND it’s also one of the things most writers fear in one way or another.
Why Have Empathy
Now, let me say here that I am in no way arguing that we all need to write about our own trauma to be good writers. I can not make the decision when/if you write about your own suffering. That is your decision – and yours alone – to make. I will say, though, in my experience finding empathy for those who have harmed us is one of the great gifts that writing has given me. That said, I still have traumas I cannot write about for fear I will break apart again, so give yourself grace in these things.
One of the key elements of a great piece of writing is that we see the characters on the page as complex, three-dimensional beings. They are imperfect; they are complex; they have conflicting desires, and they sometimes sabotage themselves. They have moments of radiant beauty and self-sacrifice, and their shadows are rich and multi-layered.
To achieve characters like that – whether in poetry, fiction, or nonfiction – we have to have empathy for them as their creators on the page. We have to understand WHY they make the choices they do, and we have to accept those choices as part of who they are, even if we don’t like the choices.
This empathy becomes particularly hard when we are writing villains, be they fictional or from our own lives. It is hard to find our way to empathy for people who hurt children or cause harm to women, especially if we have been the one harmed. It is also difficult for us to empathize with someone who does things we would never consider doing because it is simply challenging to imagine a motivation that would bring someone to do that particular thing. (I’m writing generally here because I don’t want to trigger the trauma of readers who have been harmed.)
But I would argue that the characters that we have the most difficulty relating to and the most challenge in understanding are the ones that deserve our deepest attention as writers because we NEED to know them and grapple with their decisions so we can render them fairly – no, to render them beautifully – even when their actions are horrible.
How to Write with Empathy
There are as many ways to find understanding for a character on the page as there are to find it for people in the world, so please read these ideas as options, possibilities. They are not a definitive, complete rendering of the ways forward in this work.
- Dwell in Why. To understand someone’s actions, we need to settle in with the question of WHY they did that thing, said those words, ignored that chance. Sometimes why takes us way back to early childhood; sometimes it’s about the busy schedule of a 21st century person; sometimes it’s about physical or mental health or ability; sometimes it’s about a trauma so new the person doesn’t even know it’s trauma yet. To really understand someone, we need to ask WHY they are as they are.
- Write from our Scars, Not Our Wounds. I once heard Nadia Bolz-Weber say something like, “Wise writers write from our scars, not from our wounds.” It was one of those statements that was so true I felt it whiz through my body like electricity. When we write from our wounds, we often make our wounds deeper OR we inflict them on other people. By way of example, consider a person you know who is very angry, whose pain is still so fresh that reading anything they write – even a Facebook post – feels like you’ve been blasted with heat so intense that you have to back up. That’s a person writing from their unhealed wounds. . . and it’s very hard for a reader to step into that space with them.
- Research people who share experiences that mirror those of people in your writing. Set up an interview with someone who has had a life experience like the one you’re writing about. Ask them about what made them do or say the things they said. Even ask them why this character might have done that thing. Or read books about people like the people about whom you write. Go deep to broaden your understanding of what you don’t know.
- Remember that EVERYONE on the page is a character, even you. You are creating a work of art, not recreating a real-life experience. . . . actually, I don’t think recreating real life is even possible (i.e. reality television). Thus, every person you are depicting on the page is going to be a faceted version of that actual human – you included. You cannot capture everything about a person on the page, so you need to be wise and selective about what you include and be sure to aligns with your larger purpose in writing. If you give yourself the freedom to realize you are writing a character, you loosen the binds of “fact” and get closer to writing truth, which is not the same thing but is not antithetical either. (But that’s another blog post.)
The Real Key for Bringing Empathy to the Page
The central piece of this work of empathy is very simple – you have to try, and trying is work.
You can write a flat, stereotypical villain. You can sketch a rough outline for the person who hurt you and keep the reader at a distance so removed that they don’t invest themselves fully in your book. You can paint yourself as perfect and flawless and guarantee most readers will dismiss your work as inauthentic and even dishonest.
Or you can invest effort in understanding each and every character on the page and make good choices about how to reveal your understanding to the reader and find your readers leaning in close to see the inner workings of human life. . . the choice is yours.
What characters on the page have you found to be fully-rendered in a way that reveals the writer really, really understood and had empathy for them? Let’s make a list together.