Sunday, September 9, 2012

Back to Writing Basics: Empathy

Image of boy and girl hugging found here
While I'm posting about tools and building blocks, I thought it might be a good idea to discuss other skills a beginning writer should cultivate and develop. I was discussing books I was reading the other day when I hit upon a crucial skill of character development. The ability to empathize, or even sympathize, was never taught to me as a skill set I would need, but developing it has served me well.

A writer can certainly write without any empathy, but I think the lack of it is where I often feel whacked over the head with a Message. This is where straw men and thin characterizations come from. Not understanding why people would feel any other way than the Message you're trying to get across is going to lead to a weak argument, easily overcome by the moral message you're trying to impart.

When I was much younger, I wrote stories about a sympathetic serial killer. Rather, I thought he was sympathetic. I know now that his anger was only justifiable for that level of violence if the people he killed were less than human. In the stories I wrote, they were, because they were mere cardboard cutouts. If I gave the victims lives and personalities, their sins were no longer egregious enough to justify snuffing them out for the slights they'd committed. At least, not to anyone who wasn't the killer.

Like most writing skills, you cultivate empathy through practice. I spend a lot of time in my own head, and about a tenth of that time is mulling over things I don't agree with. It's not to change my mind, though sometimes that's a side effect. All I want to know is, why would someone think differently? If I lack the cultural awareness or history, I look it up, or read a book on the subject. I find authors from different backgrounds than mine, and read up on the context of books whose perspectives were jarring to me.

 Empathy will also lead to a greater variety of characterization, as you'll be able to better write characters who don't agree with your personal beliefs. I mentioned in my post on throwing out the rules that I read PostSecret and the related comments, and one of the reasons is empathy. I'm interested in how people are different than me, what makes them think or act that way, and what other people's opinions are on those thoughts and behaviors.

While very little of what I find out about how other people think ends up explicitly in what I'm writing, the overall understanding I gain is quite valuable. I'm learning to slip into several different perspectives, because I understand how very different characters might feel.

Sometimes it can be a challenge to remember which perspective I'm supposed to be in, but, I'm learning.

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