Empathy in Writing


Now I know that feeling empathetic doesn’t sound so gangster, but let me make you an offer you can’t refuse. If you really want to know your characters and how they work, you might need to try to step in their shoes for a little while. Like in The Godfather, you need to keep your friends close and your enemies closer. That way you can track their every move. Maybe even guess a plot-line or two.

Warning, this discussion piece has a spoiler alert for a Stephen King book. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I will begin with the words of Alfred Adler, “Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another.”

Empathy is important to fiction writers for our characters would not survive as whole characters, without it. Empathy is the essence of writing fiction.

Ask yourself, why do I write? Or, why do I read? Fiction is, the door we open to other worlds. In those other worlds, are other people, experiencing things that we may not necessarily be able to or want to experience due to various reasons including but not limited to: fear, lack of confidence, law of physics or because nanna wouldn’t approve, and so on. It is also how we step in another person’s shoes and how we are able to see the world from a different perspective so we can learn and grow.

This can be a challenge for some, in two ways. It is difficult to leave the safety of our own shoes for fear that we might change and not return wearing the same pair of shoes. Or, especially for the writer, opening up the empathy valve makes us vulnerable and we fear we may not return at all to tell the end of the story but instead be in the foetal position of our study hoping for Falkor to come and fly us away.

Reading fiction helps us understand this process, knowing that the story will come to an end means we can let go and explore the worlds of elsewhere.

As a reader, the more empathy we feel for a character, the more we care when they are killed in an action scene, or come to suffer from a terminal illness; the less empathy we feel for a character, the less we care about the fictional character’s bad hair day or their sudden break up. For example, in Stephen King’s book The Dome, the whole first few chapters are setting the scene, meeting the characters, getting a snippet in to their world. When the dome comes down, most of those characters that die in the first few chapters, I didn’t care about. However, it is the characters that live through the experience that I learn to know and empathise with during their crisis.

As a reader, you get the tour so you can sit back and let yourself go, enjoy the ride and come out the other side with some perspective. For the writer, you are leading this journey. You must set yourself boundaries and goals while you are out in the world, building the vicarious experience. Then you must transfer this to the reader. Make them feel the way you felt and then make them feel safe.

Fellow readers and writers of fiction, be bold; go out in to the world and learn the heart of another person. See through their eyes and use their ears to hear music you do not yet know. For empathy is how we relate as humans. It is how we connect. It is how we grow.

Peace out.