Why is empathy important to writers?
Movies, television and plays are all excellent ways to get across a story. They’re also good for learning how to put a story together, how to show rather than tell, and how to structure a plot. But there’s one thing that written fiction does better than any other mode of storytelling.
In a movie, you’re always watching someone else do the things. You may have an emotional attachment to a character, or identify with them. But it’s always someone else, and the evidence is right there – someone else’s face, someone else’s body, someone else’s voice. But in written fiction, a really well-written character can give you the opportunity to temporarily suspend your own identity and assume someone else’s. It’s a powerful thing… and a powerful responsibility for the writer to do it right.
How do you write about characters you have nothing in common with?
One of the first things they tell you in almost any collection of writing advice is write what you know. Personally I’ve never liked the oversimplified way that’s put, especially in relation to character. If everybody wrote only what they knew, many authors would turn out nothing but stories of people sitting at their computer screens, trying desperately to finish their first novels and being interrupted by the cat throwing up again.
Instead, consider ‘write what you know’ an invitation to know more… to do your best to learn everything, even though that’s not possible in one lifetime. One of the things it’s most important to learn about is people. Your stories will be about people, and it will shortly get boring if all the people you write about are, in some major way, yourself.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll talk more about empathy and how to build, exercise and practice with it, like any tool in the writer’s toolbox. I’ll offer some workshopping exercises you and/or your writing group can do to increase your empathy and your sensitivity to stories and characters!