Empathy: A Writer’s Greatest Tool

My creative writing professor once told me that you cannot be a fiction writer and hate people. It’s just not possible, because writing is people. The world is people. If you don’t like people, you cannot understand the world and cannot be a successful writer. It would be like trying to be a mathematician that hates numbers (or representations of numbers). It is paramount.

Now, I have been called a misanthrope most of my life. People bother me. You are chaotic and overwhelming, especially in large groups. I’m highly introverted and awkward in most social situations. I don’t understand the concept of “small talk” or how not talking about the weather makes me impolite or unfriendly. So, obviously, this meant that I was a horrible writer which led to another jaunt down insecurity lane, because at the time, I thought that he meant that I had to like people, like their personalities, and be a people person.

It took me a while to realize that I wasn’t listening to what he was saying. He was talking about empathy. Having empathy is one of the most important tools at an author’s disposal. There are two kinds of empathy: cognitive and affective.

Cognitive empathy means that you’re able to put yourself in the shoes of someone else. In terms of being an author, this would be your character. You must know likes, dislikes, fears, aspirations, experiences, and how the character feels about himself or herself. However, as an author, this needs to be taken a step further. It’s being able to see and understand how this character views the world around them, how they take in and process events and information, and what actions the character would take based on that view. At the same time, the author must also anticipate how these events and actions interact with the character’s preconceived notions and how the world view changes. It is a give and take that is constantly changing.

I liken it to this quote from Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them…. I destroy them.”

In order to make a character a whole person, the author must care. It’s loving a character as he or she would love him or herself. They’re like family. You don’t have to like them, but you have to love them. This is true for every character including your villain. That connection should be evident in everything that an author writes otherwise your characters will be flat and unbelievable. If the author doesn’t believe in or care about the character, why should the reader? Which brings us to affective empathy.

In the author/reader relationship, affective empathy is what you want from your reader. It is what occurs as a reader begins to care for your character. When a person sees another in distress, this causes distress (assuming you’re not, y’know, a sociopath or something). The reader isn’t going to care about the character in the same way that the author does, and we wouldn’t want them to. While the author is charged with putting themselves into their character’s shoes and expressing his or her point of view in words, the reader is under no such obligation.

How is this a tool for the author? Well, the reader’s affective empathy can be used to against them. The more that a reader cares for a character, the more easily they can be led. Readers are more forgiving of characters that they like or empathize with. In contrast, if you wanted to surprise your reader with a plot twist, such as a hidden villain, you can play with your readers’ emotions by making them care about a character before pulling the rug out from under them. (I’m sorry readers, but it’s all for your own good.) The bigger the reaction (other than one of “that’s totally unbelievable), the more successful you’ve been.

Oh, but I do have a word of caution though. An author must be careful when manipulating a reader’s empathy. Piss a reader off too much, and they might never pick up your novels again.

Keeping that in mind, what my professor said is true. If you don’t want to spend your time thinking about your characters or your reader, if you cannot empathize with them, there is no way that you can be a fiction writer.

In those terms, I actually enjoy people. From psychology to sociology or anthropology, history, art, and music, everything that humanity touches, I find fascinating. Humanity has a beauty and complexity that I just can’t stop exploring. Languages, landmarks, mythology, ethics, value systems: I can never get enough. It all stems from our relationships with others, just living. It’s magical.


Do You Have Any Creative Writing Advice?

I was asked for some of my own writing advice, but I don’t know that I really have anything concrete. I don’t like posts that tell you things like “never end your sentences with a preposition” or “don’t edit while you’re writing” or “only use dialogue tags ‘said’ and ‘replied'” all of which are ridiculous to me. Everything has a time and place, but I don’t want to be one of those annoying “follow your heart” people. So, I’m going to try.

* Certain narration styles drive me crazy.

1) The omniscient narrator. The omniscient narrator makes me feel like I have ADD. Well, I do, but it makes me cognizant of it. I find the thing most difficult about an omniscient narrator is that it’s difficult for me, as a reader, to find a focus. This narrator frequently jumps back and forth between the personal thoughts of one person to another, and it’s difficult to separate the overwhelming knowledge and what each character knows and sees.

2) First person present. I understand imminence, wanting to move the story quicker, but… it bothers me. I feel like if you’re a person telling a story, obviously, you’re telling it at a later date and past narration would be more correct. It’s just a pet peeve. The Hunger Games novels were particularly challenging to get through due to my thoughts on this.

* Do the Work

So, I lied to you. This is one of the rules. It’s not really a writing rule, but a preparation rule. Do the work. Know your characters inside and out. You have to be able to put yourself into their shoes and see things not only from their perspective, but how each character views your other characters. Know your villain. Know your world and its rules. It’s easiest to answer the big six: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? There shouldn’t be a question that you can’t answer. And “just because” doesn’t count as an answer.

* Dialogue tags

Occasionally, I like the peruse some of the writing blogs on WordPress, and I’ve noticed something interesting. Whenever anyone is giving advice on how to write dialogue, I see this bit of advice: only use the dialogue tags, “said” and “asked”, and use “replied” sparingly. In the years that I’ve been taking writing courses, this piece of advice has never come up (at least not while I was paying attention). In fact, it always seemed to me like the exact opposite was required. So, I had to wonder, were these people on crack?

As I’ve begun to dig a little further, asking both writers and readers, the logic of this advice began to come out. A reader told me that if the novel was full of other dialogue tags, it tended to sound amateur. A writer described a class where the teacher berated him for sounding like a fourth grader, who just discovered dialogue tags.

So, my problem with it is this. “Said” and “asked” convey virtually nothing. From a communication standpoint, it’s a nightmare. I’ve brought up communication before when I discussed author intent. When encoding a message, only ten percent of that communication is verbal. Everything else is nonverbal. How many times has someone told you, “It’s not what you said, but how you said it”? That means, when writing, ninety percent of the message isn’t being received and must be replaced. Use of other dialogue tags such as “muttered”, “groaned”, “whispered”, and “whined” are more efficient than a long description.

Also, dialogue tags have other uses other than indicating who is speaking. Sometimes they provide a longer more literal pause affecting flow and pacing. It provides negative space in dialogue. Any artist knows that the negative space is just as important as positive space. I do agree that having a dialogue tag for every piece of speech is ludicrous, but if there is a change or greater purpose for it being there, I say knock yourself out.

* A Little Bit of Poetry Can Go a Long Way

Be creative in your descriptions. I’m not talking a constant “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” or giant extended metaphors, but saying that someone waddles away like a penguin dancing on hot coals can offer a strong mental image for that extra punch. Why a penguin would be dancing on hot coals? I don’t know, but it’s the best I can do off the top of my head.

A Little Shameless Self-Promotion

Are you looking for Action? Adventure? Romance? Redemption?

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Seek redemption with Friedel…

“When Friedel McBride was taken to the realm of the dead, everything changed. Follow Friedel as she is thrown into a new, divine world, filled with winged spirits who guide the living. They are the Wingéd, and they are in danger. In order to earn her wings, Friedel must take the Leap, a long dive off the highest cliff in the mountains, but this cannot be done unless she confronts her mortal coil. As she prepares with her Candidate class, the secrets of her past begin to arise. If she is unable to face the crimes of her past, she’ll be lost to the abyss forever. Meanwhile, lurking within the hallowed corridors, something sinister is causing them to lose more candidates. Friedel is their only hope, and she must find out why their numbers are diminishing before they discover the truth about her. But how can someone whose life reveals such evils ever be redeemed?”

Find serenity with Kapera…

“The sequel to Wingéd tells the story of Kapera, a rebel foiche Dé, a weapon of God, in her fight to save the life of Grace, a target of the Demon Wingéd. However, Kapera is a reluctant participant. In spite of her feelings, Kapera will risk everything she holds dear to save the millions that would die if the Demons get theirs hands on this one child. Can Kapera put aside her anger long enough to defend Grace against certain death? And will she ever find the peace she craves?”

And discover that your greatest weakness can also be your greatest strength with Cassius…

“Thousands of years ago, before the age of Friedel and Kapera, there lived a soldier and harbinger of death. When Cassius and Emmy meet as Candidates, they are instant friends, but their friendship is threatened as the Cassius rises in the ranks of Dragons and fears for her safety. As his world is torn asunder by witches and Demons, he cannot shake the love of a Moth, who longs to be more than what she is. The third installment of the Wingéd saga tells of the rise and fall of the most notorious figure in Wingéd history, his ultimate disgrace, and the Moth who would do anything for him.”

Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards says, “I read [Wingéd] in one night, and that is a compliment. I liked the plot and the mythology. There are a lot of “angel” books, and this takes the genre and gives it a new, fantasy-like spin,” and “I LOVED the story of Cassius and Emmy. I was engrossed by the connection between them.”

Readers say, “The thing I like most about the Wingéd series is how each of the novels stands on its own, but it also transcends each individual character’s personal journey for we’re all flawed beyond measure. That is what the Wingéd series is all about. It’s truly about the fall and rising up out of the abyss. It says the only way to stop the descent is to accept yourself for everything that you are and to have enough compassion for others to help them do the same.”

Available on Amazon for the bookworm on your list!

Interesting Things Learned Through Novel Research

1) We’re all just people.

I find that most people are under the impression that ancient peoples were stupid, and for some reason, it’s like this huge joke to make us feel better about ourselves. Well, they didn’t have all the facts right and believed in multiple gods, so they must have been stupid. I understand that it’s difficult to see ancient humans being anything like ourselves considering that they lived so differently. However, humans haven’t evolved very much since we became Homo Sapiens (yes, the theology nut is going to talk evolution; don’t get too excited).

“Homo Sapiens” showed up 200,000 years ago (Wikipedia [yes, I got information from Wikipedia. Bad author]), and modern humans, as we think of ourselves now, came around 50,000 years ago. Therefore, this encompasses all of modern society. So, the Ancient Greeks? They look like you. They think like you. No matter the education level, they can reason just like you. Maybe even better than you, because let’s face it, the Ancient Greeks are awesome.

What absolutely sealed this idea for me was when I started reading the translations for graffiti found in the ruins of Pompeii. Yeah, not Greek, but what can you do? First of all, heh, it’s graffiti! Second of all, it’s just as awful as an profane as spray-painted dicks under an overpass. For example, “(Bar/Brothel of Innulus and Papilio); 3932: Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!” and “Nuceria Necropolis (on a tomb); 10231: Serena hates Isidorus”(Graffiti from Pompeii/pompeiana.org). Yeah, I don’t know Isidorus, but I really want to know what he did.

We are way more similar than anyone realizes. It should not be surprising that humans could erect these monuments or have these vast kingdoms. It’s not surprising, because to say that they couldn’t do it means that we couldn’t do it. They’re us just with a different set of beliefs and culture. Ah, which brings me to…

2) Culture is arbitrary.

I can’t really find one resource that led me to this conclusion, but I’ll try and explain myself. Humans tend to be a little ethnocentric. We believe that our way is the right way, and everything we believe to be sacred (or even unjust) now is the way that it’s always been. For example, many people believe that it is natural for a woman to be overemotional and prone to crying, and this has been the mark of women forever and always was. Well, throughout history, it was actually the opposite. (I’m sorry that I have no proper citations. I learned this in History class when I was reading Ben Franklin’s autobiography and found it weird when he kept expressing how much “affection” he had for other men.) To be emotional and crying were marks of passion, and only men who had all this testosterone (although they didn’t call it that obviously) could be passionate. It was considered normal for women to be calmer or even stoic. A passionate or emotional woman was considered unfeminine.

What I’ve learned by delving into history is that culture is a collective idea and subject to change. And it does, constantly, based on the ideals of its members.

3) There’s such a thing as Rock Gong.

Seriously. Check it out.

Author Intent Revisited

So, I’ve already written an article on how author intent is irrelevant. However, I might have to backtrack on my statement. It wasn’t exactly recently that J. K. Rowling said in an interview that Ron and Hermione would never have been together in real life. This didn’t mean much for me as I’m not an uberfan, but as with the last time that Rowling dropped a little secret about one of her characters that isn’t in the novels themselves, it got a huge fan reaction.

I feel like none of these bits of trivia (yes, “trivia” like “trivial”) should matter. Nothing that she says changes anything that happens in the novels. Dumbledore being gay does not change the story. The fact that she felt the Ron and Hermione relationship was not realistic does not change what happens. It still happens. And yet… BOOM!

There are comments upon comments of readers either in favor or against what she said. Some were delighted, because it confirmed for them something that they believed all along. However, what has piqued most of my interest were the comments stating that Rowling had “ruined” or “cast[ed] a negative light on the novels” with her statement. I take this to mean that either the reader is unable to enjoy the novels in the same way with this knowledge. If author intent were completely irrelevant, this wouldn’t be.

Still, I believe that with her statements, Rowling does in fact taint her work. She wrote these novels, encoding the message in the words where it was then received by the reader. The message was received and interpreted, and it cannot be taken back. By saying these things, she is in fact stealing meaning from the reader, which I feel is a betrayal of the author/reader relationship.

The reader trusts the author to be in absolute control of the story. I always say, “In order to write with authority, the author must be the god of their own world.” You, the author, are god, and a true god makes no mistakes. To take that back? Now, she is a person. Fallible. The veil is gone.

Now, sometimes, I like trivia. I find it interesting to see the contrast between what I had planned and what the final result was. I am the master of last minute decisions. I don’t think a single novel turned out how I originally planned it. And sometimes, you want to share this information with your readers. “You know, [So-and-so] was never supposed to survive past chapter five, but [he/she] grew on me.” And so on and so forth.

What is the difference? I had to sit and think on it a while, because it felt hypocritical. The difference is that the trivia that I would deem harmless and interesting are where I felt my plans were wrong, and I’m happy with the way that they went instead. What I presented to my reader is the best story that I could come up with. I believe in it. So-and-so lived past chapter five, because it was better. I’m not saying, I should have gone with my original intention, because this is unrealistic that they should have survived.

I have to hand it to Rowling. Letting out these little controversial bits of trivia every so often is business genius. One, it keeps people talking about the novels. Two, it requires very little work. As an author, I can’t help but admire her for it. As a normal person and reader, I can’t help but be really annoyed by it.

The original blog on author intent: https://jwethne.wordpress.com/2013/10/04/author-intent/


Novels of Years Past

What were your other books about? Are you planning on releasing them?

Day, Night, and Shadow/The Doublestar Planet series
My other novels (the finished ones) were a sci-fi/fantasy hybrid about this world that had telepaths, telepathic beings with white gems on their foreheads, pixies, beings made of pure magic, warriors, technologically advanced human soldiers, townsfolk, normal humans, and renegades, human thieves who frequently hunt telepaths for their gems. My main character, Astellay, was a telepath who finds this ancient relic in her attic with information about her ancestors coming to their planet. Her mother falls ill, and she uses the relic to find another relic that is said to be able to heal anyone.

I wrote it when I was a freshman in high school, and back then, I didn’t believe in a lot of description, even less so than I do now. I felt that the way the reader could imagine it was better than I could describe it. So, the prose is terrible, but it does have its merits. I’ve always been really good at pacing and flow, characterization, and dialogue. So, of course, that’s what’s good in the novel.

I don’t know if I plan on releasing it. If I do, I would definitely rewrite it first. I don’t know. The thing is that I have plundered a lot from the original novel for things for Wingéd, so I don’t know if I would feel like I was just telling a worse version of Wingéd.

Let’s see, what did I plunder? It was mostly characters, I think, because I love my characters, and I wanted to use them again. Granted, they were all supposed to die really quickly; I wasn’t expecting to continue to use them past a couple of chapters, so that’s just a bad on my part. In the original novel, I had a group going on this quest with Astellay. Two of them were Naddan, a telepath, and Nekali, a warrior. These characters morphed (kind of purposely, kind of not) into the characters of Daisuke and Isis. In later novels in the series, there was also the character of Nessa, who goes a little insane. (Wow, did NOT notice that every character I took has a name beginning with ‘N’ until just now.) I have used the insane character a couple of times (once in fanfiction), because crazy people are fun to write for, but her most recent iteration is Rin. You’ll meet her in Wingless.

If I do end up revisiting this particular world I made, there would have to be some serious overhauls. It wouldn’t follow the same model. Actually, I think I did try to rewrite it after Wingéd, but before Foiche Dé with disastrous results.

The Seven
I have tried to write a few other novels, but none of them really felt right. I think I managed three chapters of The Seven before I put it down. This was after the fourth DNS novel, but before Wingéd. You might call it Wingéd Lite. As with everything I do, I had a complete world. The premise was that one day God either wanted to destroy mankind or just abandoned them (there were a couple of drafts), and man was saved by the angels. The angels gave man powers to look after itself in the super harsh environment that they suddenly found themselves in. The upper class, Mages, ruled over the Serfs, humans without powers. The main character, Rhiannon, was responsible for bringing seven children, supposedly angels born in mage form to save the world again by taking away their powers and restoring the balance. That’s about as far as I got. I had all of their names and powers. It was fun for a while, but it just wasn’t right.

As you can see, this was when I just started dipping my toes into theology and mythology. I just wasn’t seasoned yet.

Telesapiens/Who Once Could See
The story of the Telesapiens was somewhat of an attempt to rewrite DNS. I’d been writing about a certain kind of telepath, but I wanted to completely redefine what my readers thought about telepaths. Thus, the telesapien was born. Telesapiens were telepathic entities who only lived for about ten years. They developed telepathy and the ability to teleport in order to make up for their short lifespans. They were supposed to have been at war with humans, but they now had a very tentative peace. A human ends up getting killed by a group of telesapiens who are defending one of their own, and they start demanding justice. The main character was Aranee, and she was an apprentice of an old priestess, who shows her the way nature. She ends up volunteering to be sacrificed instead in order to stop the bloodshed. So, you can see how this sort of became the basis of the Wingéd origin myth.

Suck for a Buck
Finally, there’s my story called “Suck for a Buck”. This started out as a short story for my creative writing class. Now, my professor had made a huge deal over this short story. It was very Juno-esque before Juno ever came out. It was in present tense second person narration, something that I’ve never done before, and it was “literary”, because my professor forbade anything sci-fi/fantasy. It was about a sixteen year old girl living at home with her parents, older sister, and her sister’s husband. Her sister is pregnant, and it’s just a short about how she deals with being ignored by her family. Anyway, it was funny, and my professor said that I excelled at humor so much, I decided to try and make a novel out of it. The novel was back when her sister and her husband were getting married and everything. The main character has a crush on her best friend, who is in love with someone else who becomes her best friend. I stopped writing it because… well, it didn’t interest me. I liked it, but it’s not me.

However, the unrequited love story does show up in Dragon Wingéd.

So, I hope that you enjoyed that. It was fun wandering down novels of years past.

My Favorite Harsh But Eye-Opening Writing Tips

So, a while ago, I stumbled upon this article on Facebook. It’s called “21 Harsh But Eye-Opening Writing Tips From Great Authors” by Cody Delistraty. Of course, you know I was all over that like a hobo on a ham sandwich. So, just like my favorite Pixar rules, these were my favorites. Be sure to visit the link to the original article at the bottom to read all 21 quotes.

3. If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy. – Dorothy Parker

When I see this quote, it’s one of those situations where it’s funny because it’s true. Not that you want to shoot them, but every aspiring writer thinks that his/her writing is the shit. You go out into the world with your first short story and you give it out to all of your family members. And they all tell you, “It’s great.” “Aren’t you talented?” they say. “Looks like we have an author in the family.” They’re family and friends, and they love you. They’re doing you a huge disservice, because they’re setting you up for the biggest fall of your life.

It took me four years to recover from mine.

Once you give your manuscript to someone who knows a little about literature, looks at it every day, that’s it. Your little hobby becomes work. And no matter what you do, there’s going to be something to work on. It’s not going to be perfect, and it’s going to be crushing. Rising back up from that is hard. Most people never recover from the shattering of that illusion.

I don’t actually recommend shooting someone while they’re happy. However, if you come across a young friend who wants your opinion on his/her work, I recommend being honest, but uplifting. My friend, Lindsey, says she likes to use the three up and one down model. That’s three positives for every negative. Let them know early that this is work and not everything they touch is gold; however, make it fun for them. Make it about the journey, learning and improvement.

7. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. — George Orwell

This is definitely one of the best answers to “why do you write” that I have ever heard. Every time I write a novel, when it’s done, I look down at it and think to myself, “Holy shit, is that my still beating heart on the page there? Why is it bleeding like that?!” And every time someone reads it, it gets even worse. Every person gets to sit there and poke and prod at it with their little knife fingers, each one of them commenting on whether its color and texture is good enough or if its beat is strong or steady enough. (Or worse, they look down and say, “Oh, that’s nice. No, I don’t want to look at it.” Indifference kills people!)

When I’m done, I realize that I seem to have grown another heart, and I have to tear it out again. Why would I do this to myself over and over? Because I have to. I have to do it to live. I cannot be happy unless I’m writing. That’s the only reason to write.

12. If writing seems hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things people do. – William Zinsser

This one’s on the house. See #7.

13. Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college. – Kurt Vonnegut

This just made me laugh. This is an example of a highly amusing style preference. Sometimes, I use semicolons, usually in dialogue when people are speaking through and combine their sentences. It doesn’t make sense to have a full stop flow-wise. Most of the time though, it’s just as good without as it is with. Hehe, “hermaphrodites”.

17. Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. – Mark Twain

Also, see this quote. From Dead Poets Society. It’s not in the list, but I felt it relevant.

“So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys – to woo women – and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do. It also won’t do in your essays.”
― N.H. Kleinbaum, Dead Poets Society

When I first read this piece of advice, I was worried. Actually, every time I read a piece of writing advice, I sit there and worry whether or not I do whatever it is they’re talking about. Luckily, I found that I don’t use “very” often. And when I do, it’s in dialogue. I think my characters are allowed to say “very”. (My poison is the word “just” instead.)

But if you have a problem with it, and have a hard time catching yourself, there’s a way to go into Word’s autocorrect and add in your own. I learned this from a friend (not a touch typist) whose brother programmed the autocorrect to write “dumb-ass” every time she wrote the word “the”. When she looked up after typing a few paragraphs, she saw about fifteen occurrences of “dumb-ass” all over her paper. So, every time you write “very”, it will automatically switch to “damn” before your… uhm… very eyes.

21. Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously. – Lev Grossman

Yes, this. Oh, I should elaborate. There are many ways to interpret this, and I think that’s why I like it. It could mean “follow your heart” or “you’re never going to please everyone” or “there’s no right way to write”. I also like it, because it makes it okay to disagree with someone else’s opinion. There are a lot of times where I traverse the blogosphere and read these “how to write” blogs, and they just make me sad. I often disagree with what they’re saying, and this makes that okay. There’s no single way to write.

– “21 Harsh But Eye-Opening Writing Tips From Great Authors” by Cody Delistraty http://thoughtcatalog.com/cody-delistraty/2013/09/21-harsh-but-eye-opening-writing-tips-from-great-authors/