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.