Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Empathetic writing is one of the most powerful tools a writer can employ, crafting a world and a cast of characters who evoke genuine emotion. Of course, emotion is a delicate thing, and it’s important that as you pursue empathetic writing, you’re also considering humane storytelling.
That’s why, in this article, I’ll be exploring how authors can write more empathetically and how, in doing so, they can humanize their writing to their reader’s benefit. It’s not something that suits every story, but it may be exactly what yours needs.
Empathy is a unique and specific quality when it comes to art. This is something we discussed at length in Sympathy Isn’t Empathy – Here’s Why That’s Your Problem, so let’s borrow that article’s definitions:
The difference between sympathy and empathy is pretty simple. Sympathy is a feeling you have from an external position, your own reaction to someone else’s situation, while empathy is sharing their reaction.
It’s for this reason that sympathy tends to be more passing than empathy. You can feel sympathy in the moment and move on, but empathy doesn’t work the same way; it opens the door to a range of lasting emotions.
In application, this difference manifests as a contrast between understanding emotional content and experiencing an emotional reaction.
In this case, it’s useful to add that empathy also enhances realism – understanding a situation doesn’t require you to believe it’s happening, but to feel something in response does (at least on an emotional level.)
In most stories – fiction or non-fiction – empathy is more valuable than sympathy. The reader is more involved in the story, they’re more caught up in potential consequences, and they understand the characters on a deeper level. So, how do you create empathy?
In most writing, empathy comes from the characters. This is pretty obvious – in order to have your own empathetic emotional reaction, you need to be involved in a character’s experience.
Where things get messier is in that important divide between sympathy and empathy. It’s easy for the reader to understand what a character’s going through, but to experience some of it with them, they need a deeper appreciation.
Characterization is the process by which authors construct characters for the reader; the process of communicating who this person is. The list of tools you can use in your characterization is too long to include here, because it’s a list of everything a person could do that would tell you anything about them: what they do, what they say, where they work, what they wear, etc.
Sympathy occurs when the reader understands a character. When a proud woman is shamed, the reader understands that she feels terrible. When a shy man is mocked, the reader understands that his worries have come true. The actions those characters take as a result can be understood – when the proud woman lashes out, when the shy man hides himself away, the reader understands why. This is good writing, everything makes sense and the reader is engaged, but it’s rarely transcendent writing.
Empathy occurs when the reader inhabits a character. When a proud woman is shamed, the reader feels the churning in her gut. When a shy man is mocked, the reader feels the buzz of panic in the base of his skull. In this way, empathy doesn’t just clarify motivations and reactions, but appreciates a character’s fundamental nature.Empathy comes from inhabiting your characters, not just understanding their philosophy.Click To Tweet
In Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, one of the protagonists loses a hand. It’s an occurrence that devastates him emotionally and, in many ways, acts as the emotional climax of the story. The events that follow are interesting but muted, the ending neither triumphantly happy nor staggeringly sad. If deWitt only created sympathy, the story wouldn’t work – the character is sad to lose his shooting hand because he understands himself chiefly through violence, but in a sympathetic sense, that knowledge only exists to explain whatever happens next. In an empathetic sense – the sense in which the events are portrayed – the character’s shattered self image isn’t a stepping stone, it’s the point. It’s perhaps the climactic moment of a story that’s being narrated by another character, and that’s only possible if the reader comprehends the complexity and depth of his devastation.
So, empathy comes from characterization, but how do you move your characterization past sympathy and into empathy?
Living with your characters
In Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, there’s a scene in which an unsympathetic character – Jason Dixon – is hospitalized, his face obscured by bandages. It quickly emerges that he’s sharing a room with another character – Red Welby – who, earlier in the story, he attacked and badly injured without cause.
Initially, Welby doesn’t recognize Dixon and offers to help him drink. Overcome by guilt, Dixon confesses his identity and Welby is repulsed, rejecting his apology. The scene becomes tense as Welby begins to perform a task out of sight, raising the possibility that he may be preparing to take revenge on Dixon, who would be unable to stop him.
What’s so impressive about this scene is that it’s not grounded in a sympathetic reading. Though Dixon is treated more sympathetically later, the viewer isn’t asked to care about his wellbeing in this scene. Likewise, there are no cues to worry that Welby will be punished – no ideal life that he’s going to ruin with potential jail time.
Instead, the story as a whole engages with the process by which vengeance born of suffering creates further suffering. The tension of the scene isn’t about whether Dixon will be okay or whether Welby will be punished, but about whether Welby will be sucked into this cycle and lessened as a human by his participation. The act of taking revenge is portrayed as something that will hurt Welby, and the viewer hopes against hope that they won’t have to suffer through that hurt. The stakes aren’t in the future, they’re in the moment, which makes for an electrifying scene.
This distillation of empathy – a moment in which the reader doesn’t want to watch a character be hurt because it would hurt them – is the same as in The Sisters Brothers, and it requires that you explore your characters as deeply as possible.
Sympathy comes from external factors. The protagonist of The Sisters Brothers can no longer shoot well; this is something he values, and thus it is tragic. Empathy comes from internal factors. The protagonist of The Sisters Brothers derived identity from violence; he can no longer perform violence, and it is upsetting to see someone lose their identity.
To invite such a response, you have to dive deep into your characters. Beyond a sketch of who they are, beyond even the goals that define them, you need to understand the core of their humanity – their soul. This might sound like the ‘magic’ of art, but it’s not: it’s work.
Hit your characters with hypotheticals, exploring how they would react to circumstances outside your story. Invent childhoods, past relationships, favorite books and memories. Switch viewpoints and experience them as different people in their life; how do their friends see them, how do their enemies see them, what do strangers notice about them? Most importantly, try to do as much of this as possible on paper, not just daydreaming but creating a backstory that’s concrete enough to be worth writing down.Living with your characters isn’t about daydreaming, it’s about active exploration and creation.Click To Tweet
It’s through this process of living with a character that you’ll find their inner self and be able to bring it to the page. Part of this is conscious – The Sisters Brothers is constructed around the concept of what embracing violence does to who you are – but part is subconscious – Welby isn’t a big part of the story, but he’s human in a hundred small ways that speak to his soul’s value, and the harm that would be done by tarnishing it.
Living with your characters facilitates empathetic portrayals, but even the most creative writer can’t be expected to work their way into any and every character’s soul. That’s where research comes in.
Neither The Sisters Brothers nor Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri casts its empathetic characters as heroes. The Sisters Brothers invites the reader to disapprove of its protagonists, while Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri sees Wilby’s flaws clearly.
The intent with empathy isn’t to get the reader to support a character – indeed, empathy for unlikeable characters can be especially profound – but to understand them. Because of this, it’s not enough just to create empathy for characters you see yourself in, or to change unfamiliar characters to make them more sympathetic.
Instead, it’s important to find the humanity in these characters, to appreciate how they see themselves, how they became who they are, and what values they actually hold. The Sisters Brothers humanizes a character who embraces violence and the reader feels his loss of self not because they agree but because they so deeply understand.
For such characters, research is the name of the game – find the spaces in which people with these values talk about themselves and their philosophy. Don’t, of course, just take them at their word (we are very bad at identifying our own motivations), but take that account as the starting point to explore the logic and emotions at play. Any character can be rendered empathetically, not so that the reader likes or agrees with them, but so that their experiences feel real and have weight.Writers are imaginative, but it’s still worth researching viewpoints you don’t share.Click To Tweet
That’s empathetic writing in a nutshell, but I also said we’d discuss the result: humane storytelling.
When it’s done well, empathy turns a story into a deeply emotional experience for the reader. The writer’s job is to emotionally shackle the reader to a given character and then to make that connection worthwhile.
Obviously, art is about emotional communication, and almost nothing is truly off limits. That said, an important part of empathetic writing is to ensure your stories remain humane. By endeavoring to make the reader truly feel something, you take on some responsibility for the effect that has.
A popular epithet that’s often used by critics is ‘just because it’s sad doesn’t mean it’s real’, and what’s equally true is that just because a story is sad doesn’t mean it’s good. Making your reader feel something just because you can is dangerous ground – it’s not difficult to shower hate and suffering on someone and make them feel bad.
Irvine Welsh’s Filth shackles the reader to a hateful character and bathes them in that hatred, but it’s difficult to argue that there’s any larger point to doing so. Likewise, Martina Cole’s The Take includes a rape scene that easily accomplishes the empathetic horror that will support the rest of the story and then just keeps going, flooding the reader with misery for misery’s sake.
Of course, such moments can work in many ways – misery and hatred can be cathartic, they can contextualize other moments, and they can even be entertaining. There’s no sensible limit on how any author should make a reader feel, but that’s where personal responsibility comes in.
If you’re going to make your reader feel something, it’s a good idea to know why you’re doing so, especially when you’re going to make them feel bad. There are a lot of authors who consider instilling emotion its own virtue, and there are strong arguments that they’re right, but just because you’re packaging up the effect you have on someone and it’s unwrapped much later doesn’t mean you’re not having that effect. Yes, they’re choosing to engage with your work, but they don’t know exactly what’s coming. If you were sitting in front of someone, telling this story, would you still be trying to make them feel this way?
That’s what humane storytelling is about – considering that the emotional impact you’re trying to create is an emotional impact on the reader. That doesn’t necessarily mean an absence of suffering or misery or any other important emotion that art can explore. Indeed, some of the most upsetting stories are also among the most humane because they took the time to really think about why they wanted to create specific emotions. Of Mice and Men is brutally empathetic, but it never even comes close to being cruel.Humane writing appreciates that the writer has some responsibility for what they ask their readers to feel.Click To Tweet
And, aside from other people, there’s also the effect this can have on your own work. Fall into the trap of thinking that upsetting your readers is inherently deep and you can produce some truly dire writing.
Those are the drawbacks of taking an inhumane approach to your empathetic writing, but being too empathetic can bring its own problems.
Story vs. empathy
In Zach Helm’s Stranger than Fiction, protagonist Harold Crick becomes aware that his life is being dictated by an author. Both characters struggle with this realization, especially once a literature professor confirms that if the author kills Harold – as she intended before they met – the resultant story will be her masterpiece.
In the end, the author’s understanding of Harold as a real person means she can’t bear to kill him, and she rewrites the book so he survives. The literature professor understands her decision but confirms that the book is poorer for the happy ending. In a meta twist, most critics said the same thing about Stranger than Fiction itself.
In this way, Stranger than Fiction both explores and exemplifies the danger of allowing empathy to rob a story of meaning. The best way to avoid this is to employ empathy in service of what your story’s about – to first decide what you’re trying to say and then bolster that point by imbuing your writing with real emotion. If you decide on characters, get to know them, and then throw a plot at them, you’re likely to find that your empathy struggles against the most effective form of your story. If possible, it’s smoother to decide on a basic plot, decide who it’s happening to, and then flesh them out to learn exactly how it happens. In this way, empathetic writing finds the most humane version of your story, rather than telling a different story altogether.
Some writers have no time for humane writing – the reader’s experience is their own responsibility, let the dice fall where they may. That’s a valid path, but as with most artistic decisions, it’s one that’s best reached by considering the nature of the choices you’re making.
How are you instilling emotion into your characters, what does that mean for the story, and why do you want the reader to feel what you’re asking them to feel? The answers will be different for every author, but they matter, and they can help you write both more humane and more considered stories.
Do you think there’s value in humane writing, or is conveying emotion an artist’s most important goal? Let me know in the comments, and check out How To Handle Grief In Your Novel and Sympathy Isn’t Empathy – Here’s Why That’s Your Problem for more advice on this topic.