Monday, May 1, 2017

Writing with Empathy

Can you believe a lie so well it becomes true? It can hurt, but it's often my go-to for writing emotional scenes. While working on a particularly tough scene last week, I spent about hours imagining the loss of my sister. From what I've heard and read, this tactic is similar to method acting. I stopped being a writer crafting a story–I become the girl who'd lost her best friend.

Empathy is exhausting, but it's also what pulls us in. We've all read a book or movie with a supposedly emotional scene that fell flat. I know many a person who sobbed at the end of The Fault in Our Stars–and I know many who simply shrugged it off. When I watch Les Misérables, Éponine's song "On My Own" gets me every time. Think back to the stories that have hit you the hardest–I'll bet you empathized with the characters or situations, and leaving your mind open to that emotion made an even stronger connection.

Allowing a story to run your emotions via your imagination can be fun–you can get a new puppy, fall in love, save a life...all events with a great payoff. But using this strategy to construct heartbreak can produce lingering effects. It makes for a great book (hopefully), but after six hours spent putting yourself in a character's shoes, the emotion sticks. After all, we write what we know, and it's difficult to write heartbreak if you don't open yourself up to it.

How do you connect to stories?

Michelle drinks tea and cuddles her pupster to cope with all this empathy.


  1. I prefer to connect to things by covalent bond but I'll take a hydrogen bond if I have to.

    1. Ba dum psh!
      I normally connect to things with ModPodge, or maybe superglue.

  2. I have to watch myself, to make sure I don’t identify too much with a character. I do find myself seeing through the character’s eyes and feeling their emotions. I suppose empathy is good for building believable characters, but it can wreak havoc with one’s psyche. I haven’t got to a point where I can turn on and off the empathy, but I am getting better at operating the emotional dimmer switch.

    Besides my required science classes for my degree, I took many extra college classes in psychology, sociology, anthropology and history. All of these classes helped me to understand how humans work and interact. However, one class gave me the most insight into human behavior-- animal behavior. Humans share the same motivations that guide animal behavior; the difference is our motivations are often wrapped in a tangled yarn of the abstract. Unravel that yarn and you can find out what really is going on. Then you can knit one of the ugliest sweaters you ever saw.

    1. Really good points, Tracy! I do think that some people are better at empathy (at least where it comes to characters in stories). I still wouldn't want to be the one to knit that sweater, though...