Thursday, October 20, 2011

Writers' Tools: Empathy

"Writers don't write from experience, although many are hesitant to admit that they don't. ...If you wrote from experience, you'd get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy." Nikki Giovanni
Like the trusty pen, not-so-trusty computer and nifty internet, empathy is also an invaluable tool for writers.

Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in the proverbial shoes of others, to understand their feelings, thoughts and motivations. In terms of writing, it's an ability to connect with our readers.

How to improve your empathy:
Observations: To gain a higher level of empathy we need to pay attention to everything that goes on around us. Not just to the people around us, but to all the sights, sounds, smells and everything that makes up the atmosphere of a place and a person. It's so easy to let life pass us by without noticing those details.

Know your audience: This is a classic piece of writers' advice. As much as we start out writing for ourselves, if we want to get published we also need to write for our audience. This means understanding who they are, what they want, and what kind of issues they'll respond to.

Personal experience: To understand others, we need to have an understanding of ourselves. This takes a certain level of honesty because I think it's important to know why we react to certain stimuli, and to know the true motives behind our actions. The truth isn't always what we may want or expect.

Exposure to life: I believe it's also important to broaden our experiences. Because I travelled the world in my twenties, I have a lot of different cultures and people to draw from. If we stay behind our desks and do nothing but write, then how can we learn and enrich our writing?

Imagination: Looking through another's perspective isn't an easy task and requires some practice and imagination. Encourage daydreaming. Take time out to simply think, imagine, role play.

Read a lot: Apparently in studies a connection has been found between reading a lot of fiction and having a higher level of empathy. I believe it's because stories throw the reader into the minds of a huge variety of characters in a broad range of situations they wouldn't have otherwise experienced.

Can you think of other ways of improving your empathy? What have you done to hone that particular writing tool?

Thanks: Debbie Johansson recently gave me the 7x7 Award. Thank you so much!

Pic: A watchful surfguard at a beach at Port Stephens, Australia.


  1. "Encourage daydreaming!." Oh gosh. I just flashed back to eighth grade chemistry. All I did was daydream. It got me a C in science then...but perhaps all these years later it will get me a story people want to read!

  2. These is really good advice, Lynda. I think the suggestion to actually do the things you have your characters doing is very effective. For instance, if your character swings on a rope over a shallow creek or as part of a confidence coarse, then the writer should find a place to do that.

  3. Great points all. Empathy really is at the heart of writing, isn't it? The best stories connect with people on an emotional level. And you're right, you have to get out in the world and experience things if you want to write about them honestly.

  4. Empathy is the most important, isn't it? Helps readers identify with our characters.
    I think experience really helps get a wide view of people from all walks. Guess I'm lucky I've lived many places, including several other countries.

  5. I do take my pen and pad with me and scribble things of particular quirks - I guess that falls under observation!

    Great tips, thank you! Take care

  6. I think it's very important to know your audience. Different genres tend to follow different rules, but in the end we want to connect to what's going on no matter what. Observance of how people interact and react on a daily basis is very useful as well. Empathy isn't always the easiest thing to write!

  7. I love this, Lynda. I think the more experiences you have in life, the more you're open to the feelings and experiences of others, even if you haven't personally known them. These are great tips for building empathy, which is a great thing for writing and for life in general.

  8. That's a good way of putting it. I never thought of it like that. I write SF and I've never done half the things my characters do, yet I've always felt that their experiences were my own.

  9. Great ways of gaining empathy!! I always remember a workshop I went to long ago, where the speaker said to think back on an argument we recently had. Then we were told to write the scene from the OTHER person's point of view. Ah...yes. ;o)

  10. ooh, empathy is one of my dominant traits :) Not always a good one, people can use you when you are too empathic :(

  11. Great advice. I think that life has thrown me enough experiences to get a good sense of empathy. It is important to not be afraid of change but to embrace it.

  12. Liza, haha yeah I used to get in trouble for daydreaming too.

    Pam, the best way to know about something is to do it yourself, but if you can't then research, research, research...and imagine.

    Luanne, yes, exactly it's that connection at the emotional level that makes a good story great.

    Alex, living in other countries is definitely a help.

    Old Kitty, yes! So do I! :)

    Mary, different genres and different markets. And I agree, it's not always easy.

    Shallee, yes exactly, it's why it's good to get out there and live a little.

  13. Some wonderful advice here, made for interesting reading.

    I remember a long ago training technique, writing a short scene from another person's point of view, and then once again from a third person's. Come back to it in an hour or a day, scrutinize it and see if it doesn't improve your narrative.

  14. Dan, one thing about travelling the world is that you discover that people are basically the same throughout--which means it's easy to apply to SF too.

    Carol, now that would be a difficult task. Sounds like a great workshop.

    Dezzy, I'm not surprised that empathy is one of your dominant traits. It shows in everything you do. People might take advantage, but I still think it's one of the best traits to have :)

    Siv, that's a good point: not to be afraid of change, but to embrace it. It's also a good way of raising empathy.

    Anthony, that sounds like a great exercise. I might give that a try.

    Emily, thanks

  15. Excellent advice, and a very good way of looking at it :)

  16. Too true! A writer is someone on whom nothing is lost.

  17. "Encourage daydreaming. Take time out to simply think, imagine, role play. "

    Absolutely best advice I can think of on empathy.

  18. Great post! Thanks for the tips. :)

  19. Great post! I'm a firm believer that the world could use more empathy, thus writers should employ it often. I'm a sucker for a character I empathize with: the crazy wife who kills her cheating husband is my favorite example. "He had it comin'" lalala

  20. Wow, great point, Lynda. I never thought about empathy playing such an important role for us as writers, but you're absolutely right. That's intriguing that that study showed that people who read a lot of fiction have more empathy. It does make sense, though. That explains why the old saying, "The pen is mightier than the sword" is so true!

  21. Well, I've got many years of listening to other people talk about themselves and their lives and their sorrows. I've worked as a paralegal and a hairdresser for years.

  22. Most excellent post. I've had a lot of experience listening to people, working with kids, playing in the rain, sailing with pirate.

  23. Great post Lynda! I think personal experience is perhaps the best kind of teacher. The only way we'll ever truly learn empathy is when we're put in a situation where we have no choice but to feel empathy for another.


  24. It seems like we're playing a game of pretend. Hmm, I'm good with that. I think a great tool to build the empathy is watching movies, especially drama. :)

  25. Daydreaming - I put a lot of time into that. :)

    Empathy is a great tool and one that is often overlooked.

  26. I love that you mention read a lot, I feel like that gets forgotten. I haven't been reading as much as I probably should, even though I've been trying to encourage it in others.

  27. Great tips, thanks for sharing.

  28. Great advice! Agree with every point!

  29. WritingNut, thanks

    Hanny, yes indeed

    Matt, thank so much

    Joanne, hope they help

    E R King, you're so right: the would COULD use more empathy and writers have the power to share it.

    Lynn, when I first heard about that study I was skeptical, but after I thought about it, it made sense.

    Shelly, haha how perfect!

    Bish, sailing with pirates? cool!

    nutschell, yes, that's why it's important to live a little

    Laila, yes, watching movies is also a great way to expand our experiences.

    Southpaw, isn't daydreaming the best?

    Sara, it's easy to put reading lower on the priority list because it often feels like an indulgence (like tv), but it's so important--especially for us writers.

    Toyin, thanks

    Plamena, thanks

  30. Actually, I am considering the ultimate writing from experience. I am quite serious about trying my hand at memoirish, slice-of-life non-fiction.

    I am tired of telling fictions and find I am quite enamored of The Truth. ;)

  31. My mom is a nursing professor and often talks about empathy in regard to patient care. One of her colleagues once said empathy was impossible because there was no way of actually knowing what a person was going through. She said we could imagine or undergo a similar experience, but since we were not them, couldn't completely empathize.

    Just some food for thought.

  32. I'd like to think I have empathy, but this post makes me think of how I can make sure.

    You should do a companion post about character empathy. Antagonists tend to have lack of empathy. And sometimes protagonists can have too much at the expense of themselves or sometimes be so self-absorbed that they don't empathize with other characters.

  33. Great article. I think that our true life experiences is the only way to develop character with empathy or that the readers will empathize with. We have to search deep down into the times when we gave experienced every emotion & use our sensory memory to try and recall a time when we felt what we need to portray in our writing. That seems to work for me.

  34. Good to know that I can get away with using daydreaming as a writing tool! Once again, more great writing advice here Lynda.

  35. Suze, oh sounds great. Good luck with your non-fictional ventures.

    McKenzie, completely empathise? no, but we can get mighty close.

    Theresa, yes, empathy in characters is a quality that makes them more human.

    Melissa, that's a good method and a good exercise to practise.

    Debbie, it's great, isn't it ;)

  36. Great advice, Lynda. Frankly speaking, I haven't done much to hone my Empathy skills, but I will try to do so now. Though I have become more observant, I still need to tap into the empathy source.

  37. Love this post! Esp. the fact that NONE of these ideas involve pulling out hair in front of a keyboard. :) I'm glad to know other writers share my opinion about life getting in the way of keyboard fuels the other.

  38. daydreaming is a good one. It's always something I've been good at -- empathy.

    Talking to people different from ourselves with different lives helps. Taking the time to listen instead of judging.

  39. Magnificent quote and I was THRILLED to see the possible connection between reading a lot of fiction and a higher level of empathy.

    I think it's because fiction often shows antagonist with a touch of goodness to them, or at least a good reason for their "badness." But there are lots of other reasons where this connection to empathy could come from, too.

  40. i agree, there's so much one can actually experiment throught life, but its nothing compared to the vast ammount of things one can learn, think or percieve through empathy

  41. Makes it really tough if there's a sociopath out there trying to form a writing career...

  42. Hi Lynda. This is completely fascinating. You don't see many posts on empathy. Love the quote, although sometimes I think you could say writers write from empty!

    Thanks for sharing such a thoughtful post.


  43. Some really great points here.Some people are better than empathy than others, but these reminders should set everyone on the right tracks.x

  44. Fantastic advice. I'm a mediator by profession, so we're all about seeing things from other points of view. I think you can get enormous insight (and enrich your stories no end) by asking yourself what someone else knows and sees, and how they might be interpreting it.

  45. Thanks for this brilliant list - its bookmarked ;D

    I wanted to share with you that there's a new writing challenge/linky in town. Every weekend I'll share a PROMPT and every Wednesday everyone can link up there (poem or short story 500 max)response at the Storyteller Linky. This weeks prompt is a Picture. Check it out. :)

    I also have a spooky book review and the weekend blog hop right now too!

    Love to have you on bored, but have a great weekend either way. Shah.X

  46. Wonderful posts and great comments so far. I tend to become my character when I'm writing and I try to feel and see the world as he/she does.

  47. Great post. I'm very thankful for my own life experiences. One of the best empathy-building experiences I've had was to attend college in Panama where my classmates had a much different view of American history than what I'd been taught my whole life. Very eye-opening.

  48. A terrific post and great advice. Loved this post!

  49. Rachna, being more observant is a great place to start :)

    Melodie, I'm always in favour of avoiding hair-pulling solutions.

    Mary, great examples.

    Margo, yes exactly, and I think it's also to do with 'experiencing' other characters/people than our small circle of family and friends.

    Tony, well put.

    Colby, hahaha, amusing point.

    Denise, ha, so true.

    Madeleine, and it doesn't take too much effort either.

  50. Amie, yes, yes! Exactly right. Each character will have a different perspective on an event.

    Shah, weekends I usually take a break and try my hardest not to turn on the computer, but I'll check it out.

    Sharon, yes, getting into the character's skin is the best way to do it.

    Jennifer, that would have been a fantastic experience.

    Nas, thanks


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