Editor’s Note: A writer’s best tool for creating characters is probably observation, but then this post would be called, A Writer’s Second Best Tool for Creating Characters, After Observation: Empathy, and we can’t have that. It’s too unwieldy. We prefer wieldy posts ‘round here.
All republicans are religious wacko gun nuts.
All democrats are communist sheep who hate freedom.
All people on food stamps are too lazy to earn their way.
All wealthy people are selfish and greedy.
All young adults are entitled brats.
All feminists are angry man-haters.
All southerners are racist rednecks.
All Muslims secretly support terrorism.
All people from the northeast are elitist liberal snobs.
All car salesmen are out to rip off their customers.
All atheists are immoral.
If you agree with any of the above statements, you’re nowhere near as good a writer as you could be. Why? Because those statements all represent snap judgments about The Other. Knee-jerk reactions based on superficial qualities reduce anyone who is not like us to a cardboard cutout that personifies our prejudices and nothing more.
How can we create a cast of complex, motivated, and conflicted characters who compel people to keep reading if we cannot relate to anyone who thinks, lives, hopes, and dreams differently from us? Empathy is not an easy emotional concept like anger. Empathy requires discipline and exists partly on an intellectual plane. For example, if I am writing a female character, I have to ask things like, “How would it feel if men gawked at me on the subway platform?” or “What if men who don’t have my qualifications still felt it okay to talk down to me about my area of expertise?”
What if, when I assert control over a situation, people think, “What a bitch!”? Not that these things happen to all women all the time, but I would be surprised if some of the women reading this post didn’t have these experiences sometimes.
Empathy isn’t sympathy or agreeing with people to agree. It’s understanding why, for example, someone would buy a heavy-duty pick-up truck when you think we should all be driving electric mini cars. Or, it’s understanding why someone would be a vegan when you’re an avid hunter.
It’s even understanding the motivations of the serial killer you created as a villain in your novel. Why does killing make him feel good (or strong, or aroused, or free, or whatever)? What would it be like to have that compulsion? What would push you to act on your kill fantasy? One can say, “Well, he’s pure evil. There’s nothing to relate to.” Then he’s probably a boring bad guy.
My current writing project is a World’s End novel with three tweenage girls for main characters. You can probably tell from my picture at the top of the right-hand sidebar that I am not, never have been, and—barring an egregious mistake in one of my mad-science experiments—never will be a 13-year-old female.
So, when developing my concept, did I say, “Eh. Tween girls like One Direction and watch Glee. Done. Next!”?
Of course not. First I imagined their lives and personal shaping experiences, considered their maturity levels, and gave them each a life-or-death challenge. Then I pondered what a girl that age experiences: a changing body, the simultaneous fear and excitement that comes from developing an identity and exploring relationships, the concurrent drive for independence and desire for guidance, and a growing awareness of her sexuality and what it means from standpoints both of power and vulnerability.
Then I killed all the adults and destroyed civilization.
I hope, by taking an empathetic approach to characters, no matter how different they are from me and my experiences, that readers will find them real, complex, and, by extension, worth caring about.
How about you? What are your techniques and philosophies for building characters? You can respond in the comments section below or send me your answer via carrier pigeon, though only choose the second option of you want me to think you are super weird. Note: I’m out of pigeon food.