A Writer’s Best Tool for Creating Characters: Empathy

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.

So anyway.

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.

Hmmm. Twilight characters depicted in cardboard. Perhaps the manufacturer's slogan is "So lifelike, you can't tell them apart from the real thing."  I KID!

Hmmm. Twilight characters depicted in cardboard. Perhaps the manufacturer’s slogan is: “So lifelike, you can’t tell them apart from the real thing.”
I KID! Really. I’ve never read Twilight. It could be great.

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.

I fling poo for a REASON. You just don't get me, do you?

I fling poo for a REASON my writer friends. You just don’t get me, do you?

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.


37 responses to “A Writer’s Best Tool for Creating Characters: Empathy

  • nrhatch

    When I read or hear someone use absolutes to pigeonhole a group of people, I cringe. Most stereotypes apply only to some of the group some of the time.

    That said, ALL writers who kill off the adults and destroy civilization, leaving three tweens to fend for themselves, are amoral and probably eat cupcakes for breakfast!

  • The Moon is a Naked Banana

    This is so true. The more you let go of preconceptions and stereotypes, the better you can write, For every single person on the face of the earth is intensely complex.
    Having said that, in some genres there’s room for some stereotypes. For instance, a lot of teen movies and sitcoms rely on the ‘dumb blonde’ ‘the geek’ and ‘the teacher’s pet.’ But even with these you can create a fascinating character by adding something unusual to their expected attributes.

    • ericjbaker

      Agreed. It’s hard to write fiction if you can’t rely on “types” for supporting characters and walk-ons. But it’s also possible to mix things up and throw off reader expectations.

      I read a post on the popular WordPress writer’s blog “Writers in the Storm” about using ones own prejudices as a story prompt. For example, if one is a firm believer in biblical creationism, write a story from the standpoint of an evolutionary biologist and avoid painting a caricature.

      I’m sure we all have our biases against and prejudices about certain groups and the challenge is making those characters just as real as the rest without being artificial about what they believe.

  • toconnell88

    What a delightfully brazen opening! Strong arguments throughout. You make such damn sense! Makes me want to douse you with my praise hose! Don’t worry; I’ll restrain myself.

  • gabrielablandy

    This is a great piece – well written and clear. Clap clap!

  • Arkenaten

    Most of my characters are loosely based on memories of people I know or have known.
    I then stretch them to the nth degree!

    Which one of your tweenage girls is the young lady depicted in the photograph in the blog? Is she the heroine?

  • Jill Weatherholt

    Great post, Eric…love your opening! A lot of my character building comes from music. This might sound weird, so maybe I should I sent it via pigeon, but all of my character have a soundtrack that I listen to over and over.
    Have a great holiday weekend!

  • LindaGHill

    I have to put myself in their shoes – it’s almost like acting except I don’t get up and do stuff. I imagine I’m watching a movie of my characters going through the motions, and then, from what they do, determine what experiences might cause them to act as they do. It takes me a while to get into character – it’s like meditation.

    • ericjbaker

      I get what you mean 100%. Probably, since only you know exactly, but anyway… I make the characters’ face expressions when I’m writing sometimes. I also feel their moods. I once wrote a story about a woman who got dumped by her jerky husband and walked around feeling horribly unattractive for several days.

      I recognize that I just walked into a potential zinger about my appearance, so go ahead and take a free shot. I’m very difficult to insult!


  • livelytwist

    “Then I killed all the adults and destroyed civilization.” Oh, to be thirteen again! 🙂

    Like Arkenaten above, most of my characters are loosely based on memories of people I know or have known. Or me for that matter. Empathy is crucial as you say as well as talking with others who have some experience with the character in question, in my view.

    How’s the WiP shaping up?

    • ericjbaker

      Your characters are so real that your readers, including me, assume it’s a true story at first. You have a great insight into human nature, especially the sensation of feeling embarrassed and vulnerable. Hmmm. What is that all about?

      The WiP is coming along well. Nearing the home stretch on the first draft. I feel relieved that the gaps in my knowledge are filling themselves in as I go. I have snippets of ideas about what’s coming as I write, but many shadows. Now the sun is coming up to show me the path.

      Thanks for asking!

  • Kevin Brennan

    How weird! All along I thought you were a thirteen-year-old-girl!

    Great post, though. One of fiction’s great purposes is to help us understand The Other.

    • ericjbaker

      I thought I was too, until the police came and I ended up on the news. I’m always doing stupid stuff like that.

      Dehumanizing people who are different from the majority is a popular political and social game these days.

  • Richard Leonard

    I don’t care.
    That’s actually not true. I just wanted to say that on a post about empathy!
    But seriously, this conflicts in some ways to other advice floating around about flashbacks and why to avoid them. At least it creates a problem for me in one of my novels. It features a young woman who writes in a diary of a recent tragic experience and I felt in order to create empathy she had to (or I had to make her) write about why she loved this girl she lost. The obvious and easiest way to do this was to reflect on her life (so the story now looks suspiciously like a memoir), in the form of several nested flashbacks. Creating empathy was one of the key features I knew this story had to contain in order to work.

    • ericjbaker

      If you can make it work, go for it! I think a lot of advice stems not from the use of common writing devices (such as the flashback) but form frequent misapplication of those devices. We all do our best work when writing from the gut, I think, and I’m confident your approach will work if you think it’s the best way to tell it.

  • ujuh

    I can’t find my first reply, so I’ll send another via carrier pigeon. Any way I like people so I agree that stereotypes should be done away with…maybe s little in writing and totally in the real world.
    Never written anything fictional though, but with your overflowing pitcher of wisdom I just might 🙂

    P.S Don’t worry about pigeon food, this one’s actually biologically enhanced to eat it’s own legswhen hungry and regenerate 😉

    • ericjbaker

      I suppose, deep down, we are wired to avoid danger by staying away from those who seem different. But that’s not an excuse. We’re also wired to bean someone over the head when they anger us, and we don’t do that (if we have any kind of emotional maturity).

      Your p.s. was rather disturbing! If you decide to dabble in fiction, go with the horror genre. You’re a natural.

  • Janna G. Noelle

    I agree – empathy isn’t an easy emotion. Nor is it a fast one, the snap reaction often, “Oh, what I jerk, s/he is one of those people”, or what have you. It takes time to step into someone else’s experience – both the time to step back and do it in the moment, and the time to learn how to do it in the first place.

    I also agree that empathy is an essential skill for writers, and it sounds like you’re asking yourself the right questions to step into your WIP characters’ experience.

    In response to your reply to The Moon is a Naked Banana, It’s hard to write fiction if you can’t rely on “types” for supporting characters and walk-ons., I try to compensate for this by giving supporting characters a sense of having their own lives separate from interaction with the main character, particularly for recurring supporting characters.

  • 1WriteWay

    Great post, Eric! Empathy is key to a good story. I don’t know how well I empathize with some of my characters, especially the sociopaths. But I know I have to if I want to keep my readers’ interest (as well as my own interest). I do use observation a lot, all the little details I’ve gathered from observing people throughout my life, and that helps get the characteristics, the behavioral tics down. But the motivation, the drive behind actions is where empathy comes in. And it scares my husband because there’s a murderer in (almost) everything I write 😉

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