On Empathy

by James Scott Bell

The other day my laptop and I drove to a local caffeine establishment to do some work. The early morning rush was over and the place relatively quiet. A young woman was at the cash register with a customer. A young man, a little older than the woman, was working the espresso machine like Frank Morgan behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz.

When it was my turn to order I stepped to the counter, but before I could say a word a look of shock came over the young lady. She looked directly at me and said, “Oh my God!”

I was so sure I’d shaved that morning.

But then she said, “Excuse me!” and spun around to face a couple of large coffee urns. She started to fiddle with one, but apparently didn’t know the tune.

The young man saw this and said, “What are you doing?”

Woman: “I forgot to change the [something].”

Man: “You don’t do it that way.”

Woman: “I saw [unintelligible] do it this way.”

Man: “Well, that’s not the way you do it. Look out.”

He began rearranging and replacing things on and around the coffee urns, the whole time rat-a-tatting at the young woman with transparent annoyance.

“That’s how,” he snapped when finished, then went back to steaming milk. The woman returned to the counter, her eyes literally downcast. When she finally looked up at me, the hurt in her face was palpable. She could have been my daughter. I heard myself say, “It’s all right.” Then I placed my order.

Now why did I say that? I didn’t plan it, it just popped out. I don’t think the answer is complicated—I was hit with a jolt of empathy.

Empathy, simply put, is the ability to understand another person’s feelings, to “step into their shoes” as it were. It’s a common human attribute unless a) you are a sociopath; or b) have conditioned yourself not to care by practicing hate, selfishness, or some other form of conscience-weakening.

Empathy is powerful. So much so that it’s the theme of Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird. As Atticus tells Scout, “You never really understand a person … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Empathy should be the theme of a writer’s life, too. You can’t really know your characters without it, and that includes the bad guys. Fiction that transcends the predictable and mundane is largely built, I would argue, upon layers of empathy. Those layers reach out from the page and connect to readers on an emotional level.

Which, of course, is what we’re going for. Fiction is an emotion-delivery system, not a lecture or jeremiad. Sure, you can have a message, but it won’t penetrate very deeply without character empathy.

Writers also need empathy for their readers, who are looking for escape into a story. Why? Because, as Wordsworth put it, “the world is too much with us.” We all need some relief in crazy times. If we can give that to a reader through our books, we’ve done more for that reader than a million characters of Twitter ever will.

So try this:

  • Create a childhood scene for every one of your main characters. In that scene confront them with one of the following: a bully, a pet that dies, an accident, a humiliation, a disappointment, a failure.
  • Write a diary entry from that character, describing in detail how she felt during and after the experience.

In the next scene you write, explore how that feeling might affect the way the characters in the scene treat each other.

Do the same throughout the book.

And in your life, too. Oscar Levant, the songwriter and TV curmudgeon of the 1950s and 60s, once remarked: “When I was young I looked like Al Capone, but I lacked his compassion.”

Don’t let that be your epitaph.

So how deeply to you identify with your characters … including the bad ones?


26 thoughts on “On Empathy

  1. Great post, Jim.

    “Fiction that transcends the predictable and mundane is largely built, I would argue, upon layers of empathy. Those layers reach out from the page and connect to readers on an emotional level.

    Which, of course, is what we’re going for. Fiction is an emotion-delivery system…”

    Thanks for the exercise on creating empathy for our characters with their background and “emotional scars.” Doesn’t that scar often explain the inner need of our character, as well, and is vital in building a character that jumps off the page.

    Empathy builds emotion builds success. I would argue that in the service industry, empathy is a key to success.

    Thanks for all your teaching!

  2. I’ve never done this before I start writing, but in every book, there comes a moment where an emotional scar is revealed. As you might have figured out from my comments, I’m a lazy writer, and only deal with things when I need them. I’d probably be a much better writer if I planned ahead, but I’m content going back and layering things in as I discover them.

    Glad to be back at TKZ after The. Month. From. Writing. Hell. (that stretched a week into the next month.)

    • Welcome back from hell, Terry. We hope TKZ is a little writers’ heaven, but even haven will do.

      And I think it was Wolfe who told Fitzgerald that there are “taker-outers” and “putter-inners.” Layering after the draft is putting in. Some writers find the material that way, others plan it out. But all should remain open to the story.

  3. Great post! I have heard much advice about making readers care about your characters, but this really puts it in a clearer perspective and with a great exercise to implement it.

    Thank you!

  4. Jim, your posts are:
    1. Always wise
    2. Always specific
    3. Always illuminating
    4. Always useful.
    Just finished Super Structure and picked up much new insight.
    Thank you, kind sir.

  5. This is a good exercise, and it’s timely, too. I worked on it this morning, and it’s helping me figure out why my bad guy is the way he is. Ew, shivers, I don’t like thinking of him as human! Thanks for the writing exercise!

    • That’s great, Priscilla! If this creates shivers in you, it will in the reader, too. The cross-currents of emotion you are feeling are precisely what elevates the reading experience. Nicely done. Shiver away!

  6. I just copied the line “confront them with one of the following: a bully, a pet that dies, an accident, a humiliation, a disappointment, a failure” into my current WIP. I’ll decide which one to use to round out a certain major antagonist I’m exploiting. No question in my mind, even without having developed it, that the narrative and the character will be stronger. Thanks, Jim.

  7. Thank you! I’m doing a workshop on characters next weekend and something was missing in what I wanted to teach them. The ‘confront them with the following’ is exactly what I need. May I use it? P.s. It’s also what I need to do with my antagonist!

  8. Good post. I have a bad guy I need to do that exercise with. Though I *thought* in my draft I had crafted him with empathy to explain his bad nature, in crits he came across as a 1D bad guy.

  9. Good post, Jim, and helpful, too. Thanks. And as someone who’s been on the other side of the cash register, thanks for your kindness to that poor young woman.

    • I hear you, Elaine. I waited tables for a couple of years, part of that at a swanky west side eatery in L.A. Waited on several stars. A few of them were from Snoot City. One beloved television actress undertipped me. You don’t forget those things!

  10. An insightful and encouraging post, Mr. Bell.

    In the movie Patton, General Patton has just beaten Rommel in North Africa. But his aide-de-camp, Major “Dick” Jenson, an officer who had gone as a volunteer officer to the Gabes Road battle. In real life, as in the movie, Major Jenson is killed in a bombing raid. General Omar Bradley was nearly killed by the same bomb.

    In the movie version, General Patton, this tough, private-slapping, swearing, name-calling general who was not well-regarded by the U.S. general staff, wrote Major Jenson’s mother.

    General Patton, who believed he had fought in major wars under famous leaders all though out history because he believed in reincarnation, said this to Mrs. Jenson: “He was a fine young man and officer. He had no vices. I can’t see the reason that such fine young men get killed. I shall miss him a lot.” The General enclosed a lock of Major Jenson’s hair.

    There can be no other reason he took the time to do that except for the respect he had for the Major, and he wanted to convey that respect to his mother. Because he empathized with her.

    • And that’s what elevated the movie, isn’t it, Jim? There’s that one moment when he leans over a wounded soldier giving an account of a terrible battle, and kisses his head. No dialogue needed.

  11. I love one of my bad guys so much, she’s getting the second-most important role in my current w-i-p. But I guess I can’t leave her quite as bad as she was in the first book, so she’s having a bit of a change of heart in this one. (But readers did love her even though she was pretty darned bad.)

    The villain in the first book was maybe too bad, although the reader could, maybe, perhaps, possibly feel a bit sorry for him. Okay. Maybe not. I was even afraid to write from his POV, he was so vile. There. were reasons for his vileness, and he was a philanthropist of sorts, but I still don’t think he had any empathy of his own

    The villain in this book will be a bit more sympathetic… and female… but I’m not going into her head–I’m looking forward to the challenge of showing her through the eyes of others and foreshadowing her later actions. I hope I’m up to the challenge.

    • But readers did love her even though she was pretty darned bad.
      That’s what many of Hitchcock’s villains were like. I especially love Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train. You almost root for him to win!

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