Recently, I’ve been watching a lot of interactions on social media on some pretty difficult topics. Sometimes opinions and viewpoints conflict with others, which can lead to lots of arguing, hurt feelings, and, sadly, sometimes loss of friendship.
Other times I’ve seen kind exchanges where respect of others’ ideas happens. These are my favorite to read where the conversations aren’t laced with hate and “you’re wrong, I’m right” undertones.
I really enjoy observing people, listening to their thoughts, watching their interactions, and how that makes up who they are as a person. I try to understand what makes people tick, what motivates them, and perhaps even what life experiences led them to where they are now.
So, how does this all relate to writing?
Writers must have empathy.
Without empathy, it becomes really difficult to get inside your characters’ heads and write them authentically. This also applies to nonfiction, but it’s more along the lines of being able to write in a way that’s relatable to others so you can impact your readers on a deep and personal level.
Being empathetic is more than feeling sorry for someone’s situation—that’s sympathy. Having empathy means you know what it would be like to walk around in another’s shoes because you can feel it. You can put yourself in another’s situation and understand what that would be like. It’s an ability to see more than your own narrow point of view, often with accompanying emotions.
What if I don’t have empathy? Then what?
Some people are naturally more sensitive to the emotions and feelings of others, but some of us are not. But, I believe it can be developed.
- Try looking outside yourself. Imagine what it would be like if your life experience was that of someone else’s. How would you feel? How might that impact you life now and in the future? How would it alter your beliefs about yourself, others around you, and the world?
- Seek to understand. When opinions differ from yours, try to understand the other viewpoints. Ask questions for more reasons why they feel the way they do. Talk less, listen more. Think about others’ views until you can fully understand why someone would think that way.
- Read books with characters from diverse backgrounds (and make sure they’re an accurate representation). Reading is a wonderful way to visit other places, hang out with different people, and experience things you have never yourself experienced—all from the comfort of your favorite chair. It’s a great way to get inside the head of another person and experience their thoughts and feelings.
- Be compassionate. Having compassion means really loving those around you. Love opens the gate to greater empathy because you care about others on a deeper level.
The world needs more empathy and compassion. As writers, we can spread more of that by using empathy to create authentic characters with real emotions and motivations. Be a writer who learns about people, their thoughts, feelings, emotions, motivations, and experiences not just from a sympathetic view point (though that’s a good starting point), but from a more intimate standpoint of empathy.
Wendy Jessen is the author of more than 500 articles-family-oriented articles on familyshare.com and book reviews. She recently started a website for something she is passionate about–helping victims of sexual abuse find hope and healing. Wendy is the mother of 6 spirited children ranging in age from 5 to 15. In the throes of writing a few books (fiction and nonfiction), she finds ways to procrastinate which usually involves scrolling through social media. Wendy often stays up way past her bedtime reading, loves kid-free date night with her husband, family vacations, and kids’ bedtime, aka, the human version of whack-a-mole.