Empathy! You just can’t write good fiction without it. It’s the nexus between the reader and the characters.
Empathy is one of the top three human endowments; without it language would have developed merely to communicate food sources, shelter and “Is that a saber-tooth behind you?” But through language we can tell stories and stories capture our imagination. Imagination begets creativity. The capacity for empathy is the seed of culture.
Empathy enables us to do two things, understand the people we write about and relate to people in the stories we read. Empathy is a capacity, not an emotion. It is sometimes confused with sympathy and compassion, but here’s the difference. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone – we feel sorry for that guy in “The Notebook” when his wife is on the fritz. Compassion is why we love underdogs like Rocky Balboa. It’s what Melvin Udall can’t seem to feel in “As Good as it Gets.” Empathy is what allows us to recognize the feelings of others. How we react to them is subjective.
The better writers all have a deep understanding of the breadth of emotions and find extraordinary ways to reveal them as their characters develop. To write compelling fiction, we need to ‘get’ what our characters might feel in a given situation so our readers can identify with them. Our ability to tap into this capacity is like pulling back the wizard’s curtain and finding the truth behind the bluster.
Some of you might be thinking, “Blah blah, so what?” Well I don’t fault you for feeling that way.
My enthusiasm to write about an author’s need for empathy fell short of my expectations. I had a kind of thanks-captain-obvious moment when I realized that a person who possessed no empathy would probably not be a writer in the first place and wouldn’t enjoy reading fiction. Our curiosity about the human condition drove most of us to the craft. We fell in love with characters, felt their joy and torment and later discovered we could express a range of emotions through our own writing.
Sometimes those emotions are a result of inner conflict. Joan Didion (who @michelledean calls J-Diddy) says she writes to understand herself. Writing can be cathartic, but dangerously revealing and not limited to fiction. Whether we write about horror or romance, anthropology or jazz; we are all at heart, raconteurs.
Lack of empathy, completely so, is abnormal and those devoid of it find their case studies in the DSM. The rest of us in the big hump of the bell possess it in varying degrees. So I concede that we who joined this diverse club of writers have been so endowed as to make it a non-issue, but I’ve discovered something equally interesting.
All Tell Means No Sell
Isn’t it just flat-out fun to watch Doctor Hannibal Lecter torture Miggs and taunt Clarice, to coolly plot his next meal? Lecter is a violent psychopath, temperamental, and incapable of empathy. What’s compelling about him is we can’t relate to his inability to relate. It would be exhilarating to write our own Hannibal.
Writers are people watchers. We’ve all been caught staring, or listening in. We just can’t help ourselves. We love intrigue and we’re always looking for a unique angle or behavioral quirk. But it’s important for us to look for the nuances of personality disorders if we wish to write about them. The space here is too limited for detailed explorations of malformed psyches, but one thing that psychopaths, sociopaths and people with NPO, narcissistic personality disorder, have in common is sketchy or non-existent empathic abilities. Let’s leave it at that.
But if you want to write about one, you need to know the disorder well enough to show the readers who the character is. You can’t write about a psychopath and then show him at home weeping to Steel Magnolias. He wouldn’t.
Randi Kreger wrote an article called “Lack of Empathy: The Most Telling Narcissistic Trait (Psychology Today – January 2012). I recommend it if you are writing a character of this bent. Kreger quotes Sam Vaknin, who wrote about his battle with the disorder in “Malignant Self-Love – Narcissim Revisited.” He states, “I am aware of the fact that others have emotions, needs, preferences, and priorities – but I simply can’t seem to “get it into my mind.” There is an invisible partition behind which I watch the rest of mankind and through which nothing that is human can permeate. I empathize more with my goldfish than with my nearest and dearest.”
How does Dean Koontz show us psychotic? The killers exist in a parallel universe, in an atmosphere that chokes off empathy before it takes a breath. The victim’s eyes reflect the inversion of normal socialized behavior, the unfeeling human that does unspeakable things.
But there are other ways to demonstrate this. Remember the Bubble Boy episode on Seinfeld? When the father relates his son’s story at the diner, everyone reaches for a napkin to dry their tears, but Jerry wipes his mouth. Although shown comically, Jerry’s detachment from the emotion of the moment is narcissistic. The final Seinfeld episode begins with the crew making fun of an overweight robbery victim. That’s classic schadenfreude, a German loaner which means to find joy in another’s misfortune. In a sense they were all charged with the crime of not showing empathy.
From psychotic serial killers to hapless comics, we rely on empathy to share in the experience of great stories. Our characters will be richer, their actions more subtle or insidious, if we do our homework and begin to understand the complex human beast we’re so fond of writing about.
From “As Good as it Gets” -
Melvin: “Oh, uh…Carol the waitress? Simon the fag.”
by Joe Hefferon, Author of The Sixth Session and The 7th Level – Designing Your Extraordinary Life, due out in June 2012