Mar 19

Empathy – The Key to Writing Deep Emotion

A reader recently sent me this question, after reading The Madness Project:

I find that it’s difficult to convey strong emotion or culminate events without being drippy…How were you able to stay deep and involved without going overly sentimental?

The question took me a bit by surprise.  I’d never really thought about it before…although I can smell over-sentamentalized writing a mile away.  You see, as writers, we are expected to take our readers on a deeply emotional journey, subjecting them to  trauma, tragedy, joy, chaos, danger, excitement, happiness, loss, anger and fear — all in a safely controlled sort of way.  Our goal is to stir up reader empathy for the characters.  We want our readers to experience what our characters experience as if they were those characters.

I think that, in order to do that, we have to start by having empathy ourselves.  And quite frankly, I think this is something that goes far beyond the word processor.  We need to have empathy as human beings first and foremost, before we can ever expect to have empathy as writers.

Having empathy means “the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings” or “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions; the ability to share someone else’s feelings.” When we have empathy for someone, we are taking their sufferings on ourselves — even if we cannot know exactly what someone is feeling, we use our imagination to project ourselves into the other person’s place, and try to answer the question, “What would I be feeling if this were me?”

Not everyone is naturally empathetic, but I firmly believe that everyone can develop that capacity.  In fact, I also firmly believe that it’s necessary for living a humane life.  Empathy goes beyond great tragedies and terrible fears.  It impacts us on a daily basis, in all the little things.  And it’s not the same thing as pity.

It’s more like — when I see that woman with the ugly clothes and the unkempt hair and the circles under her eyes, I don’t make fun of her (even in my own mind), but I also don’t look down on her with a superior, condescending kind of pity either.  It means I try to put myself into her life and try to see the world through her eyes.  

There’s a wonderful way that the word “compassionate” can be used as a verb (making the in ate long)…for instance, “to compassionate the pains of another” and it means to “suffer with.”  To take a musical example of this, have you ever heard of the Norwegian fiddle called the hardanger or hardingfele?  These remarkable instruments have not only the normal violin strings, but a set of sympathetic strings that run beneath the regular strings, and vibrate when the upper strings are bowed.

The result is remarkable — you have strings vibrating in harmony with the played notes, without the musician ever touching them.  Empathy is a lot like that.  Without the event or circumstances ever touching you, your heartstrings (for lack of a better term) move in harmony with those of the person being shaken by the event.

Now, back to writing.  As writers, I think we have to have this ability in order to use it in how we approach our characters.  If we don’t feel empathy ourselves, how can we ever expect to stir up empathy in our readers?  In real life, we are the sympathetic strings that move with the sufferings of others.  In writing, we are the bow that strikes our characters, making the readers compassionate them.  But we can’t do that well if we aren’t attuned to experiencing it ourselves.

I think it’s fairly easy to spot when a writer tries to write tragedy or fear or trauma…or even deep love…without empathy.  In order to artificially make the reader empathize with the characters, they adorn their prose with over-the-top descriptions of grief and pain.  Everything is spelled out.  It slaps the reader in the face and expects an emotional reaction.  If we as writers can’t enter into the sufferings of our characters as if they were our own tragedies, how can we ever expect our readers to empathize with them?

Next time around I’m going to write about how exactly we use empathy to create empathy in our readers from page 1…and some practical does and don’ts for how to write emotionally charged scenes without going over the top in either sentimentality or the macabre.


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