One of the single most useful skills in a writer’s toolkit is empathy. The ability to understand another person’s point of view, to see things from another’s eyes, to walk around in the other’s shoes.
Yes, you should write what you know. But stories often demand a viewpoint that comes from outside your head. How would alien beings ever get written? How could men ever write about women? Or women about men? How can a geriatric understand a teenager?
This will be a short chapter, and I almost didn’t include it, but I think it important to drive home a point. In order to develop rich, thick worlds with a variety of characters, you must at some point write about people who are not you.
I’m an introvert, severely. I have to talk slow and extra loud in crowded rooms because I don’t always enunciate my words clearly. I look like Seth Green’s evil clone, and about the same height. I have certain bends on religion and politics, which shall remain private. I enjoy reading, playing video games, and TV crime shows. I have two life long passions: astronomy and dinosaurs.
And if all my characters were mini-me’s with fake mustaches, I’d stop writing out of boredom. Not that I don’t write characters who mirror me, but the common trait is usually obscure or small, if even there. I prefer to write about people who definitely aren’t me, because I enjoy stories about characters who take dangerous risks I would never have the guts to do myself.
And how does this relate back to finding your voice as a writer?
Empathy allows you to do more than just write characters who are not you. Empathy also lets you into the hearts and minds of your audience. Readers don’t pay attention to flat and dull stories with no emotional tug.
Ever notice something on TV crime dramas? Besides the central character and his or her sidekick, the supporting team has a certain cast. A white guy, a black guy, often someone of another ethnicity, and at least one woman. You see this pattern in Criminal Minds, Numb3rs, Crossing Jordan, and many other shows. Why do the creators do this?
Quite frankly, so the show appeals to as wide a base as possible. We subconsciously identify and empathize with people who are like us. Keeping a diverse cast of characters allows the show to throw a wide net and attract a bigger audience. As fascinating and tense as Numb3rs was, I doubt the show would have been as popular without the characters Megan and Amita.
Audience is crucial; never underestimate the whims of the folks you set out to entertain. So show the readers you don’t write cardboard characters in plastic stage scenery. Breathe life into your characters and give them qualities and personalities that live beyond the page.
Practice empathy by observing other people. Watch their body language. Are they open, with shoulders back and head high? Do they glance nervously about? How do they walk? Interact with the people around them?
Write these things down in a journal. Practice making your fictional character do things besides smile and frown. Tougher than it sounds, and takes much attention to detail and practice. But one day you’ll have characters with tightly pressed lips, cheeks blushed and dimpled, shooting peas from his nose as he vainly hides that not so generic smile.
And then go even further by climbing into the character’s head. Remember the original Men in Black movie? You know the scene in the morgue where they open the jeweler’s head and inside is a tiny alien.
You want to be the alien in the guy’s head. Experience the world through the viewpoint character’s senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, taste. This is the value of showing, right here. Show what it feels like to trapped in a crowded train station: shirt sticking to sweat soaked skin, strangers’ bony elbows digging into your sides, endless sea of faces, the smell of too many bodies on a hot summer day.
All from the eyes, ears, and nose of the character.
Have fun at playing with viewpoints. In the next chapter, I’ll dig deeper into depth of sensory detail.
Copyright 2015 David Anthony Brown
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved.This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
This book has not been reviewed by National Novel Writing Month. “National Novel Writing Month” and “NaNoWriMo” are trademarks.
If you found this helpful, please consider leaving a tip. Or you can buy the complete book at your favorite retailer.