Empathy: Hurts So Good

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
First of all, giveaways! To celebrate Dame Keri’s latest book debuting at #6 on the NYTB list, we’ll have three lucky winners chosen at random[1]. We’re giving away this tote bag (so you can carry her book away from the store), this coffee mug (so you can sip coffee/tea/hot milk while reading her awesome book) and the grand prize, a $10 Amazon gift certificate…so you can buy her book, erm, ahem, anything you want. (There may be more Surprise Prizes too.)

To win, just congratulate Keri in the comments of this very post before midnight PST on Saturday, April 4. (She buried the news at the bottom of another DD post, and this, bwahahahaha! is my revenge. Mine is an evil laugh.)

And now, having Announced, comes my regular Friday thoughts on writing.

Laura Anne Gilman said something thought-provoking this morning.

You-the-writer must have empathy for your characters. You have to like them — or hate them. I’m not saying believe they’re real — that road leads to the Palace of Psychosis, and nobody will visit you there except to mock — but you have to let them into your heart as well as your head. It’s that emotional connection that allows you to care about them, not as the means to deliver a message, or to flip a twist, but as actual individuals going through hell. Once you care about them, you can make other people care about them, too.

If you don’t? if you’re emotionally removed from your characters, or see them merely as markers to be moved along the story, in order to achieve a final goal? The most brilliant prose in the world won’t do you for damn. (Laura Anne Gilman)

I hadn’t thought about this before. But it’s true. I cry every time I reread the hospital scene in Dead Man Rising. And the end of Redemption Alley makes me cry every time I read the last four words. When I finish a book I’m more often than not a mess, because I am emotionally invested in these people. They are pretty damn real to me.

No, I’m not a candidate for the Palace of Psychosis just yet. I know they’re imaginary. But I make myself forget they’re imaginary for long enough to finish the book, and I feel for them. Not so much for the books I write to spec–they’re a different kind of Imaginary Real People. But the organic books, yeah. I feel it when they’re hurt. I know what makes them tick. I understand the fault lines in their heads, the damage done to them, the abandonment or betrayal complexes.

A fellow writer (oh, hell, I might as well say it, hello Jeff) asked me about getting into your character’s head, and I’ve been thinking about how to explain how that process works for me. It was particularly agonizing because I had no words for it. I just did it. (Having no words for something is a special kind of hell for a writer.)

Gilman has hit the nail right on the head. It is empathy–imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes. When you build a person from the inside out to write them, or when they show up in your head with this story they need you to tell, feeling for them, understanding what they feel, is very little different than listening to a friend tell a story and not just saying “That must have felt terrible” but feeling it sincerely.

Sometimes, when a character shuts down and refuses to talk, I get out pen and paper and “interview” them. I put together song lists for them (all my organic characters have soundtracks). When I go for walks, or during workouts, I talk to them in my head–a kind of imaginative sympathy, almost like method acting. This is why I love having a fellow writer as a best friend; she understands when I talk about my characters as if they’re real people. (“But I wouldn’t want to speak for him,” she said once about a character, and after a long moment of ironic silence we both burst out laughing.)

It is like magic. I know “magic” doesn’t objectively “work”. But the techniques make a psychological and emotional change in me in order to get the results I want, in order to maximize my chances of the seed of luck hitting prepared ground instead of stone. Your characters and mine aren’t real, but if we feel as if they are we can feel with them, live with them, and transform with them. Which is the whole point.

When I was young I got into the habit of telling myself “stories” before I went to sleep every night. I had a very rich inner life to compensate for the barrenness of the outer; I would literally imagine myself inside the skin of characters and create whole worlds up from nothing. I think that practice of the imaginative muscles stood me in good stead when I began writing stories–for me the only way to do it was to think about how and why the characters were feeling the way they were, how they would react, why they would choose one path over another.

This strikes on something else I believe very strongly: the key to this skill lies in observation. Are you curious about why people do the things they do? Do you watch them? We spend our lives around human beings, predicting their behavior while they drive, shop, interact with us in the office and in social situations. We know much more than we think we do about why people do what they do.

At bottom, most people are just like you. They are afraid of rejection and are the stars in the ongoing stories of their life. People love to talk about themselves, a principle I’ve used several times while interviewing experts for books. Listen when people tell you about themselves. Observe them going about their daily lives.

I warn you though, sometimes it becomes impossible to stop the “observation”. Everything becomes grist for the mill, food for the work. It will become a deep mental habit. Just one of the hazards of the writing life.

So, feel for your characters. Yes, yes, recognize that they are just characters. But they are yours, and feeling for them will create the “spark” Gilman talks about–the opening in the armor for the reader to peek inside and see the vulnerability. That gap is like the vulnerability between lovers. It creates intimacy and opens up the possibility of being hurt, but human beings don’t stop loving. That’s what makes us human.

And that is what will make your characters human. At the end of the day, all fiction is human stories. We are telling each other over and over again what things mean to us. That vulnerability is the chance we have of helping someone else understand. It is a small seed, and from that seed…


Keep writing.

[1] Winners will be chosen with the help of Random.org. So what are you waiting for? Congratulate and win!