Creative Writing and Empathy: How Writing Fiction Helps You Connect With Others

Writing forces you to "walk in your characters' shoes" in a way that reading can't.

Writing forces you to “walk in your characters’ shoes” in a way that reading can’t.

Empathy and fiction: what’s the connection? Empathy is an important thing: when you lack it completely, you’re a psychopath, and no one wants that, except perhaps if you happen to be a character in a thriller.

One of my friends who studies psychology posted this on Facebook a while back: it’s an article about why men should read fiction and claims that reading fiction teaches men to empathize with others.

(Men tend to prefer nonfiction to fiction, according to this article, though of course that will vary from person to person).

Well, now that the intro’s out of the way: today I’m continuing my series of posts examining what I consider to be the greatest benefits of writing fiction. These are ways that writing, personally, has shaped me. They’re the big payoffs that come from finishing that novel.

Today, I’m considering how writing, the same as reading, is a wonderful way to develop empathy. For sure, if reading develops empathy by allowing us to see how a character, another person, is just as human as we are, writing does the same thing.

  • If nothing else, writing requires the ability to empathize. And reading is one way to develop that skill. One more reason writers should be readers.
  • Writing requires a deep level of empathy, and if you don’t have it, penning fiction forces you to acquire it. When you write, you have to know who your characters are, in and out. You have to consider their lives and their choices from their perspective. That’s empathy.
  • Writing requires such a deep level of empathy, in fact, that sometimes writers hesitate to let negative things beset their characters. They care so much, empathize so much, that they don’t want their characters to get hurt. The thought of them hurting is as painful as the thought of the author, herself, hurting.

I’ve written in the past about why sheltering your characters too much is never a good idea, no matter how tempting the thought may be. That’s how power a writer’s empathy can be.

Not real people?

Sure, characters aren’t real people. We all know that. Still, a successful author considers her characters as such; that’s the only way to write successfully and allow the characters to take control, make their own decisions, and dictate their own path. A writer has to empathize with her characters as if they were real people facing real challenges.

That kind of empathy can translate to our interactions with real people, to reaching out in service and in prayer to other. Empathy teaches us that we as individuals are not alone on the planet, and that other people are struggling with the same pains we are as well as worse afflictions.

There’s a level of empathy you have to reach when you write than goes beyond, I think, the empathy that reading requires. This empathy can make us less self-centered and more giving.

It can make just a tad more likely to consider how the choice we make will affect someone else.

What’s not to love about that? Writing can do some amazing things for all of us, for sure!

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21 responses to “Creative Writing and Empathy: How Writing Fiction Helps You Connect With Others

  1. Wow! Lovely shoes. What a beautiful post Victoria. Sure writing does too many amazing things for us, I agree with you.

  2. Great post. Yes, the empathy is so crucial. Yet so often I have heard some writers say that they “hate” their villains. I guess they think empathy only extends to the good characters! Perhaps that’s why some villains wind up one-dimensional. We see only one side of them, rather than what’s also good about them.

    • I totally agree. I had a cookie-cutter cliche villain in my first, unpublished novel, and learned from that to go in a different direction. Villains are really important characters, and they shouldn’t be all black or what interest do they have?

      They need a lot of gray. Even some splashes of white.

      Most people say the villain in the first installment of my Herezoth trilogy is among their favorite characters in the book. That makes me SOOO happy because I specifically intended to make him relatable. That was very, very important to me. I learned the importance of a multidimensional villain the hard way, for sure.

  3. I feel as though George R.R. Martin has mastered this. Some of his villains (the Lannisters, Gregor Clegane) are among my favorite characters in Game of Thrones. I sympathize with them. Then again, he has the ability to kill off the characters who are supposed to be good and true. As hard as it is to watch the ‘good’ characters die, we accept it and that’s what makes Game of Thrones so addicting and unpredictable. We recognize these good characters have serious flaws. Once I was a few books into the series, I even started to suspect when a good character would die….but the suspense was in not knowing where, when, or how. (I have to say, I don’t sympathize with Joffrey. But he is still so entertaining…)

  4. I think, if nothing else, writing forces us to think about how someone else would feel or react in a situation. Even having a small awareness, or skill level, for that is a huge thing in life application. It raises the awareness that all of us are human, and deserve to be treated as such.

  5. I have never thought about your note at the beginning: men tend to read more nonfiction than fiction. But it’s absolutely true. For every fiction book I have read I have at least read five nonfiction books.

    I guess that’s the reason I’m more intrigued to write nonfiction, as well. Until now I thought the main reason was, that I don’t own the necessary vocabulary. But maybe it’s just nature ;-). I have to think about it.

    • Isn’t that crazy??? I had never thought of that either, until I read about the statistics in the article and I realized how much sense it made. A guy I was seeing at the time read no fiction at all but a lot of history.

  6. Reblogged this on Brainstorm.

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  11. Great article, I’ve been having similar thoughts and have linked to this on my recent blog post:
    http://annegoodwin.weebly.com/1/post/2013/09/are-writers-especially-empathic.html

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