Empathy Strikes Again

My main character is not like me. This makes her difficult to write sometimes.

When I want to nod and negotiate and get along, she wants to fight and scrap and yell.

That’s hard.

I have to force myself to remember who she is, and forget who I am. To live inside her, and be her, and react as her. To put myself aside when I sit down at the keyboard so that she can feel and speak and act, not me.

This is a skill that writers have to learn, and it requires a certain amount of empathy:  the ability to identify with another person’s feelings and thoughts. I work on it with my students when I teach creative writing.

Like I said, it’s not easy.

Once, years ago, my mother came to me with a story about an encounter she had with one of my relatives, whose name I’ll change to Cousin Fred. During a conversation, she had reached her hand out and touched Cousin Fred on the arm. Cousin Fred looked down at her hand and said, “Why are you touching me?” Surprised, my mother withdrew her hand and said, “What’s the problem?” Cousin Fred said something like, “We’re having a conversation. You don’t have to touch me.”

(Understand that this conversation is filtered through my mother and it happened a long time ago. I have no idea what words were actually exchanged between them. Suffice it to say, my mother had issues with invading one’s personal space and Cousin Fred doesn’t like it when you invade his personal space.)

When my mother, all huffy, related this conversation to me, she expected me to take her side. Where did Cousin Fred get off, telling her not to touch him? What was wrong with touching him?

I said (again, not exactly this): “Mom, maybe Cousin Fred just doesn’t like it when you touch him. Maybe it’s a personal space thing.”

When she refused to even consider this, I said, “Mom, try putting yourself in Cousin Fred’s shoes. You’re having a conversation, and then suddenly someone’s touching you.”

She nodded. “If someone touches me, I like it. He should like it.”


Mom, I just asked you to put yourself in HIS shoes, not make HIM into YOU.

That’s kind of the opposite of empathy.

I offer this as a lesson for writers. Make sure you’re not putting the characters in YOUR shoes. Put yourself in THEIR shoes.

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