Creating Characters Through Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of another person. It is different than compassion and/or sympathy as it requires not just listening, but actually transcending an interpersonal boundary. It requires suspending your own sense of: that’s how I would feel, so I understand what you’re feeling.

It’s a suspension of one’s own inner dialogue and instead hearing another person’s unique experience.

This may sound easy. But it’s really not. We hear someone struggling and we (myself included) want to dish out advice, reassure. We want to soothe discomforts. This is not always what someone needs, though. Many times, people just want to be heard. Really heard. Heard in a way that leads to real understanding of what they’re going through.

In a true empathic exchange, you should be able to feel the other person’s feelings.

Many readers have commented on my character development. Albeit, in the trilogy I am working on much of the characterization exposes darker sides of humanity. I am writing psychological thrillers, after all. But readers have described being able to connect with the characters. They feel the characters’ emotional experience along with them. The emotions are raw. It all feels real.

Seriously, I couldn’t ask for a better compliment.

Being an over-thinker, I began to think about what this meant in terms of my writing style, what my strengths-vs-weaknesses are as a writer, and how I create my characters.

And I think it is empathy.

I write through my characters. I create my characters first and then let them write the story. Many a times, I’m not sure what’s going to happen as the plot unfolds.

So as I mulled it over, I thought about how intense some scenes were for me: how exhausted I would feel after writing a chapter where characters were embroiled in conflict. How I would feel angry, or hurt, heartbroken, lustful, powerful, compassionate. How I could feel their feelings, good and bad. Much like my role as a psychologist, I opened myself up and let them into my world and I experienced their emotions as if they were my own.

This is empathy.  

More often than not, my writing sessions are intense. Quite intense. There are days when I need alone time after writing. It takes me some time to switch gears. But it’s totally worth it.

I have had the opportunity to be privy to the emotional world of another, whether fictional or real, this is an honor and a privilege.

I don’t take it for granted.