Why Empathy is the Key to Story
To write fiction, you must develop your capacity be empathetic. Empathy is so much a part of what the writer does that it would be impossible to get by without it.
In fact, you could even argue that empathy is synonymous with story. Don’t believe me? Plug the word story for empathy into this list of definitions for empathy that I found on Wikipedia:
[Empathy] is what happens to us when we leave our own bodies…and find ourselves either momentarily or for a longer period of time in the mind of the other. We observe reality through her eyes, feel her emotions, share in her pain. –Khen Lampert
Empathy is about spontaneously and naturally tuning into the other person’s thoughts and feelings, whatever these might be [...]There are two major elements to empathy. The first is the cognitive component: Understanding the others feelings and the ability to take their perspective [...] the second element to empathy is the affective component. This is an observer’s appropriate emotional response to another person’s emotional state. –Simon Baron-Cohen
[Empathy is] the capacity to (a) be affected by and share the emotional state of another, (b) assess the reasons for the other’s state, and (c) identify with the other, adopting his or her perspective. –Frans de Waal
Empathy is the experience of foreign consciousness in general. –Edith Stein
It would be difficult to define the writing process better than that. Writing and reading stories requires us to leave ourselves and enter another, to put words to their thoughts, sensations, and emotions. Story is, itself, the experience of foreign consciousness.
The Challenge of Empathy
Personally, I find this incredibly difficult.
I have so many thoughts, sensations, and emotions of my own that setting them down to pick up another’s is overwhelming. Who has time for all that? That’s why writing fiction—and reading fiction, too—is so challenging for me. I would much rather write about my own experiences, or even better, my own opinions.
But that’s the great opportunity of fiction, as well.
By writing about others, we get to transcend our own thoughts, our own worlds, our own lives, and experience another’s. This is how we connect with the rest of humanity, through story.
Writers, then, are the great connectors. We enable our readers and ourselves to experience the rest of humanity, to feel a part of the whole. That’s a pretty amazing mandate.
Today, we’re going to practice empathy.
Below are three pictures. Behind each is a story. Spend some time looking at each one.
Then, choose the one that you connect with the least. I want you to challenge your empathy by getting as far away from what it’s used to as possible.
Once you’ve chosen the picture that you initially empathize with the least, write about it for fifteen minutes.
When you’re finished, post your practice in the comments section.