With the divisiveness we’ve experienced this election season, I thought we could all use an article about understanding one another. Studies have shown that reading stories allows us to be more empathetic. We learn all sorts of new things from reading and “meet” different characters we then come to understand through their thoughts and actions.
This happens naturally, but there are a few extra steps you can take to create more empathy in your writing that will not only help you understand your characters better, but will also help you to better understand the people around you.
4 Ways to Expand Empathy
I’m sure many of us have been guilty of falling into a rut. It’s easy to turn to default genres and authors when it comes to reading books. They’re comfortable, you know you like them, and there is an endless supply of stories available to you.
But in order to become more empathetic, we need to be empathetic of all people, not just people we already know and understand. Here are four ways you can broaden your understanding.
1. Read books that frustrate you
What book do you absolutely hate? Read it again. It’s okay to loathe it, but now I want you to pinpoint why. Is it the character you despise? What about them frustrates you? Come up with a list of all the reasons why you can’t stand this book. That’s the easy part.
Now make a different list, this time with all the positive things you can think of about this book. Don’t be stingy; really dig deep and try to think of at least a few things that you liked.
If you want to go even further, read a handful of five-star and one-star reviews of this book to get even more opinions. There might be crossover, but I’m sure there will also be several things you didn’t even think of.
If you’re able to see both sides of a book, it will be easier to see both sides to an issue or a person, too. Nobody is perfect, but nobody is completely imperfect, either.
2. Read books from diverse authors
If you’re not sure where to start, the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign can hook you up. Mark down any and all that look interesting and start reading.
You should especially read authors diverse from you. If you’re a man, read a book written by a woman. If you’re straight, read a book written by someone in the LGBTQ+ community.
When you read books from people who are different from you, you get an entirely different perspective. The experiences of someone who is Asian will be different from the experiences of someone who is Hispanic. It’s one of the best ways to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, just like you have to every time you write a certain character.
3. Talk to people you don’t agree with
Make sure to do this one very carefully as it can get nasty if you’re not careful. Find somebody (maybe a friend or a trusted co-worker) whose opinion on a certain topic is drastically different from yours and ask for their perspective (and really listen!).
Don’t add your two cents. Resist the urge to refute a claim. Ask why they feel a certain way, and then smile and thank them.
More often than not, if you’re polite and take the time to listen to someone, you can both calmly walk away when the conversation is over. In a heated debate, it can be easy for people to feel like they’re not heard. Listen to them, try to understand why they might think what they do (even if you don’t agree), and use those same skills to learn more about your characters.
4. Research something you know nothing about
Take the initiative to Google a historical figure you know little about. Ask a friend whose religion is different from yours if you can go with them to church. Learn a new skill. Read up on an era that’s unfamiliar to you.
Knowledge is power, and it can only enrich your writing. If you continue to write with only the knowledge you have now, you won’t be able to create anything new. Sure, you’ll have new plots, new characters, new settings, but eventually it’s the same recycled story.
Find something that makes you go, “huh, that’s interesting,” and those details may somehow end up in your book.
Learn, Listen, Empathize
The point of these exercises isn’t to get you to change your mind about something (although if it does, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that), it’s to get you to expand the limits of your mind and be able to look at something in a different light. It’s so you can take a walk in someone else’s shoes both in life and your writing.
You don’t have to agree with anyone or anything, but if you do these things, you’ll be able to say, “I understand.” You can find the similarities between you and someone else that you never knew even existed. And with that knowledge, we can have peaceful debate and imaginative stories.
What are other ways to develop empathy in your writing? Let me know in the comments!
For today’s practice, you have three options:
- Read an article that frustrates you.
- Read an article by a writer who is different from you.
- Research something you know nothing about.
Choose one and do it. As you read, take notes on how it makes you feel and what you learn from it.
Then, for fifteen minutes, write from the point of view of a character who is completely different from you. Maybe they practice a different religion or they’re a member of a different political party. Maybe they’re the opposite gender. How did the exercises help you gain perspective on your character(s)?
If you’d like, share your practice in the comments. Don’t forget to give your fellow writers some feedback, too!