Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Why Writers Need Empathy

Although I'd rather not have two blogs in a row referencing a television program, I want to post this while it's still fresh in my mind.

One of my guilty pleasures is Tuesday night. I'm not generally a big television person--with one exception: Tuesday night. On Tuesday night, I turn down invitations to go out and turn off the phones so that I can settle in for an evening of television. I start with "NCIS" at 7:00, move on to "House" at 8:00 and finish up with "Boston Legal" at 9:00. Tonight's "Boston Legal" prompted this posting.

During this evening's episode, one of the characters said to another, "I thought you were empathizing with me. But you were just sympathizing."

That sentence stopped me. I forgot about the rest of the program and just concentrated on that single line.

Those of you who have read the bio at my website (, know that I spent some years as a social worker. I also designed and trained the mobile crisis team for children for Dallas County. Part of the training I did focused on empathic listening.

Webster defines empathy as "the projection of one's own personality into the personality of another in order to understand him better; intellectual identification of oneself with another." Please note the word "intellectual."

Sympathy, on the other hand, is defined as "sameness of feeling; affinity between persons or of one person for another."

The distinction between the two is subtle, but specific. Sympathy requires a sharing of feeling while empathy requires only the understanding of that feeling.

For people in the caring professions (social workers, crisis workers, psychologists and others), it is imperative to develop the skill of empathic listening--the ability to reflect back the feelings you observe without actually experiencing the feelings as well. I used to tell my staff that they were mirrors--reflecting without being. If they dissolved into sympathy--actually feeling the sadness, hopelessness and desperation of their clients--they lost the ability to safely manage that client.

So, what does this have to do with writing?

Everything. Powerful writing includes powerful characterizations. And in order to develop a powerful character, the writer must understand that character and understand what makes him or her tick. But the writer must do this by showing, not telling.

This doesn't mean I have to be a prostitute to understand what a prostitute feels. Nor do I have to lose a child to understand how devastating that loss could be for a mother. As I'm writing this post, I think I would probably focus on both women's rage and try to accurately reflect their very different anger. In the case of the prostitute, her anger would likely be more covert, overlaid with cynicism and weariness. In the case of the bereaved mother, her anger will probably be more overt, disbelieving and overlaid with grief.

My job as a writer is to describe each woman without expressing judgment toward the prostitute nor pity toward the mother. If I do my job right, my characterizations will evoke feelings in my readers.

Whenever I create a character, I start by deciding what the person's overriding feeling will be at the point in time when I introduce him. From that feeling, I can develop his goals and motivations and begin to paint his portrait. I don't have to be a male to describe one, but I do have to understand what he is feeling in and about his world on the day I encounter him.

Try empathic writing on for size. See how it feels; see if it works for you. Happy writing.

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