How to Ensure You Evoke Empathy in Your Writing
“We learn about each other through sharing our stories, especially ones about difficult times; illness, death and family problems. After hearing them, we make the mistake of thinking our lives are easier in comparison. We feel sorry for storyteller, but never think of how they get through it. The thing we should take from these stories is not what they are dealing with, but how they are dealing with it.” - Annabelle Mactaggart
I wish I could claim these wise words for they continue to resonate with me after years.
They are from the hand of my second daughter, written in preparation for a presentation for school when she was only 15. I found this in a notebook when I packed up our home, years after they were written.
These words demonstrate one of the key reasons for a story to exist.
The need to create an opportunity for the reader to empathise with the character(s) in the story.
So how then can you write with empathy?
For a start, you can know the person who is going to read your story. In my past life as a marketer, we would create an ‘avatar’ for customers, so we could speak directly to that customer. An ‘avatar’ is a culmination of answers to questions about their demographics (age, location, means), their interests and passion projects, and what will help them achieve their goals.
I created one for myself recently of the person I wished to mentor…
I ended up with a composite character, “A Granny who gives” who is a humble and personable retiree with a disposable income, who has time and energy to create a picture book as a legacy gift for their grandchildren. I know this person respects the acquired knowledge that I have accumulated and relies on this to circumvent the need for them to put a huge amount of time into the project should they have had to have learnt all the pitfalls themselves! She will feel immensely proud of a quality product and be able to gift the book with immense and intense pride. This description doesn’t exclude other people who don’t match this description, and I will create another avatar for others. It does, however, help me find the audience and write directly to them.
Next to consider: Be of service.
I love that expression ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country’ (even though it is associated with the insidiousness of war.) It infers that it is not what you can take, but rather what you can give. As a writer, you need to give answers to questions the reader needs a solution for. For example, in reading this article, I know you are looking for answers:
What is empathy
Why use in writing
How can you write with empathy
Irrespective of what you are creating, it is imperative to be generous and gift the reader as much of you as you possibly can bear!
What feels like vulnerability will actually ensure you make yourself accessible to the reader, and this, in turn, generates empathy.
Lastly, there is a rule that is proffered by instructors of writing the world over.
It's called ‘Show don’t tell’ and this achieves the same outcome of supporting writing to promote empathy. It is about dipping into the emotional response to the event, rather than the event itself. It means the HOW is using the WHAT as merely background information to set the scene. It is a technique whereby the writer uses action, words, and thoughts, all of the sensory and emotional responses rather than a summary and description of the event.
This means the READER can process the story through their own prism of their own experience, deepening their personal connection to it. We all dislike being told what to feel about something, especially when our emotional responses can be so varied to different events. For example, trauma can make us more fragile or more resilient; the degrees of happiness we feel is measured by our own experiences; if we use summation like ‘she was bullied’ rather than explaining what it is to feel ‘bullied’ (and not use the word!) then we have a chance to experience the world as she does.
In the Child Writes program, I show the children how to develop their characters literally ‘walking in another person’s shoes’.
I have a collection of shoes I bought at an op-shop; large dark work boots, fine heels, a child’s school shoes, children’s slippers, sensible walking shoes, glamorous wedges, and one child is selected to come out and, like a lucky dip, close their eyes and pick a shoe. Then they put on the shoes and the other children in the class as them questions. It is remarkable to see how the character emerges, with some children even feigning accents, postures and mannerisms!
For me personally, I am inspired by the need to empower children to navigate their future through story.
This means my audiences are children AND their parents. I need to understand what questions they have to solve, and the ‘how’ I can help do this in a heartfelt manner preoccupies my thinking. I know what it is to be a parent that has a child dealing with issues of self, a crisis of confidence in their groups, and the need to belong and for connection.
Empathy is important simply as the closer we are to the reader, the more our generosity will be felt.
Be the writer you indeed wish to read and you will be on the right track.