Learn to empathize with real people…and fictional ones

So, I was having one of those days when it’s not yet 10 a.m., and I was already having a pity party for myself. There was something I’d really wanted to get…and I didn’t get it. I was dragging myself down the street, and I realized that I was fixating on all the things that I wanted out of life. And the truth was that what I didn’t get…maybe I wanted it, but I didn’t really need it. I thought about the things that other people wanted and how often what they didn’t have was a need. Or something that I personally did have. And that I should basically stop feeling sorry for myself.

How I Emerged from the Fog

As I mentioned, as this mental inventory was taking place, I was walking down the street. The street in question was Pico Blvd., a large thoroughfare here in Los Angeles, and at 9-whatever-it-was in the morning, it was full of people. People walking, people shopping, schmoozing, driving — you get the picture.

I decided to make a mental exercise as I walked down the street: instead of wallowing in thoughts about all the things I wanted and needed, why not think about what other people wanted and needed?

The Perfect Gift is Just What the Recipient Wanted

As I passed each person on the street, I’d take a good look at them — really consider their body language and other clues about them — and think what need did they have today. Not big things — small things, but the kind of things that really perk you up. And then, I’d pray, “Please G-d, give that person (something) today, so long as it’s good for them.”

Upon spotting a woman slowing in the right lane, scanning the cars parked at the meters, I asked G-d to give her a parking space.

Upon seeing someone rushing in a panic to the bus stop as the bus approached, trying to make it before the bus pulled away, I asked G-d to make him on time to whatever appointments he had today.

Upon noticing a person gazing at their reflection in a store window, I asked that she feel beautiful today.

You get the picture.

At a certain point, I realized there was a certain wisdom to this. At first, I had wanted to pray that guy reached the bus stop on time to catch the bus. But then I thought, “Why does he want to catch the bus? Does he need the bus, or something else?” Noting he was dressed for work and carrying a briefcase, I thought, “He has work, maybe an appointment…he needs to be on time for that, but maybe it would be better if he caught the express bus that’ll appear in a couple minutes.” So I prayed that he be on time, instead of that he catch any particular bus.

Another time, I saw a woman walking with a little girl, a very darling girl who was dawdling a bit. And having been a mom trying to hustle down the street to an appointment with a dawdling child in tow, I thought she might be feeling annoyed. And then I remembered that sometimes when I get annoyed with my kids, I don’t see their better qualities in that moment. So I told the woman, “Your daughter is darling.”

And she perked up, right away. She smiled at her daughter, too.

When I got home, I felt better. I’d given a perfectly free gift — a prayer on their behalf — to more than a dozen people. I’d cheered up a mom. No longer was I thinking about myself and despairing of my own neediness.

A little later, though, I thought about this “game” as a tool, not only for real life, but for writing fiction.

The Role of Empathy in Characterization

To write convincing characters, it helps to have empathy. You have to crawl into their minds, understand their wants, fears, motivations, and the like. Behavior must match the characters’ inner lives, and also be consistent for each character. If the author lacks a handle on the inner lives of human beings, their characters’ actions often seem unrealistic. It snaps the reader out of the created world. “She’d NEVER do that!” they exclaim.

Essentially, to succeed in characterization, you’re inverting the exercise I did with the real live humans on the street. You’re establishing first what the characters want or need in order to produce the actions (on the page) that would be most logical for them to perform, according to their inner world. And in order to expose their vulnerabilities, you have to discover the empty spots that have yet to be filled.

But it’s only convincing if you really understand people. So I suggest that you find some place crawling with passersby — walk a busy street, sit in a cafe, pick a bench in the park. Look at their body language, their clothing, what they’re carrying. Make some inferences: What do they want? Why are they here, in the space they’re sharing with you? Where are they going? And then conclude, if you could give them anything, what would it be?

Please share any tips you have on the role of empathy in characterization in the comments.

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